Friday, January 2, 2009

It was a very good year... Part 3

And a very happy new year to you as well. The looking back on '08 continues with yet another installment from the 'things that were good' column. This one was indeed a serious highlight of the year for me on many levels. I guess it would go without saying that performing on the Tonight Show is a major highlight for any musician or performer, but for me, anytime I get to have a few words with Jay Leno I'm always thrilled as he is one of the world's premier car guys.  
   Obviously we're dealing with a monumental celebrity in Leno but that's honestly a very small part of what makes any exchange with him so much fun. What is interesting to me is the kind of car-guy he is and what he does with and for the hobby. I can honestly say that I've never heard of an example of someone doing more good for the motorsports and old car world than Jay Leno. I think it is safe to say that most people who are familiar with him are aware of his passion for the automobile, but I don't believe that many understand just how involved he is in preservation, education, and the general "looking to the future" attitude that he has about it all.

    First and foremost is the stewardship attitude and approach that he takes to being a collector. I once heard the enthusiast Bruce Meyer say that he doesn't feel he really owns his cars, he's just caring for them in preparation for the next steward. This to me is the most wonderful attitude you can have towards collector cars. It is the most unfortunate thing in the hobby to see people become competitive and lose sight of the beauty and joy that comes from what I feel are the three things most important to being a complete enthusiast; research, servicing, and usage. Fortunately for all of us, Leno is setting the bar for the rest of the pack on all of these counts. 

    I'm happy to say that I've had the opportunity to perform on the Tonight Show on four different occasions since Jay has been "in office". The first time was in 1994 with the great John Prine. One of the things that said a lot to me about Jay's enthusiasm for our hobby came when I shook his hand that day... it was as rough and callused as any full time mechanic's... which I think I noticed because that's not something you're expecting from a guy in a suit. I remember that he drove a red E-Type Jag roadster to the studio that day and he couldn't have been more enthusiastic when telling me all about it. A fan of E-Types since childhood, Leno had been dreaming of the perfect example for many years, something that the boys back in Coventry couldn't imagine. He basically took all of the best parts of the three series' of E-Type and blended them together to make the ultimate Jag. From the firewall forward is all series three 12 cylinder- bodywork, chassis, and engine. The cockpit, windshield to boot, is series two... and the rear-end or tail section is series one. What he has ended up with is the best sounding, most powerful engine, in the 12 ( which sounded like a full race 12 and then some... I remember it had big oversized Webers on it with huge ceramic coated headers and Leno reported that it made 475 hp on the dyno! ), then you have the roomiest, yet still attractive, cockpit from the series two with far and away the best looking rear end courtesy of the series one. Of course the car was a masterpiece as well, looking like it had just rolled off the assembly line. 

    Soon after my first visit to the show, I was given the opportunity to tour the Leno collection and shop...  again, thanks to my buddy Tom Sparks. This is where I found out for real what kind of guy we're dealing with in Leno. He basically has three buildings, each with its own function. Building number one houses a number, a large number, of vintage cars and bikes. Some of these are road ready and some are awaiting either light servicing or repairs. I remember seeing a lot of bikes here but also a forest green '66 Hemi Dodge sedan,  427 Cobra,  '65 Shelby GT 350, and an early '70s Lamborgini Muira. Building number two is directly across a narrow parking area and is home to a full scale restoration and servicing area. I saw more great stuff in here than I could ever report on. At the time he had several barn find Bugatti's awaiting restoration, at least two early steam cars were being worked on, I remember some kind of huge formal late 20s early 30s Bentley that had its engine scattered all over the floor. One of the more entertaining things going on that day was a white 120 Jag roadster that one of his mechanics was pulling the engine out of. I walked over to see what the story was and was told that the car is one of Jay's favorite drivers and is equipped with a full race 4.2 litre six with C-type head and 5-spd transmission. The story was that Jay was running the car up on Mulholland drive and came up on a kid in a hopped up 5 litre Mustang that decided this was his day to race Jay Leno. Apparently Jay was not going to have any part of this kid blowing him off with his Mustang and continued to show him what a well tuned old sports car can do. Long story short, Jay limped the Jag back to the shop later that day with a bit of a death rattle coming from the bottom end, to which the mechanic said,"It may have come at a cost, but at least he did end up winning." I guess you could say he uses his cars. 

    What's the function of the 3rd building you may be wondering? Well, this building, which is adjacent to the restoration and servicing area, is basically Jay's "on deck" circle for his cars. Lined up on either side of the room were about 20-25 cars angle parked with their noses pointing at the huge overhead exit door. These are cars that are fully serviced, in top tune, and are ready to drive. Now imagine how cool this must be; Jay comes in every morning before work and , after he spends a few hours working in the shop, walks out into this building and decides what he'd like to drive to work that day. According to one of the guys I talked to, they keep a pretty strict schedule on all of the cars, making sure they're all in the rotation and are getting driven with some kind of regularity. What were the cars on deck the day I stopped by?, well, one of the real mind-blowers was a Bugatti Type 35 grand prix car that was completely un-restored! How's that for starters? Others that I can remember would be a Duesenberg SJ boat-tail speedster, two BRG blower Bentleys, a BRG supercharged Lagonda from the same era, and a beautiful ex-Phil Hill '32 Packard coupe that was personally restored by the former world champion. Of course there were more, but it was 15 years ago after all. 

    Again, I just could never say enough about what is going on at the Leno shop and the mentality of both Jay and his crew toward his cars and this great hobby, but, I think a conversation I had that day with one of his guys in the restoration shop will sum it up;  Apparently one of their more complex and cranky steam cars was giving them trouble and they had found themselves at their wits end. Through researching servicing techniques and parts availability for the car they found that there was an older gentleman in England who'd had a tremendous amount of experience with these and was really the go-to-guy for this particular model. Jay contacted the man and made arrangements to fly him over to the Leno shop to teach he and his crew more about the car and how to keep it functioning properly. While at the shop, Jay had a small film crew come in and film this wise old craftsman at work, documenting one of the last known experts on these unique early cars and preserving the information for both he and his crew and for generations to come... and this was not the only story I heard like this.

     Again, I just can't imagine there is another "living" collection like this where primitive, rare, sometimes nearly priceless, machines are driven on a regular basis... parts availability and time required for upkeep be damned. While many museums around the world are housing static displays of the great cars that once lived in a by-gone era, Leno and his crew are keeping both the cars and the dying-art-techniques of servicing them alive and well so that people can not only see them move and hear them run, but hopefully pass this idea and the knowledge they've gathered onto future generations of enthusiasts. 

PS...   A few short words about some of the photos posted above; First of all, sorry about the camera-phone quality of some of the shots, they're all I have. The band shot is from soundcheck , not our performance, and all of these shots are from my most recent visit to the show in '08. Jay was kind enough to show myself and a couple of guys from our crew his choice for commuter car on that day. The quality of the restoration on this car was simply breathtaking. I'm sure it's the finest restored Topolino on the planet. Before leaving, Jay was telling me how surprisingly roomy the car is, and that's coming from a guy who's at least 6ft. When I looked surprised to hear this he said, without hesitation,"You have to sit in it to believe it. Here, hop in". He opened the door and demanded that I get in and check it out ( Now really, when am I going to have that opportunity again?), so, a bit cautiously, I did- and I have to say, it's roomier than most cars twice its size. Oh, and it also gets 50 mpg!  Sometimes I wonder, have we really come that far? I mean, wouldn't you rather drive this than a Prius? 

Lastly, some of you may notice the vintage BSA motorcycle shirt I'm wearing. Like a dummy I wore this not thinking about the inevitable conversation that it would ignite with Leno... well it went like this;
 Jay: "Hey cool shirt! ( With great enthusiasm ) You got a BSA?" 
 Me: ( Sheepishly ) "Uh, no". 
 Jay: (Disappointed but with sarcastic smile) "Well, you know anybody can wear the shirt". 

Lesson learned. Have a great weekend folks and as always...  stay 'tuned'    



1 comment:

biggearhead said...

This may be the only instance I'm one up on you ever: if I'm wearing my Triumph MC shirt, at least I can say I did own one once. Sad it was that I had to let it go.