Jay Leno’s Love for all things Auto is Engaging
Car and motorcycle-collecting comedian chats with Norris McDonald about the future of the automotive industry, how things have changed, and what he loves about being a gearhead.
Jay Leno’s assistant called me on the phone. “Mr. Leno is ready to speak to you now. Please hold.”
Moments later, she came back on the line. “Oh, he just left. I’ll have to get back to you.”
This happened three times. My interview with the retired host of NBC’s The Tonight Show was scheduled, it turned out, on a day when he was filming a segment of Jay Leno’s Garage, which can be seen on cable TV in the U.S. and on the internet, and it seemed like he was kinda busy.
The third time she and I spoke, it was funny. “I’m sorry to keep doing this to you but Mr. Leno is here now … actually, no, he’s not. He just drove off. Call you back.”
When we finally connected, Leno — who is now officially THE car guy among car guys in the U.S., if not the world, was full of apologies. “Things are a little unorganized around here at the best of times,” he said, “but we’re doing some videotaping today, and I’m really sorry to have kept you waiting.”
And then, as they say, we became fast friends.
I wanted to — among other things — talk to him about cars, and environmental progress, and all sorts of things, but also — since he’s flying into the GTA to headline Saturday’s sixth annual Laugh Out Loud (LOL) — A Night with a Legend fundraiser in support of the Trillium Health Partners Foundation that’s being held out at the Toronto Congress Centre — to tell him he’d better wear his woollies.
And why would I do that? Because, baby, it’s cold outside.
Now, because of my work, I spend time in Southern California, where Leno lives, and Southern California is — well — Southern California. You can walk around in your Bermuda shorts just about all year.
Everybody who woke up around here today knows it is more than chilly. In fact, it is stupid cold. It is stupid because if any of us had a brain, we’d be living in Southern California.
So, I told him to dress warmly, and he said he knew to do that, because when he was younger and just starting out, he appeared frequently in Canada.
“I played Toronto, Moose Jaw, Sask., Vancouver, Calgary — I think I’ve played every city in the Dominion,” he said. “When I was in college, I did the draft dodger tour with (folksingers) Richie Havens and Jesse Winchester and the guys who did all the border towns. Jerry Jeff Walker — who wrote Mr. Bojangles — they all went to Canada during the draft. I was the opening act for a lot of those guys.
“I used to fly up there to do the Alan Hamel show (on CTV) and Tommy Banks (CBC). Bobby Vinton had a show on Canadian TV once (CTV), and I did that.
“I remember playing downtown Toronto once. I went outside and it was freezing. There wasn’t anybody out. I walked down a street and I was the only one. I walked down another block and I’m still alone. Where is everybody? I got so cold I said, ‘I’m going to go down these stairs here to get warm.’
“And I got down there and it was a whole shopping mall packed with people, food courts, and everything. Everybody was underground. I thought I was walking on the surface of Mars and everybody was living underneath me. It really made me laugh.”
After we got through with the pleasantries, Leno was keen to talk about cars (he was interested to hear that the Canadian International AutoShow is opening at the downtown Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Friday) and motorcycles (the Motorcycle Shows-Toronto is also starting on Friday at the Enercare Centre).
At last count, the comedian and TV star owns 160 automobiles and 133 motorcycles that he keeps in a hangar near the airport in the Los Angeles suburb of Burbank.
“They’re all insured, and they’re all on the road,” he told me. “I’ve got six full-time mechanics, and it’s great for them because instead of a whole bunch of idiot customers, they’ve got just one. And they don’t have any pressure — it’s not that anything has to be done at any particular time around here.”
Leno insists that despite what you might read or hear elsewhere, he doesn’t have a particular favourite and usually drives back and forth to home each day in — or on — a different vehicle.
“I wouldn’t have all these cars if I had a favourite,” he said. “This morning, I drove a ’53 Hudson Hornet here. I like it because it’s the last vestige of the old school — there’s no power steering, there’s no power brakes. You get a sense of mechanicalness.
“I’m one of those people who enjoys winding the clock on the nightstand before going to bed. I enjoy hearing the clicks; I enjoy the mechanicalness of that instrument. You can buy a battery-powered clock and it would be 100 per cent more accurate but it just doesn’t have that feel, that sense of mechanicalness, and that’s what I enjoy.”
And then we talked about his affection for tinkering with his vehicles.
“When you’re working on something, you tend to work on it till it’s fixed,” he said. “Then you move on to the next thing that’s broken — at least, that’s what I do.
“I don’t drive that much. I drive here and I drive home. I probably work on a car for five hours and then drive it for half an hour to see if it’s OK and then I move on to the next thing. It’s not like I’m sitting here taking turns driving all these cars.”
Leno also drew a distinction between using a car for pleasure or for transportation.
“What I’m driving is way more important then where I’m going,” he said. “I usually have no idea where I’m going; I just go and drive around. I could care less where I’m going just as long as I’m driving something interesting.”
Leno drew some comparisons between doing standup comedy in a nightclub — or a show like tonight’s Trillium appearance — and doing physical labour in a garage.
“The heart is happiest when the head and the hands work together,” he noted. “You work in show business and you use your head and you do things and you go to the garage and you work with your hands and you do things.
“And when you work with your hands, you truly appreciate how easy it is to make money working with your head. Your head doesn’t hurt after you do a comedy show, but after you take a transmission out and put it back in, you realize some guy just made 80 bucks for doing that, and you think, ‘Man, that’s a tough way to make a living.’
“It keeps you humble, I think.”
While Leno likes the Hudson Hornets of the world, and the Shelby Mustangs and the Bugattis, he has a fully open mind when it comes to electrification and electric vehicles. He thinks it’s all part and parcel of continuing to make the planet a cleaner and more hospitable place.
“What people don’t realize is that a 1977 Ford LTD parked on the street with the engine off pollutes more than a new 2018 Ford going down the highway at 70 miles an hour,” he said.
“The old car was made of plastics and all that. You leave an old car out in the sun, you come back and you find that all your inside windows are fogged up because it’s the gas coming out of the plastics and the adhesives. That doesn’t exist anymore; you don’t have that problem anymore.
“So, the gains are like watching the hands of a clock. If you watch it week-to-week, it doesn’t seem like much, but over 20 or 30 years, there’s been tremendous improvements.
“If you want to watch improvement, you watch nature. You go back to Rachel Carson and Silent Spring and where did all the birds go and they’re back. The East River in New York City has fish in it again. It hasn’t had fish in it for 50 years. I mean, that’s really a good sign. Look, it’s not perfect; I’m not naive. But it seems to be moving in the right direction.”
Leno said he’s fascinated by what’s happening today with young people and cars.
“This is interesting,” he said. “I was doing a (Jay Leno’s Garage) show on prodigies, young people who are doing interesting car stuff. I met a kid named Adam Lansing. He bought a 1980 Toyota Celica when he was 12 and it had no engine or transmission and he converted it to an electric car.
“When I was a kid, you put a big V8 or a Corvette engine or something in a ’32 Ford and now kids are starting to do electric hot-rodding. When I was a kid, everybody knew something about a car. Now, you have a lot of kids who don’t know anything. The ones that do, though, know everything. It’s amazing how smart they are. They’re still making the car go faster but it’s an electric engine instead of an internal-combustion engine.”
Which doesn’t bother Leno at all.
“I think electrification is going very well,” he said. “It’s a natural extension of what’s been happening. I mean, I’m one of those people who believes that engineers will save the world. When I came to Los Angeles in the 1970s, there were 160 days a year when they told you not to go outside because the pollution was so bad. Now, here it is 40 years later, you have easily five to 10 times the number of cars with less than a tenth of the pollution.
“I mean, it’s not the cleanest air in the world, obviously, but it’s way better, and we don’t have smog days anymore when they tell you not to go outside and not to exercise. I mean, it’s all good.”
Leno might be a comedian who looks at the world — or seems to look at the world — with a cynical eye, but when he has a serious chat with somebody, he is all common sense. Take semi-autonomous cars, soon-to-be autonomous, for example. He’s all for ’em.
“I like everything about driver assist,” he said. “When power steering came in, people said, ‘I don’t trust power steering, because I can’t feel the road.’ Well, power steering is now the way to go. People didn’t like ABS brakes and now they’re standard. People fought against seatbelts. I could never understand any of that.
“You can’t stop progress. I had a cousin who’s dead because he fell asleep at the wheel. It was 1986, and he was working all day and he dozed off and the car went off the road. If he’d had an autonomous car, it would have started beeping or the horn would have been honking or it would have self-corrected and he would have caught himself.”
Leno said it all comes down to semantics and that autonomous cars are already here, it’s just that the auto industry doesn’t want to say so.
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “Most cars are autonomous now. People are putting on lipstick or eating sandwiches or reading the paper and they’re not paying attention. At least with a computer, it only has one job and that’s to drive the car. If the car starts to stray, it tells you, or bumps you back into line, which is terrific.
“I ride motorcycles, and when I pulled into an intersection in the old days, I would make eye contact with the guy on the other side of the road. I would do a little head nod and they’d do a head nod and I’d be good to go because I know he sees me.
“Now, you pull into an intersection and as soon as the car starts to slow down, people’s heads go into their lap and they’re not looking anymore. They’re looking at their phone. So, for me, anything that saves lives, I’ll take it.”
Leno said that for some people, fully autonomous cars will be a good thing.
“People who are handicapped, or are too nervous to drive, will find it to be a wonderful thing. But if you want to drive, you’ll always be able to drive. You can override those things.”
Having said that, he’s perplexed by people who appear to be threatened by autonomous cars, or cars that help to drive themselves.
“Let me give you an example, he said. “If you’ve flown on an airplane in the last 30 years, there’s nobody flying that plane. They put two guys up there who assist in the takeoff and the landing but there’s nobody flying that plane after it gets above 150 feet. It’s all computerized.
“So, if you trust autonomous driving at 30,000 feet, it’s silly not to trust it at six feet. Don’t ya think?”
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