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An exclusive look inside
Leno’s garage

Jay Leno part 2.

03/06/2013 06:57 |  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.

“Jay, we were told we can publish only 4-5 pictures. We took a bit more than that.”
“How many did you take?”
“About a 130.”
“You can use’em all!”

Regular readers of our magazine already know that we took a shot at checking out Jay Leno's garage, and we closed the story with a very clumsy cliffhanger. For the new readers just two things: first, it's great that you showed up, it was about time. Second, we did manage to get inside where we started off with the workshop. After some scheduling mishaps we did get the green light from Jay's office to visit the garage itself. But, and a rather big one at that, we were not supposed to take pictures. At first, anyway. Our guide was Bob, one of the members working for the longest time in Jay Leno's crew, spark plug-enthusiast and all-around nice guy.

Initially he just wanted to quickly take us around in a golf cart, but we convinced him that we were better off on foot. Apart from knowing every last bit of information about all the cars, sharing enthusiasticly with us, he was also vigilant, making sure we don't take too many pictures, stick together and don't do anything nasty. As much as we liked Bob, we could already feel the cold of our editor's office:
“So how was Leno's garage?”
“Oh great, you should've seen it!”
“Show me the pictures then!”
“Well, we didn't make any.”
“&#*;>˘%+”

We just had to get some material, so we first agreed on taking 2-3 pictures. A bit later we upped the ante to 4-5. Then we made a deal with Bob that we would take pictures of everything then show to Jay and agree on which ones we can publish. It actually was a very plausible excuse for overloading our memory cards, since we were only in the first room of many, surrounded by half the cars from our bucket lists. At that point, since we were on a roll, we got cocky and turned on the video camera as well. Bob wasn't really happy. He kept asking what Sipos is filming and I kept asking him questions on the cars. So then he started telling me about the cars. When finished with a story, he asked again about Sipos so I asked about another car. After the third such question he saw through my feeble attempts at distracting him. He just laughed and told us that we can shoot but Jay would have to approve.

Before moving on, I would like to extend my gratitude to Robert Angelo, NBC-producer by trade. It was him, who at an NBC meeting pitched the idea to Leno of filming Jay's garage. It was a last second, Hail Mary-type of pitch, since he was running out of ideas for The Tonight Show, and Leno was about to leave the meeting room. To cut the long story short, Leno liked the idea, and now the gearheads of the world can unite each week in looking at some of the cars he has. Probably a better alternative to MTV Cribs. Looking around I was losing some of my professional reserve and started accepting that maybe Leno is not your everyday Hollywood A-lister with a couple of expensive cars to show at some fundraiser. The place looked a lot like a private museum, but nothing could've been further away from the truth.

You see, in a museum you have fixed objects behind ropes and glasses, quietly collecting dust while they attempt to talk about a glorious past. Leno's garage is exactly what it's called: a garage. Here you are not told about the past but can actually re-live it. The only thing making it just tad a museum-like is all the stories behind the cars, which, in my opinion, is what makes a car truly interesting.

The very first car we saw when we entered was a 1986, red Lamborghini Countach. It's already interesting by its own right, but it is its past that makes it a bit more special. Leno bought it from his first big paycheck, and for a long time it was his actual daily driver. It has over 70,000 miles on its clock. Once he got a letter from a young kid, who admitted that he bragged to his classmates that he is related to Leno, and that the showman regularly takes him for a ride in the Countach. As a final act of desperation, the kid asked Leno to take him to school with the Lambo. So Leno pulled up one day at the kid's place and took him to school.

As much as I love the Countach, it's not the delicacy I was looking forward to the most. It just wasn't special enough. Nor was Dean Martin's Miura next to it or the McLaren F1 across the room. It was something much-much more unique: the Shotwell a.k.a. Philbert. Don't feel embarrassed if you never heard of it, as it is truly one-of-a-kind. I must admit, it was the Shotwell's video that I watched the most when doing my pre-interview research. In the 30's a sixteen year old kid, Bob Shotwell went to his father and asked him to buy a car. His father told him that they couldn't afford one, but if he wants one so much, he should build one. So young Bob built one. He searched the Minnesota junkyards, bought some Model A and T-parts and an Indian motorcycle engine. The rest, like the body, he made by hand out of sheetmetal. He put the engine in the back that drove a single wheel. For the cooling he used two, small fans. The Minnesota teenager's sturdy design then went on for another 150,000 miles without any major hiccups. In 1996, Bob Shotwell called Leno, and said he heard he likes old cars, and that he'd like to give it to him under the condition that Leno doesn't scrap it or sell it but restores it. Leno said yes and the car is still there in the garage and is still driven every once in a while.

These are stories that you just cannot make up. No marketing of a new car could ever compete with such a history. Another example of that would be Leno's 1955 Buick Roadmaster. It's the car he had for the longest: he bought it in 1972 for 350 dollars. At the time Leno was an up and coming comedian, touring the country. He practically lived in the Buick, eating, sleeping, writing the jokes for his next gig, you name it – and the car provided the shelter for all that. He took his wife on dates with the Roadmaster. When Leno got his breakthrough in showbusiness, he put the car aside and didn't touch it for the next sixteen years. Then one day all the memories hit him and decided to restore it. Leno is a big fan of restomods, so he put under it the suspension and brakes from a C5 Corvette and threw a 572 horsepower Chevy big block under the hood.

One of the great things about the collection is that all cars are working, have plates and Leno actually uses them. That wouldn't be such a big deal if you look at the Countach or the Roadmaster, but jaws drop if one looks at the Fiat Botafogo Special. Especially so, since just as with all his cars, Leno takes it out on the road. In 1923 Ernest Eldridge broke the land speed record with Mephistopheles, a car powered by a Fiat airplane engine. An Argentinian businessman called Scandrolla was so mesmerized by Mephistopheles that he decided to build one for himself. He got his hands on a 1917 Fiat A12 airplane engine, and after the 21.6 litre, straight-six engine arrived to the docks of Buenos Aires, Scandrolla went to work and built a low-budget copy of Mephistopheles. Nothing shows more how underfunded the project was that he picked up the engine with a horse-cart, and though he eventually finished the car, he had no money left for brakes or a transmission. The only safety feature of the Botafogo Special was a hooked blade on its front to cut the barbed wires on the side of the road in case he veered off course. In 1947 Scandrolla got in a fatal accident with the car, and the Fiat Botafogo Special disappeared for decades to come. It resurfaced in the 90's and an American company restored it, put in a 4-speed Mercedes transmission and a pair of mechanical brakes in the back. Oh, by the way, it produces 320 horsepower, with a maximum rpm of 1500.

Not far from it stands the legendary Tankrod, but I was more interested in the American La France firetruck from 1941. Powered by the most powerful truck-engine of its time, the 256 horsepower V12 La France was the first truck ever to be tested in a wind tunnel. It spent its first twenty years at the Warner Brothers Studio from where it was sold to the Burbank Airport. For the following decades its main task was collecting dust but due to a change in homeland security regulations, it had to go in 2001. They called Leno from the airport if he wanted it. It should come as no surprise that he did. He didn't have to go too far since his garage is just across the fence from the airport. As with all cars in the garage, the La France also has a purpose and function: should Leno break down with one his many motorcycles, his crew would come and pick him up with the firetruck.

Though the La France is a really pretty sight, the true beauty queen of the garage is Leno's 1937 Bugatti Type 57 SC Atlantic. It's not an original, but a replica. Well, it is an original Bugatti, but didn't start out as an Atlantic, since only four were ever made of it. So when I say replica, it's not in the plastic-Lambo-born-Fiero sense of the word, but a true recreation of an original Atlantic, being as close to it as technically possible. I made the mistake of saying the word out loud in the garage and Bob crossed his eyebrows, rightfully so. If you think about the hideous creations of Mitsuoka, you wouldn't blame him either. But you see, buying an original is not really a question of money, even if someone had 36 million dollars available, for which the last time an Atlantic was sold. I just don't think the likes of Ralph Lauren – owner of one of the four – would ever part ways with his Atlantic. Actually make that one out of three. The fourth one was a prototype.

At one point I felt a bit of envy towards Sipos. The whole experience was overwhelming and he found something familiar, an anchor to keep him on the ground and bring him back to reality. My esteemed colleague is the proud owner of a Mercedes W108 450 and got really excited when we found a W109 300 SEL 6.3 in the garage. We obviously had to ask Bob to pop the hood and for Sipos, being the motormouth he is, the next fifteen minutes meant motoring encounters of the Merc kind, sd the two of them were going through every last bolt and screw in the engine bay. It turned out that the W109 was awaiting his new, beefed up engine from Mercedes, so we tried to buy the old 6.3 to replace Sipos' measly 4.5 but Leno wanted to keep the old engine. Shame, we would've been a funny sight at LAX, trying to check in a V8 as hand luggage.

My close encounter with one of the cars, and a rather literal one at that, came at the Ford section of the garage. Next to Leno's red Ford GT and 1965 Shelby Mustang 350GT stood an original Shelby Cobra. Bob asked me if I wanted take off the charger cables from the Cobra's battery. I squeaked a faint “Yes”, kneeled down behind the trunk, and reached for the cables, under tight supervision. When I was inside the trunk the waist up, Bob told me to look up to check the inside of the trunk lid. There was the signature of Leno's personal friend, the late Carroll Shelby. Unplugging cables may not seem like a great highlight, but for me it definitely was.

Some say Leno has the biggest private Duesenberg collection with 6.5 cars. The point-five is a no typo as he owns a 1929 Duesenberg-chassis. At the time most luxury cars had unique bodies, made by a coachbuilder, and only the chassis, the engine and the suspension came from the car manufacturer. This Duesenberg originally had a 900 kilogram limousine-body, but it somehow got lost over the decades. Leno found the chassis in a museum and fell in love with its naked honesty. So he bought it. This extreme incarnation of Colin Chapman's philosophy is a beast when it comes to speed, which should come as no surprise, thanks to its 265 horsepower 421 cui engine. As we were told by Bob, this car can truly tell the birth of a Duesenberg, since all models were tested on an Indianapolis racetrack, before they were sent to the coachbuilders.

Another interesting car was a custom, 1975 Plymouth Duster. It originally belonged to Paul Annunziata, an old friend of Leno. The Duster was well known on the drag strips, wreaking havoc in the quarter mile, collecting countless trophies along the way. When Paul was diagnosed with cancer, he called Leno and wanted to give it to him. Leno didn't want to accept it for free, and tried to bargain with Paul, but he was adamant that it's a present. Finally they agreed to set up a scholarship to help funding the college education of talented young mechanics. Eventually Paul lost his last battle to cancer, but as testament to his talent, his Duster now lives on in Leno's garage.

I have to confess, one of the most challenging bits of this material was to pick out cars to tell you about. I mean how could one select a few from a place where there's a Tatra, Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing, Lamborghini Espada, Citroen DS, Hudson Hornet, Tata Nano, McLaren F1, Ariel Atom, Lotus Elan, along with countless Bugattis and Duesenbergs...and I'm still only scratching the surface. Interestingly though, the most important car at the garage according to Bob is a Fiat 500. That's the designated car for picking up pizza. Since our visit though, the 500 was auctioned off at a charity event. I just hope the garage crew didn't starve since then and found another car for picking up some pizza. I'd choose the Espada. The scent of leather upholstery, mixed with the one of the oregano must be priceless.

Leno's garage, as Mad Mike put it, is a place to hang out. To look at cars, to talk about them and to brag to each other about laptimes, horsepowers and rare parts found at garage sales. The sheer size of the place should weigh one down, but instead it feels cozy and humble. I should come up with a witty cliffhanger now about how the interview went with Leno; if he was stuck up or down to earth, but that wouldn't be fitting. We went there to do a short interview with a celebrity, but instead we chatted with a fellow gearhead for hours. I hope you'll come back the next time and watch the interview with us.

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