Everyone has some notion of what heaven might be like, but car buffs already know it closely resembles the jam-packed garage of American TV legend Jay Leno, whose eye-popping collection of drool-worthy machines makes it very hard to avoid the sin of galloping jealousy.
Actually, make that turbo-charged envy, because the former Tonight Show host’s decades of bringing together the best and rarest things on wheels have built what may well be the world’s most awesome private collection of automotive excellence, excess and, as the lantern-jawed revhead concedes with a smile, motorised eccentricity.
The visitor’s first surprise is that the home of these wheeled wonders is anything but wondrous – at least from the outside. Separated by a tall fence from the main runway of Burbank airport, not far from the NBC studios where the comic made his name and his fortune, Leno’s pride and joy appears to be nothing more remarkable than a pair of anonymous, pre-fab storage hangars. “My living-room is my garage, so my wife always knows where to find me,” jokes the celebrated gagster as we step inside.
Except he’s not really joking. With 275-odd vehicles, including 117 motorcycles, and each and every one street legal, where else would an ardent collector spend every spare moment? “So do tell me, which of these beauties would you like to take out for a spin when the traffic has died down?” Leno wonders.
He is the perfect and gracious host – and very much the proud proprietor as he offers a few suggestions about vehicles he thinks it would be fun for me to take for a spin. The 5000-pound Doble steamer – yes, it has a boiler and the pistons in its twin cylinders are driven by water vapour – is his first offering. It is also a chance to observe not only his love of arcane engineering but his mastery of their operation.
“Let me demonstrate how the system works,” he says. Without further ado he pulls a lever here, opens a valve there and turns a handwheel or two until the Doble’s barrel-shaped steam generator suddenly comes to life, small orange flames signalling that lift-off is only about 30 seconds away. “This particular vehicle used to belong to Howard Hughes, who reportedly maxxed it at 132.5mph (213km/h),” he continues.
“They only made about 40 units in total before the company went out of business in 1931.” With a full 24 gallons of water aboard, the red-on-grey four-seater – an E20 model, for the information of those who share Leno’s passion for steam – could cover 1500 miles (2414km) without stopping to take on additional gallons of nature’s elixir, thanks to the innovative condenser Abner Doble perfected to re-use water. If one of his Dobles doesn’t appeal (he owns two of the elegant beasts), would a jaunt in one of his Stanley Steamers tickle my fancy?
My heart is set on road-testing another of Leno’s rolling delights, so we move on with the tour. Over there, he says and gestures toward the smaller of the two buildings, is his workshop. There are four hoists and half a dozen full-time mechanics, panel beaters and sparkies beavering away, plus a state-of-the-art 3D printer.
When your collection boasts vehicles whose marques, in some cases, have not been seen on the open road in a century or more, spare parts can be hard to track down. That’s where the 3D printer earns its keep. The current job sees it whittling and shaping the shell of a spring-loaded latch needed to bring a recent acquisition up to snuff.
All of Leno’s cars are registered, insured and ready to roll. Each starts on the button and you won’t find one that isn’t brimmed with fuel and ready for action when he decides which vehicle will be that particular day’s set of wheels. All that’s required, he assures me, is for me to make my selection, then we’ll check its tyre pressures and be on our way. But I’m enjoying the guided tour far too much to cut it short by revealing my choice, so on we go.
We pass a pair of Shelby Mustangs, two Corvettes and no fewer than four Duesenberg SJ Titans, which 85 years on, still inspire awe. Those marques are familiar, but what of the Blastolene Special? Leno owns the only one in existence. Powered by the 1600bhp (1193kW) engine from a Patton tank mated to a six-speed automatic, there is no need to wonder why it is the first, and last, of its tribe.
As our tour of what he calls his Big Dog Garage continues, Leno’s delight in his collection manifests itself in a blur of gestures in the direction of this car or that one, an ongoing avalanche of fascinating trivia and, most endearing of all, glimpses of the driving passion that motivates him.
The first and most obvious thing about this collector is that he believes cars are not, and never should be, static museum pieces. They are built to be driven, so drive them is what he does.
“Every day I’m taking out a different vehicle,” he says matter-of-factly, as if the choice between, say, a McLaren P1 and a 1930 Bentley powered by a 27-litre Merlin aircraft engine is as unremarkable as deciding if marmalade or Vegemite better suits that morning’s toast.
That his tastes run to the eclectic as much as the exotic was made obvious by his thundering arrival that morning in a late-'60s Monteverdi 375L High Speed, the short-lived Swiss-built touring car whose big-bore American V8 speaks as eloquently of muscle as does the styling of European refinement.
The second thing to know is that Leno, unlike other well-heeled auto aficionados, refuses to regard his cars as mere investments. They are that and more, of course, appreciating in value with every passing day so that no one seems quite confident in putting a dollar figure on what would be the auction-block value of his entire motorised menagerie. By one estimate his toys are worth $100 million; by another, three times that sum.
Pick a number, any number, and it will be entirely irrelevant because Leno almost never parts with a purchase. “No car is for sale unless I auction it off for charity”, he explains, noting that, “I add stuff when I feel like it.”
By “stuff” he means pretty much everything that moves. Apart from his steam-powered fleet, reflecting the early days of motoring, there is a corner of the hangar dominated by the snaking cords of trickle chargers feeding volts to the comedian’s latest electric-powered fancies, starting with a Tesla Model X.
While he waits for me to nominate the car we’ll be taking for a test drive, Leno picks the seven transports of delight he will put through their paces over the week to come. The green Stutz Bearcat is a must for Monday, he decides, recalling how he came to purchase it. “The car belonged to AK Miller, a businessman from Vermont who hoarded Stutz cars,” he says. “He made a fortune from gyrocopters, yet he lived in a shack and left a chest full of gold bullion when he passed away.”
Next on his to-drive list is a Mercedes 190SL dressed up as Studebaker – or is it a Hawk with a Mercedes front end? Okay, let’s just call it a Mercbaker and marvel at the little-known and seldom-seen model’s story. It was conceived as a desperation measure and sold, but not very often, by Studebaker/Mercedes dealers just before the company went down for the count in 1966. That takes care of Tuesday.
The 1928 Duesenberg picked for Wednesday’s use also happens to be the most expensive Duesy ever to leave the factory. Originally purchased by chemist and industrialist Eli Lily, it had fallen on hard times when Leno heard about it and whipped out his cheque book. It was a battered, low-rent tow-truck when he picked it up, but you would never guess that down-at-heel past from the gleaming, glorious and fully restored specimen on view today.
A Lamborghini Miura and a Dodge Challenger R/T, each sprayed bright orange, account for two more days of the week to come. Finally, an extremely rare, alloy-bodied Panhard Dyna Berline and a Wankel-engined Mazda Cosmo coupe round out the coming week’s list. It’s one mixed bag, that’s for sure. The diminutive Panhard, for instance, potters around behind an 800cc engine and a mere 42 French horses, while the Challenger exalts in a supercharged 527kW. That’s the thing about Leno – he just likes cars, all cars and any car, just so long as they are interesting.
Nor is he a purist when it comes to keeping everything original. Why modify a legendary classic? “To make it driveable in today’s traffic,” he answers. “It’s mainly new carbs, brakes, tyres, a reliable ignition and a gearbox that actually works. Nothing character-changing, if I can avoid it.” By way of example, one of his proudest modified marvels is 1914 Detroit Electric two-door sedanette fitted with the running gear from a Tesla.
You could call it a case of “back to the future”, except that phrase brings to mind the Delorean from the classic movie. Naturally, Leno has a Delorean as well – unmodified for time travel, mind you – and doesn’t hold it in high esteem. “Okay for the movie,” he quips, “but not for much else.”
My host’s calloused hands testify that he doesn’t mind getting grease under his fingernails. Every car has its own temperament, foibles and eccentricities, he explains, his tone rather like that of a doting dad describing an enormous brood of idiosyncratic kids. “As you may have gathered by now, I simply love everything mechanical – like this cute Indian 4 microcar designed and built by a 17-year-old kid during the Great Depression.
To prove its worth, he drove it from Alaska to San Diego, and nothing broke.” Bob Shotwell – who became a commercial pilot – covered 150,000 miles (241,000km) in his home-built car and gave it to Leno shortly before he died in 2004, because he wanted it restored, not broken up for parts.
“And this Stutz,” Leno continues by way of further illustration, “is fitted with Bluetooth indicators to make it street-legal. I buy for pleasure, not as an investment, which is why I have no problem tweaking a piece of automotive art to my liking. It’s a passion, pure joy, like a drug.”
Leno declines to nominate a favourite, so I hope he will pardon an exercise in intuition if I speculate that his 7.0-litre Ford Galaxie may well be closest to his heart. A meticulous work of painstaking detail, it is a recreation of the Leno family’s very first brand-new car. Then again, sentimentality might be trumped by style.
There’s certainly a look of reverence in his eye as he takes in the spectacle of a 1932 Packard Twin Six 12-cylinder coupe. Majestic as an Empire State Building shod with rubber, it towers high and mighty above its hangar neighbours.
“So, what’s your favourite car in here?” Leno asks at the completion of our stroll through automotive dreamland. I could have picked something worth seven figures, but opted instead to follow my heart to a light-green over dark-green Hudson Hornet coupe. Why such an exotic choice?
Because this Hudson is a truly sensational piece of kit, with an aero-inspired design that matches any Cord for flamboyance and an interior radiating a wonderful sense of occasion. All of that, plus the fact this model is closely related to the competition version which won 27 NASCAR races in 1952 and was rejuvenated in the Pixar animated movie Cars.
The Hornet’s door opens like a vault and the cushy bench seat slides back for comfort. It’s all cabin and almost no windows, a cosy environment clad in dark-green cloth and adorned with plenty of chrome accents. Leno starts the engine, pumps the accelerator, waits a moment until she finds idle, then slides across to watch and advise.
Befriending the clutch is easy, but the 5.0-litre straight six is so torquey that third does the job. Four up and the windows down, we head for the setting sun, cruising along at a light-footed 45mph (72km/h) as I learn the steering and brakes. As it turns out, a firm grip on the wheel and a hard stab at the centre pedal are mandatory, but I soon get the hang of things and the owner begins to relax.
Briefly, he invited me to share a little piece of car-buff paradise and is delighted at my obvious enthusiasm. But then, why wouldn’t he be delighted? I am but a humble visitor to his personal petrol-head heaven. He gets to live here and play with these toys every single day.