by John Baeke
The love of old cars is a hobby to some, and to others a business. To me it is a fellowship.
Over the years, it is this shared passion that has allowed me to develop many acquaintances and a few friendships with some truly wonderful folks. Though we may be of different stripes, it is the common thread of motorcars that bonds.
Recently my wife Suzanne and I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with Jay Leno as he shared his “garage” with us, but the quaint term “garage” is so inadequate to describe this Valhalla of car collections.
The Leno collection is housed in a nondescript chain of warehouses adjacent to the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. The day I was there, he was just finishing filming an episode of “Jay Leno’s Garage” (CNBC and Youtube.com).
Walking through the buildings you realize what an eclectic taste in machinery Leno has. Every example is either in pristine refurbished condition, original preserved, or undergoing restoration. No junkers here.
The walls are all decorated with hundreds of paintings Leno has commissioned from studio artists, replicating the beautiful automotive ads from the golden years of motoring. In one building are massive steam engines, in another rows of pre-war motorbikes. There are antique fire engines, armored vehicles and race cars. Another building has parallel lines of modern exotic sports cars.
Every car hides a story. Polished aluminum and a powerful motor can make for a fine car, but a fascinating history makes a fine car … great!
Jay Leno is an affable fellow who enjoys stopping at any car to tell its unique tale.
“This Duesenberg I found abandoned for decades in a multi-level parking lot in New York City.”
“This Chrysler Johnny Carson gave me. It was his father’s.”
“This ‘Stude-Benz’ is a one-off prototype rejected by both Studebaker and Mercedes.”
And on and on it goes.
Leno is an unassuming Car Guy who has every reason to be boastful, but he never is. His motorcar collection is massive, and he has restoration equipment that the rest of us would wait weeks for at any commercial shop. He has both an engine and chassis dynamometer, a full paint booth, 3-D printers, CNC (computer numerical control) machining equipment, and waterjet cutters. With the resources and team he has amassed, little is beyond his capabilities.
One aspect of our hobby, popular for years in England but relatively new to American enthusiasts, is creation of classic-style speedsters, powered by monster military engines from World Wars I and II. They are called “Specials” (which they certainly are), and Leno is now at the fore of this subculture.
However, it is his passion for pre-World War II American classics for which Leno is best known. A supercharged Cord, a 12-cylinder Auburn and several mighty Duesenbergs all stand proudly, surrounded by Bugattis, Bentleys, Benzes and Broughs.
My father, an avid collector himself, had a saying: “A Duesenberg is worth nothing if you have no one to share it with,” Jay Leno embodies this spirit in all ways.