Jim Smart
April 4, 2011
Photos By: NBC-Universal

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.

MM: What do you like most about your GT350?

Leno: I put a five-speed in it, which you're not supposed to do. I realize now you're supposed to keep it stock. But I like to drive it. The GT350 is very touchable. I know how to slide in it and I know what it will and won't do. You can fix it with a hammer. It's a Ford, so you can go down to NAPA and get a water pump for a few bucks. Try that with a Mercedes. You can get into the engine compartment and see things. It's all very simple-engine front, transmission middle, rear axle in back, a couple of springs, brakes. It's a fun car to drive.

MM: What made you like Fords so much?

Leno: As a car guy, Ford beating Ferrari at Le Mans was a huge deal. Only in America could a multi-million dollar corporation like Ford, the underdog on the world racing circuit, beat the much smaller yet dominant Ferrari.

I always liked Henry Ford. When I was a kid, I decided I wanted to work for Wilmington Ford. We had this nasty used car manager and I was carrying a bunch of used hubcaps. I came around the corner and bumped into him, dropped the wheel covers, and he said, "You're fired!" I didn't tell my parents for a couple of weeks. I wrote a letter to Henry Ford and Ford's board of directors to tell them my dad had a Galaxie, my mom had a Falcon, and I hoped to have a Mustang one day. I told them about my firing and how unfair it was. About three weeks later, the owner of Wilmington Ford called and offered me my job back. I've been a loyal Ford guy ever since.

I was one of those kids who believed in the Total Performance thing that Ford had going at the time-Lee Iacocca, the 289 engine. I mean, I love the 289 because it could be anything you wanted it to be. You could have dual-quads on it in a Cobra or Mustang. You could put Webers on it and make it look like the most exotic European engine ever. They had an overhead cam version of it for Indy-just an incredible engine.

MM: What else do you remember about the Total Performance era?

Leno: You had the Total Performance catalog where you could get just about anything-dual-quads, heads, cams. To this day, I can remember the big bird emblem with the 427. These were magic numbers when I was a kid-289, 390, 427. It's hard for kids to imagine today, but in those days, you got car magazines once a month in the mail. We waited by the mailbox for our favorite magazines with pictures of Carroll Shelby standing next to a Mustang. I remember the bib overall ads and all that stuff. Today, you just go to the Internet, touch a button, and get what you want and as much as you want right now. Back then, you waited for Hot Rod and Motor Trend. You'd talk about it at school.

MM: Do you remember the Mustang's April 17 introduction in 1964?

Leno: Yes, I was one of those kids with my face pressed against the glass. You know, hot dogs and donuts and they rolled the curtain back or pulled the paper off showroom windows. It was a different time.

MM: There were a lot of clever ads for Mustang at that time too.

Leno: Back when I was a teenager, there was a very popular book titled Sex and The Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown. Well, Ford ran an ad called "Six and The Single Girl," which had a cute girl-next-door type with a six-cylinder Mustang. It was a great ad, yet they wouldn't run it in some Boston papers because it was considered too risqué.

MM: Does it concern you that the interest in automobiles seems to be fading?

Leno: It works that way when their dad isn't interested in automobiles. Although my mother didn't know anything about cars, when the Falcon wouldn't start she knew to put a screwdriver down that thing in the middle of the engine to open the choke and then it would start. People had some mechanical involvement with cars in those days.

MM: Seems the automakers have isolated motorists from the engine compartment.

Leno: You can't do anything to modern cars. When I go to car shows, kids walk over and I let them sit in the cars. How can you know anything about something if you can't touch it or ride in it? I think part of the problem today is involvement with automobiles. You have a different kind of interest now in cars. People say rock 'n' roll ruined the music of the 1940s, then hip-hop and rap changed everything again. It's all in what you're used to and like. Kids today are into a different kind of hot rodding. They buy a Toyota or Honda, stuff it full of batteries, and charge it up.

MM: What do you think that's doing to the Mustang?

Leno: The Mustang's still selling like hotcakes. But the Mazda Miata is the Mustang of this generation. Kids just out of high school can afford a Miata from the early 1990s, priced around $2,500, which is like the $600 Mustang of long ago. The guy I bought my GT350 from snapped it up for $600 in 1969. It was just an old Mustang.

MM: What do you think about Ford Motor Company these days?

Leno: I think it's changing. I guess it's whatever you grew up with and whatever your dad liked that keeps you loyal. Let's face it, in the 1970s and even into the 1980s we were building crappy cars. They kept the bean counters and got rid of the engineers. Now we're back to engineers. I think the new Ford Fusion is a hybrid equal to anything from Europe or Japan. It offers 42 miles to the gallon and it's bulletproof!

MM: Have you ever considered building an exotic Mustang restomod?

Leno: Yeah, maybe sometime. There are a lot of those out there. It's hard to beat the classic Shelby or Mustang GT with exhausts going through the back valance or that GT badge on the front fenders, the Rally-Pac, the fastback. I guess I'd build something a little different. I'm not a '55 Chevy guy, not because I don't like them but because I go to a car show and there are a hundred of them lined up. I'd like to do a Mustang with a 289 and Webers-more European.

MM: Do you like the new '11 Mustangs?

Leno: I was up at Pebble Beach and got one of the new Laguna Seca Boss 302s, a pretty amazing automobile-440 horsepower! See, Mustang knows its customer base. When the original Mustang came out, people wanted independent rear suspension. But the Mustang was affordably priced and people could modify it the way they wanted to. Independent rear suspension was available on the SVT Mustang Cobra and not many people ordered it. Most Mustang guys are drag guys. They like to drop the clutch and do a burnout. And Mustang corners well just the way it is. In most comparison road tests, people prefer the new Mustang with a live axle over cars with independent rear suspension.

MM: Are there any other classic Mustangs you'd like to have?

Leno: The first generation is the best. Up until 1966, the automakers could do whatever they wanted. In 1969, the government stepped in and we got away from designing and building whatever we wanted. I like all Mustangs, but I have to admit the '70s Mustangs don't interest me. The '84-'86 SVO was an interesting car.

MM: How often do you drive your GT350?

Leno: Couple times a month. Guys build a car and trailer it, and consequently there's no one around to fix that car because it doesn't break. That's the trouble with Deusenbergs, nobody drives them. Nobody makes parts for them. No one knows how to work on them because they're trailered and they never break. The Bentley Drivers Club, on the other hand, will drive Peking to Paris and there are people making crankshafts and everything needed to keep them running. I commend Mustang owners who drive these cars. I love looking through the catalogs at all the parts and accessories available for these cars. That's great because people actually use them. They get in accidents and this makes business for the people who make parts, which keeps the whole cycle going.

MM: So it wouldn't bother you to wrinkle a fender on your GT350?

Leno: No, wouldn't bother me as long as it didn't hurt anyone. You restore them to 100 points, drive them down to 15 points, and restore them again.