Unless you've spent most of your life in the Amazon jungle, you're undoubtedly familiar with Jay Leno, host of NBC's The Tonight Show. Leno is the whirling nor'easter from Massachusetts who blazed a trail across the continent to Los Angeles to change the face of late-night television. It is hard to connect the guy on your TV screen with the car nut we hooked up with in Burbank, California, because the two seem from different worlds. Jay Leno's Garage is a complex of industrial buildings close to NBC-Universal where you can get lost in a world of bizarre mechanized madness that encompasses everything from Stanley Steamers and Duesenbergs to high-performance muscle cars.
James Douglas Muir Leno was born on April 28, 1950, in New Rochelle, New York. He would call Andover, Massachusetts, home for most of his childhood. Ever the class clown, Leno isn't much different today from the sarcastic kid who grew up in rural Massachusetts. Ask him a serious question and you will get an answer out of left field. His fifth grade teacher once said, "If Jay spent as much time studying as he does trying to be a comedian, he'd be a big star." Guess who had the last laugh on that one?
Leno didn't amass his collection just to achieve museum status. Everything in this collection of more than 100 automobiles runs and can be driven, including the '55 Buick he has owned since he came to Southern California in the 1970s. The Buick holds a lot of memories because it was not only his transportation but also his home during his early years as a struggling young comedian. Before Leno inherited the late-night throne from Johnny Carson in 1992, he worked 300 nights a year on the nightclub circuit.
At Jay Leno's Garage, which encompasses more than 17,000 square feet, Leno has a fully staffed repair and fabrication facility run by Bernard Juchli. There's also an in-house body guy as well as a fabrication engineer. We're talking CNC technology and every form of shop equipment imaginable. There's enough talent and technology here to create a complete automobile from scratch. If Leno needs an elusive part for one of his classic cars, he's got the know-how and technology to make it.
Leno's collection includes classic cars, racecars, motorcycles, steam cars, run-of-the-mill production cars, a fair share of Fords, steam and internal combustion engines, and even one of the 50 Chrysler turbine cars from the 1960s. His Fords include a '65 Shelby GT350, '89 Festiva SHOgun, '66 7-Litre Galaxie with an injected 427, Taurus Police Interceptor, and a Ford GT.
Leno likes the pursuit as well as the purchase. He also likes a good story to go with the vehicle. The better the story, the more inclined he is to buy and keep the vehicle. Sometimes, the story is more important than vehicle condition because there's always plenty he can do about that."
MM: When did you first develop an interest in automobiles?
Leno: When I was a kid, I always liked stuff that rolled, exploded, and made noise. I liked cars and motorcycles. When I was old enough, I worked at a Ford dealership in Wilmington, Massachusetts-Wilmington Ford-as a lot boy. My parents always had Fords. In fact, at the time, we had a '64 Galaxie with a 352 V-8. I talked my dad into buying a '66 7-Litre Ford with the 428.
MM: Were you passionate about cars as a kid?
Leno: When you grow up in a rural area where cars and bikes are your only way of getting around, you dream of the day when you get your driver's license. I'm always astounded when I talk to modern teenagers old enough to have a driver's license and they talk about getting their license in a couple of years. I had my license the minute I was of age.
MM: What makes your '65 Shelby GT350 so significant to you?
Leno: You know, it's like a funny joke. The first time you tell it, it gets the most laughs. The first version is always the cleanest and the best. The '65 Mustang is still the best-looking with its simple, clean lines. It seems every Mustang after that, well, they had to make it different than it used to look so let's change this or that. The first incarnation was about as perfect as you could get. The Mustang was inexpensive and sporty, a hopped up Falcon and that was OK. My favorite Ford prior to Mustang was the '63 1/2 Falcon Sprint with a 260 V-8 and four-speed. The Thunderbird was another dream car of mine.
They said the Mustang would never be a collectible automobile because Ford built so many. However, the fact that people love these cars is what makes them collectible. We Americans don't hold onto things. Back in the day, we bought new Mustangs, beat the hell out of them, and threw them away. Now, 40 years later, we want them back.