Late-night American talk shows are about as foreign a concept to South African TV watchers as Orkney Snork Nie would be in the United States, but that hasn’t stopped host Jay Leno from becoming a well-known icon not only here but worldwide.
For more than 20 years the funny man has held a prime-time slot as presenter of the NBC network’s The Tonight Show, where his comedic performances and celebrity interviews have afforded him the right to international stardom - and one of the most interesting car collections in the world, even though Leno himself says he’s never spent a dime of his TV earnings, and funds his expensive taste off what he makes on the side. Whatever.
Either way, his Tonight Show contract ended this month after a long and lucrative tenure, and now the prominently-jawed personality (he’s written a book called Leading with my Chin) will inevitably have more time for tending to his mechanical interests.
Leno’s a self-proclaimed “car guy” and when he’s not getting paid megabucks to tell jokes, he’s somewhere in the world poking his fingers into some sort of automotive pie. If he’s not showing off one of his immaculate restorations at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance (one of the world’s larniest classic car shows), or scouring the planet for elusive barn finds which he’ll restore and add to his private garage, he’s probably busy writing a column for one of many high-profile motoring titles such as Popular Mechanics and Octane.
Of course it’s easy to be passionate about expensive things when you’ve got the bank account to back it up (Leno’s estimated net worth is the equivalent of almost R4-billion), but it seems the 63-year-old had the bug even before he had the means. As a teenager Leno had a job at a Ford dealer removing chrome hubcaps at night (so they weren’t stolen) and replacing them in the morning; and later he washed Rolls Royces for free when a Boston dealership told him they had no job openings.
They later hired him because he did such a good job.
At the age of 16 he convinced a Ford salesman to spec a seven-litre Galaxie his father had ordered with freeflow glasspack exhausts. On delivery Leno’s old man complained because he thought his brand-new car had a hole in its silencer. Leno now owns a nearly identical car because he wanted to relive his childhood experience with it.
Leno owns about 200 cars and he keeps them all on display at his Big Dog Garage in southern California. The location, which is brimming with automotive all-sorts including artifacts, memorabilia, artwork, and a proper workshop with proper tools and mechanics, has secured the man a spot on the list of the world’s most elite car collectors.
Yes, there are expensive supercars in there, including a Porsche Carrera GT that fellow funnyman Jerry Seinfeld convinced him to buy.
But Leno’s “not all rare cars are expensive, and not all expensive cars are rare” doctrine has seen him amass a more eclectic group of machines than you’ll likely find in most rich guys’ garages. He loves steam-powered cars for instance, and owns more than 20. He also has 17 Fiats, three Tatras and a Datsun. We bet you haven’t even heard of a Doble. Leno has three. Ferraris? Not one.
Jay also loves a good “Duesy” and over the years he’s become an authority on the rare American luxury marque that existed between 1913 and 1937. One of his two Duesenberg barn finds (he owns about 16 in total) - a 1927 Locke-bodied Model X, had been stored and untouched since 1947. Experts didn’t even know the car existed. Leno has since restored the car to running condition only, leaving it mostly as it was discovered, full of patina and covered in dust.
One of his most famous rides, probably because of its inclusion in the popular video game Gran Turismo 4, is the Blastolene Special – or Leno Tank Car as every gamer in the universe now knows it. This one-off custom gets its engine from a M47 Patton army tank modified to deliver about 1200kW, and drinks about 56 litres of diesel per 100km. Leno drives it too. He drives all of his cars. But we’re guessing he’d rather opt for one of his Fiats for the milk run than this 6.4-metre long special.
The Tonight Show’s Leno era might have gone the way of the dodo and Johhny Carson (Jay’s TV forebear), but we certainly haven’t seen the last of this chisel-jawed entertainer. He’ll be popping up in motoring circles aplenty so long as his love of cars doesn’t fade. And, seeing as he’s got more than 21 years of huge paycheques saved up, that shouldn’t happen anytime soon.
Follow Jesse Adams on Twitter.