Jay Leno, former Tonight Show Host, 2014 winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and host of ‘Jay Leno’s Garage’ is the quintessential car guy with an encyclopedic knowledge of cars past, present and future.
I had never met him before, but I did see him driving down the street in a Model T in Burbank, several years ago. Recently, I had the privilege to hear him lead a panel on the future of automobiles at ArtCenter College of Design Car Classic as well as ask him a few questions about the future of autos. He is just as nice as people always say he is.
Cars are an important part of Leno’s life. When Leno moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s, the first thing he did was buy a 1955 Buick Roadmaster, for $350 because he couldn’t find a place to live unless he had a car. He slept in for a couple of days, then slept in open ‘for sale’ houses. He hid in the closet until after the realtors left.
During those days police picked up Leno for vagrancy on Hollywood Boulevard, not far from where his star is on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Leno has been collecting cars for most of his life. He likes all kinds of cars and his criteria for buying a car is that it should have technical and historical significance, fun to drive and it should be attractive.
It has been reported that Jay Leno’s garage houses 181 cars and 80 motorcycles. He has never sold one – but has donated to charity. The value of the collection could be in the millions of dollars. Leno originally thought that paying $800,000 for a McLaren FI shortly after they came out was too expensive, however now he realizes it was not a mistake. A similar McLaren F1 recently sold for $24 million.
A Safer Era For Cars
Leno explains that Americans’ love for cars started in the mid-twenties when the car was here to stay. Everybody had a car, then suddenly the car had to be better than the car before.
“When I started in with [Plymouth] Concords it was just enough to have a beautiful car. Then it got to numbers ‘Well mine’s number matching’. It’s always the one-upmanship which car is more attractive, which car is more beautiful,” says Leno, but car ownership can mean different things to different people.
“I had a guy ask me quite legitimately hey if I want to get girls – what’s the best car? I said, ‘It doesn’t really work that way’. I asked, ‘what do you like to drive?’ He didn’t know what he liked he just wanted to know what car would get him the most girls…Finally, I said Jags are always good because they are both masculine and feminine.”
No matter what reason people buy cars, he sees now as one of the best eras for cars.
“We live in an era now that your average sedan, that a soccer mom takes to practice, is just about as fast as supercars of the past such as the Chrysler Hemming in the mid-sixties,” says Leno.
He’s glad that cars are much safer than they used to be. In the golden era, people died in accidents as there was no protection from airbags. Today the whole car is improved, including the safety technology.
The Age of Electrification
He notes that there used to be hundreds of car companies and then they consolidated into only a few car companies. Leno likes that new electric car companies are forming.
Leno notices that, for a new car to succeed, the technology has to better not equal than what already exists. He gives the example of why he bought his Tesla S – because it was the fastest four-door sedan you could buy.
”Tesla was a totally different thing. That’s why I think it has been a huge success. To me, the real genius of Telsa was putting in charging stations across the country where you could drive to San Francisco for free,” says Leno.
He is concerned about how electric car owners will have to deal with lack of power – not lack of power in the cars but from the electrical grid, like when utilities in the state of California turn off the electricity. Leno comments, “With the wind blowing, California utilities cut off power for five days, they were lighting candles. What are we? Guatemala?”
Leno sees an era of electrification coming although there are a few more years left for internal combustion engines.
“I think the writing’s on the wall – electricity is cheaper, it’s cleaner,” says Leno who has never had to take his Tesla to the dealer for service. He might change the brake fluid every couple of years but that’s about it.
“If you want to know what car designs work, have some young people interact with it,” advises Leno. He was in China to visit a high school car design contest. They did not grow up with cars and had no point of reference. The cars didn’t even look like cars. The car that won, looked like an egg!
Leno notes that an obstacle to improving cars may be government intrusion and lawmakers. He wonders: “For me, I have no idea why we still need rearview mirrors, I don’t know why we can’t have a camera that does the job just as well.”
Leno also predicts what kind of cars will be driven by future generations.
“I think for the immediate future cars will be some kind of hybrid technology (and) then electrification. I think a kid born today will never ride in a gas-powered car, by the time he is an adult,” Jay Leno told Auto Futures. “He might drive in a gas-powered car, but it will be like manual transmissions are today, they will know that it existed, but they won’t have any experience with it.”
Leno continues to perform comedy at theatres around the U.S. He will perform at the Terry Fator Theatre at the Mirage Hotel, Las Vegas on December 28. Jay Leno’s Garage Season 5 is airing on CNBC.
Or, if you are like me, you may see him at a car event or driving one of his cars from his collection on the streets of beautiful downtown Burbank.