|Jay Leno's first
and sports superstars have long been known for owning fast and flashy
cars. In the days of Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, Duesenbergs were the
cars of the stars. Generations pass, manufacturers and models of cars
come and go, and tastes change. Some contemporary celebrities are
hardcore car guys: comedian Tim Allen builds street rods and co-owns a
race team. Retired home run king Reggie Jackson has amassed an
impressive collection of mostly Chevrolet musclecars. Then there's
Tonight Show host Jay Leno, probably the most fanatical car guy of the
There are several factors that set Jay and his collection of toys apart.
His taste is, to put it mildly, eclectic, with roughly 60 vintage
motorcycles and roughly 60+ cars including a half dozen Duesenbergs,
several Bugattis, a bevy of antique steam-powered automobiles, a few 50s
and 60s-era muscle machines, a real 427 Cobra, three Lamborghinis, and
more. Unlike most celebrities, Leno takes great delight in working on
his cars, alongside any of his four full-time employees at his LA area
shop doing anything from pulling and rebuilding a 0's-vintage Bentley
straight eight to overhauling a Stanley Steamer. And he believes that
cars, no matter how old, rare, or valuable, are meant to be driven
regularly, and drive 'em he does.
It comes as something of a shock that an admitted lifelong nut for any
sort of motorized vehicle has never‹until recently‹owned a single
example of America's Sports Car. Not long ago, however, Jay made up for
the omission when he acquired a Navy Blue Metallic 99 Corvette coupe
with a Light Gray interior and six-speed transmission. And not much time
passed before Leno got the itch to add a little extra spice to his
coupe. Nothing drastic, mind you, but some subtle touches to "Leno-ize"
his blue beauty, the sort of things many other C5 owners do.
A drawback of being a well-known celebrity is the lack of privacy, and
for someone with as recognizable mug as Jay's, it meant he needed to
deal with a company that's accustomed to working with and respecting the
confidentiality of famous persons. The need led him to make arrangements
with Corvette Mike's California store for the tweaks to be performed.
And with Jay's blessing, Corvette Mike invited VETTE Magazine to be
involved from start to finish‹and then some.
Leno didn't have any desire to go over-the-top on his C5. Like we said,
the changes are designed to
enhance what's already a great car. Corvette Mike Parts Department
Manager Mike Patterson coordinated the project, and the work was
performed by technicians Carl Pugh and Robert Henke. All of the bits and
pieces were normal components that Corvette Mike offers for all C5s.
These include chrome-plated C5 wheels, a B&B Tri-Flow stainless
steel cat-back exhaust system, RM Racing twin Flow air intake, Hypertech
Power Programmer, Lloyd Mats C5-logo floor and cargo area carpet mats,
and American Big Bike chromed billet door sill plates, rear license
plate frame, and C5-logo exhaust plate.
Tonight Show host keeps his collection of cars, bikes, and a couple of
wildly unique antique trucks (like a two-cylinder, 1916 Autocar open
cab/open bed coal-hauler) in a pair of adjoining industrial buildings
near a Los Angeles airport, quite a few miles from the NBC studios where
his show is taped. We got to spend some time talking cars with Jay when
his C5 was returned, definitely an entertaining way to spend part of a
Saturday. It was like a one hour, impromptu monologue and, fortunately,
we had a tape recorder going so we could retrieve some of what he had to
say about his new Corvette, and cars in general.
What finally inspired him to get a Vette? "Chevy asked me to drive
the Pace Car, a Monte Carlo, at Indianapolis. I got to drive a lot of
their cars, tour the Corvette factory. I was real impressed by all the
engineers. I said to myself, I gotta get one.' A lot of my friends have
had em, I've borrowed a few. When I was working in the car business I
always wanted one, never could afford one. This is my very first, brand
Working in the car biz? "When I was a kid in Andover
(Massachusetts), I worked at a Ford dealership and was in charge of
odometer recalibrations." What is that? "Exactly what it
sounds like." What do you think of the Corvette? "I'm real
impressed with the build quality. I've driven a lot of European stuff;
actually the build quality of this is better. It's like the Harley
Davidson story, if you make it as good or better, Americans will buy it,
they wanna buy American. A few years ago, everyone bought Japanese
bikes, nobody bought Harleys; now the Harleys are built great, they have
plenty of power. The Corvette has the name, the reputation, now a days
it's just a terrific car, a very impressive car. The old days of the
cowl shake and that kind of stuff are gone. And I do my show in America,
they build the car in America, it works out real good."
Most of the cars here in your two building are pre-WWII. What about
older Corvettes? Are there any specific ones you like best?
"Actually, to me, anything post war is new. I like the 62s, I like
the 57 Fuelie, and I like the 65s. The 57 is an all-time favorite of
mine. I remember when I was in high school a buddy of mine bought a 56
for 600 bucks and we thought, Man, it's a little bit high isn't it?
Whew, he got screwed, didn't he?'"
often do you drive the Corvette? "Once or twice a week. With 68
cars, I've gotta exercise all of em. I have fun with the stuff and have
a good time.
Our meeting with new Corvette owner Jay Leno was entertaining and
enlightening. He's down to earth (and earthy, at times), casual, and a
hardcore car guy. We found out also that he writes a column monthly for
Popular Mechanics which helps fund an automotive restoration scholarship
at McPherson College in Kansas, not because it's a write-off, but
because he wants in some small way to change the attitudes some people
have about anyone who works with his or her hands and to encourage
"kids" to learn some of the skills and craftsmanship that are
dying arts. This is something he's passionate about. Out of the
thousands of letters that are sent in weekly to the Tonight Show, he has
all of the car-related ones separated, and tries, one way or another, to
respond to each and every one.
Like we said, Jay's a car guy. He met us wearing jeans and a oil stained
shirt (he'd been tearing down the straight-eight engine in his mid-'0s
Bentley), and changed clothes strictly for the photo session. He may be
one of the most famous and most recognizable Corvette owners in the
world, but first and foremost, Jay Leno is one of us.