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Which way to Jay Leno’s Garage?

Jay Leno part 1.

06/04/2013 09:57 |  Comments: 

Contributing editor

8 years of working for IBM have chiselled Balázs’s English skills to a level inappropriately high for this magazine, but did much to blunt his interest towards office work and computers. Earlier a reader and seldom contributor, also a deeply affected car maniac, he left IBM and joined us for a longer term as a journalist, but he’s back again to making money – at another IT company. Luckily he kept on writing for us and hasn’t dropped his love for photography either.

There are places for which you would throw out half of the items on your completed bucket list, if you could actually visit it. Jay Leno’s garage is one of them.

A couple of months ago, Sipos and I had the chance to go to Los Angeles to help out one of our business partners at a convention. In my eyes LA is pretty much the automotive capital of the world (sorry  Detroit), so I didn't hesitate over going there. Nor did Sipos. Before we took off, we put our heads together to decide what we should check out. Shouldn't be too hard to find some car-related stuff to write about. Seriously, you cannot throw a rock in LA without hitting some kind of hotrod/import/classic/whichever cruise night.

Being a semi-professional daydreamer, my first idea was to check out Jay Leno's Garage. Maybe even do an interview with the man. For some strange reason, all I got back from my friends was a condescending smirk: “Yeah, sure!” But Sipos and I were adamant that we can pull it off. How hard can it be for two writers of a Hungarian motoring website to get in? So we started writing e-mails, making phone calls. I think the only person we didn't talk to at NBC was the janitor. After a couple of no's and maybe's, we ended up circling back to the department we started with in the first place. Oh well, so much for that idea, at least we can try Taco Bell.

A week or two later, I got a phone call from a very nice lady from NBC, who apologized for keeping us waiting. She told me that she was not the right person to help us, but Helga, Jay Leno's producer was, and she was expecting our call. I called her, explained her who we were, what we'd like to ask, and if she had received the references I sent her. Of course I couldn't expect her to read car reviews in Hungarian, but the pictures were nice, so I was hoping that at least hoping at least those would score us some extra points, since we must have already lost some because of our weird names.

She patiently waited until I finished my somewhat messy story, and told me that Jay had just left the office, so I couldn't discuss it with him: call back tomorrow. I couldn't thank her for that enough, since the last person I expected to talk to that evening was Jay Leno, and I would've probably ended up saying something along the lines of “Me Hungarian go look garage, you tell me stories”. So I called back the next day and asked if we could visit the garage and do an interview. Let me summarize the answer with the following:

Grand, we had one foot in the door, but some doubts still lingered on in our minds. You see, in this line of business you tend to hear some horror stories. Stories that say how impossible it is to do an interview with Leno, how controlled the whole setup is and of last minute cancellations. Boy, how much I love when I'm proved wrong. But let's not rush ahead. After our discussion with Helga, she patched us through to Bernard Juchli, Leno's garage manager to discuss which five cars they should prepare for us to shoot and check out. As it would be so simple. Anyway, we named ten cars.

A couple of weeks later we arrived to the gate of Big Dog Garage. When we rang the doorbell and told who we were, I thought I could actually hear a wise, gray eyebrow being raised: “Who are you again? Where did you say you came from?” I saw our whole, well-laid plan shattering to pieces: our appointment got lost, forgotten or simply ignored. Somewhere, somehow. Still, we were let in and were greeted by Bob, one of Leno's oldest colleagues.

He took us to the kitchen they set up in the workshop, and told us to stay put until he cleared up who we were. Oh boy, that workshop! The thing is, my receptors are easily overloaded, and my multitasking skills can be exhausted by chewing gum on an escalator, so what I saw, caught me completely off-guard. A Chevron racecar here, a Citroen DS there. A few steam engines and motorcycles. Oh, and in the middle a 1925 Doble steam car that once belonged to Howard Hughes.

Good thing the garage also had a 3D-printer: we needed some new jaws, since ours shattered on the floor. In another corner, there was an engine test bench. About six lifting platforms, countless tools, workbenches and spare parts till the eyes could see. Another room opened to the right, about the size of a basketball court. And in this room about a dozen different steam cars were parked. To name a few: a 1906, a 1910 and a 1922 Stanley Steamer, a 1907 White Steamer and the 1906 Advance. I think that was roughly the point when we realized that it was not the garage of another one of your mass-production Hollywood celebrities, wishing to show off pimped out CLK's on MTV Cribs.

Heading off in the other direction, we entered into another hall, again the home of some cars that I only saw in small, low-resolution, monochrome pictures. Hiding in one of the low-lit corners was one of the last survivors of Chrysler's Turbine Car Program. Next to it was the famous EcoJet –that 650 PS, turbine-powered biodiesel supercar. These delicacies told us a lot about what was awaiting us in the actual garage. In case of course if we got the last approval from Leno's office. So we went back to dreaded waiting game.

About half a dozen guys were working on the cars around us, led by Leno's garage manager, Bernard Juchli. A Swiss-born mechanic, who got close to cars at a tender age, as his father had a Volkswagen-Porsche dealership. Later he moved on to work on fighter planes. That was before he swapped it for racing Jaguar E-Types. Next to him stood Bob, who had been with the garage probably the longest. A proud owner of a Stingray at that time, a devoted collector of spark plugs and an all-around nice man.

The most telltale thing about the working environment was, however, when we watched a German mechanic who wore a utility belt second only to Batman's. His main responsibility was to clean and polish every machine to a near-mirror shine. He came all the way from Germany just to do that. No matter if he was using a big machine with a polishing buff or a toothpick with piece of cotton on it, he was showing genuine joy, and he never stopped smiling...and he was German!

But the general good mood was surpassed by the sheer professionalism of the place and the people working in it. Not another place comes to my mind, where they have the tools, materials, and expertise to build a 1000 PS, rear-wheel drive Toronado, to restore a century-old Baker Electric car while maintaining and keeping on the roads the likes of Duesenbergs, Bugattis, Lamborghinis and Tatras. Outside is a huge boiler to get the steam cars ready quickly, should Leno decide to get through his daily commute with a Stanley. To run the place economical and environmentally friendly, the roof is covered by solar panels.

This is the actual garage of a genuine gearhead, filled with fellow carnuts. It's like any other garage or workshop you'd find in the backyard of a car enthusiast. It's just, well, bigger. Strolling outside the gates you couldn't even get a hint of all the wonders that fill these buildings. Mind you, the buildings from the outside, probably to keep out the likes of Clarkson, are painted – umm –beige. For us the only thing left was to wait for the final green light to dive in the wondrous collection, or accept defeat, and drive off to the next Pizza Hut in one of the most hideous cars ever (review to follow...unless you are not interested in the adventures of a rolling bathtub).

After some very long minutes, that seemed more like hours, Bob came back and said that he could show us around the garage, but we mustn't take any pictures. If you want to find out if we managed to convince him otherwise, and would like to see what delicacies this automotive box of chocolates hide, tune in next time, when we give you an inside look into Jay Leno's Garage.

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