(CNN)It would be a getaway driver’s worst nightmare: A car that doesn’t start with a simple turn of the key. This one needs a bit of patience and — I daresay — an awful lot of practice.
We all take for granted how easy cars are to drive in the 21st century, but in the years following World War I, you pretty much had to be an engineer just to get moving on the road.
I’m sitting in the passenger seat of a 1920 Stutz Bearcat, an icon of the roaring ’20s. It’s an open-top beast of an automobile and my chauffeur is priming us for departure. He’s using a lever to manually pump air into the engine, carefully monitoring a gauge so that when the pressure hits one pound he flicks a switch and we’re good to go.
He’s not just any old driver by the way, he’s Jay Leno. He’s one of the most famous comedians and television talk show hosts in the US, but he’s arguably more comfortable with an oily rag and a bunch of engine parts scattered across a workshop floor.
Since he began fooling around with a 1934 Ford pickup truck at the age of 14, Leno has enjoyed a lifelong love affair with cars. He’s collected and restored hundreds from every era in the industry’s history and is a walking encyclopedia on all of them.
Showbiz made him wealthy, but it’s the cars that truly enrich his life.
Anyway, back to our little jaunt in the Bearcat.
I’m mildly concerned to discover that there is a dearth of seat belts to restrain us in the event of any mishap, but Leno is unperturbed.
Firstly, he’s not legally obliged to have any because the car rolled off the production line decades before the advent of road safety laws in the US, but perhaps more likely because it never bothered anyone at the time the car was made.
“Back in the day,” he chuckled, gesticulating a high, angled trajectory, “they preferred to be thrown clear.”
As we pulled out of his vast collector’s garage and onto a distinctly 21st-century California road, I fancied that my chances of a successful launch from the passenger’s side were infinitely better than his, since he was wedged in behind an enormous steering wheel. It wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Titanic.
We gathered speed quickly, or at least the feel of speed. With the wind whistling through our hair, 30 miles per hour seemed like 60. It seemed a good time to inquire about the state of the brakes.
As Leno tooted and waved to the pedestrians on the sidewalk, he informed me that the best way to drive the car is to pretend it doesn’t have any brakes at all: “I prefer to employ accident avoidance technology.”
My curiosity was piqued — behind us at the garage was a collection worth an absolute fortune.
Leno says he doesn’t have a favorite — if he did then he wouldn’t have “all these cars” — but he will concede that his McLaren F1 is the first he’d save in a fire.
He bought it for $800,000; it’s now worth $12 million.
The topic of insurance inevitably came up. “They’re not as expensive to insure as you’d think,” he explained.
“Most accidents are caused by distractions. When you see one of these coming down the road, there’s no way that you’re not paying attention.”
Observing the respectable distance afforded us at every junction, I concurred. “Secondly, owners of cars like these are very careful,” Leno continued. “When I take my wife out to dinner, if we can’t park right outside then we’re not eating there. Case closed!”
One factor certainly resonated: “Most people wouldn’t even know how to start these cars, so if you can get it going then you can take it.”
Each car, a story
Many of his cars have intriguing ownership histories and Leno is often tempted to make an investment based simply on the lives that have been associated with them.
He once bought a 1967 Chrysler Imperial from an old Hollywood producer and his eccentric actress wife. He wasn’t too bothered about buying it until they opened another garage with “extra bumpers, replacement windshield, everything you’d need in case of an accident. So now I have to buy the car, it’s a great story.”
Then there was the 1951 Hudson Hornet. “I already had one, but this 94-year-old lady called me and said it was the only family car they’d ever owned. They drove it across country from New Jersey to California to start a new life, but since her husband had died it had been sitting in the driveway for 20 years.”
Leno bought it for $5,000 and spent two years restoring it. He was pleasantly surprised to learn that she was still alive and so he took her for a spin.
“The two kids came along, who by now were 70 and 72, and before long they were mock fighting in the back. She was turning around and pretending to slap the crap out of them, saying ‘I told you to settle down!’ They were having so much fun, they got to recreate a piece of their childhood.”
Nobody gets to own just one family car for decades without taking good care of it, but I doubt that any of the previous owners have been anywhere near as careful as Leno.
The restored Bearcat, for example, has never even got wet. He doesn’t take it out in the rain and so it doesn’t ever need washing. “I just wipe it down with a cloth,” he explained “and in this dry California climate, it’ll never rust.”
‘Better than the stock market’
As we return to the garage with a triumphant toot of the klaxon, it’s clear that Leno is in his element.
He doesn’t consider himself to be a collector, simply a car enthusiast who never sells any of his possessions.
“What would be the point of selling them?” he asked rhetorically. “I’d then have a big bag of green but what would I do with that?”
Overall, the collection is worth tens of millions, but he certainly isn’t in it for the money — many of his projects make a loss.
“The way this works,” he chuckled, ” is that you buy the car for $5,000, spend $60,000 doing it up and then it’s worth $12,500. At least it’s better than the stock market!”
I expected to be wowed by the cars, and I was. I expected to be entertained by one of the most iconic personalities in American television history, and I certainly was. However I wasn’t necessarily expecting my Hollywood host to be so humble.
Leno has spent much of his professional life in a world of air kisses and false platitudes. His love of cars is what keeps him grounded.
“When you work with your hands, you appreciate how easy it is to make money in show business. I’m in a business which is really subjective — some people think you’re funny because you’re a comedian, others think you’re terrible.
“They’re both right because it’s a matter of taste. But when something’s broken and you fix it, nobody can say it’s not running.”