By Alan Paradise | Photos courtesy of General Motors & Alan Paradise
Each year there is a special weekend like no other time or place on earth: three days that celebrate the automobile in a small, beautiful coastal area of California called Monterey. During those three days, the most exotic and rare cars ever produced are on display. Many race in a sportsman competition, while others bring their passion and significant investments to show at the Concorso Italiano or Pebble Beach Concours dElegance. The rich and famous show up as do the whos who of corporate America, not to mention a growing crowd of about 100,000 enthusiasts.
Here is where true auto enthusiasts distinguish themselves from among the posers. Jay Leno, a man who is the car guys car guy, comes each year as a fan as well as a participant. Without an entourage, agents or bodyguards, Leno can be seen casually strolling at the Concorso Italiano, visiting the pits at the Monterey Historic Race and engaging in casual conversation with other car owners at Pebble Beach.
Each year, Leno returns to Monterey to take in all three major events as well as attend the auctions and smaller gatherings. Nearly each year, he brings a special car from his collection to show at Pebble Beach. His fleet of remarkably maintained classics includes several Duesenbergs, Bugattis, Bentleys and Packards, some of which have been driven across the winners podium as Best in Show.
Leno is often called the ultimate car guy, but he is somewhat modest about this accolade. I dont know about the ultimate car guy. Im a guy who loves cars and motorcycles, responded Leno.
Lenos automotive roots began at a young age in Southern California after his family moved from Andover, Massachusetts. Unlike a celebrity who is trying to be a car guy, Leno is a car guy who happened to become a celebrity. As he explained, I have always loved cars of all types. When I was young, I worked at Ford, Mercedes and Rolls dealerships because I thought Id never be able to afford these kinds of cars, so at least I could work around them. At age 14, before he was employed in the auto industry, Leno paid 350 hard-earned dollars for his first car, a 1934 Ford truck. My plan was to fix it up and have it ready to drive on the street (legally) when I turned 16. He reached his goal, as modest as it was.
The biggest clue that Leno is not a superficial car owner, simply because he has the means to indulge his every motoring whim, is that he is a student of automotive history, engineering and advanced technology. When engaged in conversation, he is not shy about conveying his knowledge. Looking back, it seems so odd to me to be a 16-year-old in 1964 and driving around a 34 Ford with mechanical brakes, no seatbelts and a primitive suspension. Cars have changed so much over the years; in fact, cars have changed more from 1980 to today than they did from 1900 to 1980, he remarked.
As much as Leno is a student of the automobile, he is first and foremost an enthusiast. His collection features some of the most prestigious cars ever produced. As priceless as some of his cars are, however, he doesnt keep any one of them hidden in the garage. Everything I have is on the road, and I drive everything.
The Leno auto collection (he resists calling his vehicles a collection) is quite extensive, with various years, makes and modelsfrom Stanley Steamers to the latest Viper, Ford GT and a McLaren. With an eclectic taste, which type of car really gets his blood racing? With wrinkled brow, he answered. I like cars that were ahead of their time. To me, drivability has always been the factor. I have some Duesenbergs, and the great thing about them is that you get on the road, put your foot down, and you can drive in modern traffic, going 60 or 70 down the freeway. I dont have to apologize and wave people around, Sorry, go around me, which you sometimes have to do with old cars. A Duesenberg was a supercar in its time and it will easily do 90 to 100mph. By todays standards, its still fast; its just a different type of fast.