Cars That Require Muscle - Article
March 30, 2010 12:00 AM
I don't do any vintage car racing. I just don't have the need. I'm always amused at rich guys who think, "If you can afford the car, you must be a good racer." Not necessarily. People don't realize it, but guys like Dan Gurney and Stirling Moss were true athletes—just like Mark McGwire and Michael Jordan. It's said that Stirling Moss could read newsprint at 20 ft. And the instincts of these serious racing guys. . .they go out on the track and they come back in and they say, "Oh, I need a quarter pound of pressure on the right front tire," and I'm out there going, "What's that thumping noise?. . .Oh my gosh, I've got a flat."
I've tried racing. At the Toyota Grand Prix a few years ago, I'm sitting on the grid, killing time, and I see Parnelli Jones. He's kneeling down beside his car, shaving his tires with a hand file! I think "Uh oh, I'm in the wrong game." Then the race starts and I get behind Dan Gurney. I figure I'll just do what he does—you know, brake when he brakes, turn where he turns. . .just stay with him. The first lap I'm doing good. Then Dan Gurney disappears. Next thing you know, I look in my rear view mirror and there's Gurney!
Just 'cause you can afford something doesn't mean you're good at it.
When you own a lot of powerful cars, you're not tempted to go racing. I've got a plain-Jane-looking, but very powerful 1966 Dodge Coronet Hemi. This is a fascinating machine. You see how primitive it is—there isn't even a dual brake master cylinder. When I first got this thing, I'd drive it, and it would never shift out of Second. It would go along and go Eeeeeeeeeeee.I'd take my foot off the gas, and then it would shift. So finally I went to a Chrysler guy and said, "I like this car, but it's just not shifting." He said, "What's it doing?" I said, "It just winds up." He said, "No, no, they don't shift until well over six grand. Just keep your foot in it." I said, "Are you sure?" He said, "Yeah, just take it out." I said, "All right." And I go, Eeeeeeeeeeee, Bam!It winds up really high. . .and then, Bam!it shifts. Later there were GTXs, beep-beep horns and hood scoops and girls in the front, but this is the one that I like.
My big Packard Straight Eight Clipper limo is a traffic-stopper. It just looks like a piece out of a '40s movie. It's got a nine-main-bearing motor. The great thing about it is, it's a 1947, so it predates power steering and power brakes. But, everything is nicely weighted. It's a very nice driving car. You feel like a kid, sitting in your dad's lap, and he lets you hold the steering wheel (which nowadays, if you did, you're branded an unfit parent and your child is taken away from you). You can put everybody you know in this car and go places, and you can still pick up a few strangers.
I love Bugattis. They're fun because they're the exact opposite of the Bentleys and Duesenbergs: lightweight, high-revving—the power comes on the opposite side. My little supercharged Type 37A Bugatti is another treat. Nothing sounds like it. It makes a wonderful mechanical noise. It actually barks at people. Compared to the big Bentley, it's more like a go-kart. You can dart in this car, which you can't do in a big heavy Bentley.
People always want to know how I've chosen the cars I have. Truthfully, there's no general theme. I just see something. If it catches my eye, well, it's like a pretty girl. But I'm quite happy with everything I have. I really don't lust for any other things. But, if I do see one, "Oh, that's nice, it seems like it might work out …" Well, that's cool.
And my wife Mavis is very tolerant of this passion. It's cheaper than hookers and cocaine. I always say most guys in Hollywood have 53 girlfriends and one car, and I have 53 cars and one girlfriend. She always knows where I am. I'm in the garage. "What's that fragrance?" "It's steam oil, honey. It's not cheap perfume." It's great fun, and there's a sense of history to all this stuff. I believe we don't really own these cars. We just keep them for the next owners.
I'm amazed how many young people have no idea what these classics are like to drive—even guys who know cars. As the generations pass, so few people take this stuff out and really run it. They don't know anything about it. When I was getting gas one day with the Mercer, some kids asked me what year the car was. I said, "1913." They said, "Yeah, right." They didn't believe cars existed in 1913. They didn't believe there was gasoline in 1913.
Steve Earle (organizer of the Monterey Historic Races) and I were together with a new 1998 Corvette. He's got a '62. I said, "So, what do you think about this new Corvette?" He said, "This is nice, it's very good. But they're just not home. You don't bond with the car. Everything works so beautifully, it's wonderful. But there's something missing."
Driving a new XK8 Jaguar, I look down and we're doing 100 mph but it's so smooth we might as well be doing 30 mph. One day I'm on Mulholland Drive in my Morgan three-wheeler and it's ka-bang, ka-bang… it's like driving a machine gun. There's wind blowing, engine clattering, oil everywhere from the exposed valve springs. I come around the corner, the rear tire's hopping and there's this cop standing with a radar gun. I go, "I'm screwed. Oh jeeeeez, oh man, I'm going to have to do some fast talking." As I go by him, I realize I'm only going 35 mph and he watches me like a hawk. He couldn't miss me—he's just sitting there. And I came around like woo. . .woo.But he just waves like this, "Hey, man." I'm like the only guy on the road obeying the law and I'm scared to death. That's the great thing about this old stuff. In fact, the Morgan is the only car where I've been scared to death being passed by a lady in a Honda who's putting on her lipstick.
You drive my old Jaguar XK120, with the cut-down doors, 60 mph feels like 80 or 90. It's fun. You can reach down and touch the ground, like the Mercer. You see a paper cup in the road, you can pick the wheel you want to hit it with. With modern cars and even motorcycles, like you can't see anything. To me, that's the great fun to this stuff. Plus, you can earn your horsepower with old cars. You buy something and it's got 100 hp and then you do this and you play with it and you've got 110, and then you put these custom headers on, you've got 120. You can't do that to modern cars anymore. You go to a speed shop now and they sell you a sound system or maybe some fancy wheels. Or a chip. . .a chip!With old cars, at least you have some say over your destiny.
Another thing about modern cars: You get into a Corvette on a twisty road and you nail the gas and pass a Honda Accord. You just go sailing along, you get to the end of it, you stop and 2 seconds later, the Honda Accord's right there. I'm not talking ten/tenths here, but on a regular two-lane, given modern technology, there's not much difference between a high-performance car and a regular car. Not anymore.
I remember one day I was up at the Rock Store and all these guys show up. A guy was up there, Jay Springsteen or some famous motorcycle racing guy, and he was driving a box-stock Harley 883 Sportster. He really went up those twisties. He left the guys on modern bikes in the dust. You quickly realize, "I'm not good enough for most of these modern cars." A new F50 Ferrari: I'm sorry, I am probably not physically capable of taking this car anywhere near its limit. What fun is that? It's a bit like trying to have sex with an aerobics instructor. I'm exhausted, I'm out of breath and she's looking at her watch.
I have the kind of vehicles where people are amazed that I was physically able to get to my destination.
You pull up somewhere in a 90-year-old steam car, it's not how fast you got there. People are amazed that you got there at all. That's what I like—where the expectation is that you couldn't even get to the place in the car. Not how you did sliding through the twisties.
When it comes to modern cars, I think Chrysler is doing the right thing with the Viper. It's an impossible-looking V10-powered animal. It only comes with a stick. It's like they made it for me and nobody else. But I don't know how many people there are like me. I'm sort of the odd man out.
Other car companies let me test their new cars, and they'll say, "What did you think of the sound system?" I answer, "I didn't get a chance to play the radio." That doesn't interest me. And that's why I like the Viper. I think the future is really in this boutique, niche kind of thing. A company like Chrysler, they build one car less than people want, and the buyers all go nuts. How many Vipers are there, 1600 or so coupes? Yet, it's on the covers of everything. You see it everywhere. One Viper sells a lot of Neons.
That's the way they used to sell cars when I was a kid. I guess I'm still stuck in the '60s.
By Jay Leno
Via: Published in the July 1999 issue of Popular Mechanics.