As I was closely inspecting a pristine Lamborghini Miura S, I hear a phrase I haven’t heard in a long time: “Excuse me, sir, don’t touch that.”
Oh right, I’m not an auto show where I can get my hands on all the cars, but instead, I’m looking at a private collection worth an unimaginable amount of money.
When you think of a car collector, you typically think it’s a person who is just hoarding cars in the hope they’ll appreciate in value some day. Sure, that person may have an interest in cars, but where I am today can only be described as a car collection for car people. This is Jay Leno’s garage, and as much as the former host of The Tonight Show is known for his stand-up and stage presence, it’s clear he has a serious passion for things that move.
He has his own successful YouTube channel where he hosts celebrities and talks about some of his cars, and by watching those videos, you can get a good idea of what his garage is like, but it’s nothing like the real deal. This place is way bigger than what you see in the videos. There are cars everywhere and they’re in great condition. They all have keys in them and the walls and shelves are filled with memorabilia. The place looks like a normal car guy’s garage but multiplied by 50.
I arrived at the garage as part of a BMW Motorrad event. Leno loves motorcycles. He also loves pretty much anything else with wheels — sports cars, sedans, convertibles, classics, steam-powered cars and even ones with jet engines. Several of these vehicles were on display (with the steam engines actually in motion) when we walked off the bus, while our host puttered around in other garages checking out the massive inventory and making sure it was ready for us to look at.
The cars in the area we gathered in were already awesome. There was a McLaren P1 and Tesla Model S charging, parked casually next to a McLaren F1, which was parked next to a Mercedes-McLaren SLR, which was parked next to an Ariel Atom. Across that were more cool cars: two Lamborghini Miuras, a DeTomaso Pantera, a Cadillac CTS-V and a selection of Corvairs. There were also at least two dozen motorcycles of various years and makes, including the interesting rotary-powered Suzuki RE5.
When Leno himself was ready, we gathered around to hear him and BMW Motorrad Head Stefan Stadler talk a bit about motorcycles, were Leno expressed his love for the engaging, back-to-basics products from the bikemaker. Note that this was a whole 12 hours before BMW unveiled its vision of the Bike of the Future, the BMW Motorrad Vision Next 100 Concept that uses a zero-emissions engine and some kind of un-crashable, semi-autonomous technology.
Shortly after, Leno launched into a full on tour. Armed with a mic and his automotive enthusiasm, he commandeered the room. He pointed out an old pre-war Mercedes sitting in the corner, which was gutted; its giant pistons exposed and in plain view. He stopped and gathered us around his Blastolene Special, a car that’s lovingly called the “Tank Car.” Why is it called that? It uses an engine from an American tank, a powerplant that makes more than 1,600 horsepower and 3,000 pound-feet of torque. He reminded us that he shared it with actor Arnold Schwarzenegger on The Tonight Show, complete with a great caricature and impression of the former governor of California.
Leno talked about his cars the way a father talks about a successful son, describing how they drove on the road, how much fun they are, and sharing whatever usually obscure facts make them so unique.
It’s interesting that although this collection is already huge, Leno still manages to make it bigger and bigger. What’s clear is that he’s actually commuted in many of these cars, using them like regular people would a Toyota Corolla or Honda Accord.
He moves us over to a room with a few American cars. There’s a first-generation Corvette and a C6 ZR1, but instead of crowding around those more well-known cars, Leno ushers us to a light brown 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. These cars were known for being big, front-wheel-drive, V8-powered tourers, but Leno’s example isn’t as simple. He’s converted the big American car to be rear-wheel drive and while it still has a 425 cubic-inch V8 engine, it’s been twin turbocharged to make more than 1,000 horsepower. It sports modern wheels and tires but the suspension uses Bilstein shocks. Leno knows this car inside and out, even pointing out the challenges associated in accommodating the drivetrain swap with the car.
We continued to shuffle through the various garages. “There’s a bunch of Italian cars,” Leno says as we walk past them. The walls are covered in giant paintings of old car ads. Leno laughs at one of the images, “Sometimes they like the throw me in the pictures too.” Sure enough, one of the characters in the ads looks just like him.
Calling these spaces garages is a huge understatement; they’re more like small airplane hangars, and we walked through at least six of them, with more to be explored at another time. The rooms are best described as a neat mess. Some cars and bikes have little oil trays underneath them to catch any spills. Other cars have a few parts lying around them, like giant mechanical “to-do” lists.
At one point of the tour, our host takes us to an unfinished garage, but instead of cars, there are motorcycles that are arranged in a display; one sits right in the center, while the others surround it around the room. Just like he did with the cars, he rattles off the years and specifications of these bikes, too. His garage looks like a museum, and he plays the part of tour guide perfectly. His interest and passion are unmatched here, and he even recalls how and when each car or bike made its way to his garage.
In another area, I spot a gorgeous old Mazda Eunos Cosmo roadster, and have just enough time to gawk at it before remembering that I can’t get my fingerprints on these works of art. Not far away, a new Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 sits next to an old one, and it’s clear that the new one is hiding some serious performance upgrades. Seeing how Leno can’t seem to keep his cars in stock form, it isn’t that much of a stretch.
We arrive outside and are greeted with the sight of an MTT Y2K Turbine Superbike, one of Leno’s favorite bikes. It looks awkward and big, but when it’s finally fired up, the little thing sounds like an airplane. It smells funny, too. Not quite like that smoggy, tangy smell of diesel, but sweeter. Leno jokes that since this uses a combination of diesel, kerosine and bio-fuels to run, it’s classified as an alternate fuel vehicle. He takes it for a spin around the block. He explains that the two-speed bike is hard to get used to, as there’s a slight delay on throttle on/off.
While it was clear that demonstration was the highlight of the night, Leno invited us to follow him into a few more corners of his garage, where there were more unfinished projects and soon to be completed cars. A strange contrast from before, a bunch of us helped Leno by pushing the bike into the garage. What happened to the no touching rules?
An old resto-modded BMW Motorcycle is fired up and one of Leno’s friends from Big Dog Garages talks to the two-wheeler fanatics. The bike sounds amazing, raw and unfiltered. I snoop around even further.
It’s hard not to get lost in this place. It’s like a museum, but without the boring parts; imagine yourself in the dinosaur exhibit without the boring “Jurassic period vegetation” installment. There are hundreds of cars here, and each one seems to be special.
I make sure to shake Leno’s hand before we leave. It’s rare to meet someone who has a collection that they actually work on and drive the way they were meant to be. Collectors too often keep their cars in storage and never drive them. By opening it up and sharing this collection with us, Leno is showing that he’s not a stuffy rich collector, but a real car enthusiast. It’s just a shame I couldn’t
drive touch anything.