Jay Leno: Respect the Car Guy, and Other Tales of Obsessive Auto Fans
July 1, 2008 4:05 PM
By Jay Leno
Photographs by John Lamm
Published in the July 2008 issue of Popular Mechanics.
One day I was driving my 1955 Buick Roadmaster and spotted two older, gray-haired guys (meaning they were probably my age) in a 1956 Buick, a lot like my car. They were wearing hats and satin jackets with Buick logos on them. As soon as they spotted me, the driver started waving, honking his horn and shouting, "Hey, nice car! We're Buick guys, too. Follow us!"
So I followed them to a house in the San Fernando Valley that had a couple of '50s-era Buicks in the front yard. We went in through the back door to the kitchen, and there was a double sink. One of the sinks was filled with carburetor cleaner, and car parts were soaking in it.
Then, I noticed none of the cabinets had doors, and they were filled with carburetor parts from old Buicks, all carefully labeled with tags saying what they were. As we moved throughout the house, Buick fenders, wheels, tires and other stuff were all stacked up.
So I said to the guy who seemed to be the homeowner, "Single man, are you?" He responded, "Yeah, how'd you know? The wife left eight years ago. Now I can do what I want and collect my Buick stuff."
My dad always said, "If you're gonna learn something, become an expert in that field." I always assumed most car enthusiasts were like me. I like anything that rolls, explodes and makes noise. Motorcycles, cars, steam engines, tractors; I love 'em all.
But that's not always true. Sometimes you can be an expert by focusing all of your attention on one thing, like the Buick guys.
They are the modern-day equivalents of these medieval monks I read about as a kid who spent their time squirreling away all of these treasures that seemed hardly worth anything at the time. I've met tons of these people.
They are like the characters from Ray Bradbury's book Fahrenheit 451, where society has gone crazy and is burning books, so these people memorize one book apiece so all the great literature is preserved.
I've got a friend who loves Hemis. He knows everything about them, even the paint codes. He can decipher any factory data plate or VIN number. He can just look at an engine and tell you, "This was made on a Thursday by Bob Johnson, who busted his right thumb with a ball-peen hammer during the build." He knows everything about them.
One time when he was in my garage, I said, "Let me show you my Duesenbergs." And he said, "I've heard of them. German, right?" I said, "No, they're American." As we walked through my garage, I realized that he knew nothing about anything but Hemis. He isn't a car enthusiast at all; he's a Hemi enthusiast, and that's it!
I have a 1958 B24 Lancia Aurelia convertible. I needed some parts for it. So I found this guy in Pennsylvania. There can't be more than 15 or 20 of these cars in the whole country. Maybe there's a few more. But are there enough to support a business? This man simply collected these parts for a long time, waiting for somebody like me who needs them to show up. I'm so grateful to the guys who do this.
You expect people to collect Duesenberg and Ferrari parts, because there's a lot of money in them. But the guys who fascinate me are the ones who collect parts for Cushman Scooters, Nash Metropolitans and Ford Model Ts. No matter what you're into, there's someone out there who's into it so much more than you are it's not even close.
So if you own a particular vehicle, you seek out these gurus. They'll grill you to see if you know the minutiae, the ins and outs, and you'd better know your stuff or they're not going to talk to you again. They're not always profit-motivated. And they're not going to sell you any parts if they don't think you're serious about doing the thing properly. They're like those medieval monks, but they're living among us today.
I get mail at the Tonight Show from guys who say, "I'm in my 80s; I don't have any children. And I've had this particular thing since I was a kid." Like this man from Iowa who saw on my Web site that I have a Model T Ford. So he sent me a Model T parts book he's had since he was 14 years old. He never had enough money to buy a Model T; he still doesn't. At age 88, he realized he'll never get one. So he mailed me his manual, because he wanted it to go to a good home.
There's all kinds of hoarders like that. But here's the clincher: When I talk to young people and tell them these stories, I realize—uh oh, I'm one of these guys. The only difference is that I still have doors on my kitchen cabinets.