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

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.