Jay Leno's Tips for Collecting Classic Cars
February 23, 2010 12:00 AM
Finding a quality collector ride takes detective work—and an ear for a good story.
Every antique-automobile enthusiast dreams about finding a long-lost car in some garage or barn. A forgotten treasure just waiting for someone — you — to rediscover. At least that's the dream. But it doesn't happen very often.
I believe if you just go out looking for old cars, not for any particular model, you're more likely to find a car you want. I think all the Duesenbergs have been discovered; all the Cobras are present and accounted for, and the locations of all the C-Type Jags and the D-Type Jags are pretty much known. But there still are a lot of other exciting cars out there.
If you enjoy doing the legwork — the detective work — you just might find something neat. It's no different from going antiquing with your wife on a Saturday afternoon. It's just that you're hunting for cool cars instead of creaky old furniture and another collectible Elvis plate.
You never know where you'll stumble on an old vehicle. Take my 1941 American LaFrance firetruck. State-of-the-art for its day, it was bought new by Warner Bros. as their studio-lot truck. In the early '50s, Warner Bros. donated it to the City of Burbank, which kept it around for decades. One day the Burbank fire chief called me and said, "Hey, we've got this old firetruck. Do you want it?" Naturally, I said, "Yeah, sure." It only had 11,000 miles on it! It had never even been plated. So I became the first registered owner and got a fairly rare V12 collector firetruck — as a gift — because it wasn't worth anything to the owners.
The trick is, you can't be a snob. You've got to be open to the weird stuff that has an interesting story.
And people love sending me letters about weird stuff. Lots of times people think these cars are really valuable. But usually the letter goes something like: "I have a very rare Emilio Pucci edition 1976 Ford Granada — one of the few with the full wire-wheel hubcaps and white landau roof." But every now and then, there's something that's a little bit more interesting.
A few years back I received a letter from a woman in her 90s; she'd gotten married in a 1951 Hornet. In fact, it was the only car she and her husband had ever owned. After he died in 1996, the Hornet was parked in her garage. I went to look at it. Physically, it was fine. Mechanically, it was worn out. It had gone more than 260,000 miles. But it was all there. Every receipt was in the glove compartment. So I bought the Hornet. But really, I was buying the story more than I bought the actual car.
Don't be disappointed if what you find isn't some rare collector piece. Let's say you come across a '56 Chevy or a '55 Ford two-door with a three-on-the-tree and a 292-cu.-in. V8. These cars are fun to drive. They give you an experience that can't be duplicated with today's cars. For stuff like this you can pay anywhere from $1200 to about $5000. With a little bit of elbow grease, you have a collector car that's a great weekend cruiser. And you never know, there may even be a little history behind it.
Any car can be a collector car, if you collect it. People always say, "Buy the best car you can afford." That's nice ... if you're rich. You don't have to buy a spotless, multiple-concours-winning example to have some fun in this hobby. Just buy a driver. Or buy a wreck. A friend of mine has a Bugatti. It's completely rotted out. You couldn't possibly restore it. But he bought it, and now he's in the Bugatti Club. His car is literally a burned-out hulk. It would take a gazillion dollars to restore it. But he can say he's got a Bugatti. He rescued it.
I never really understood why people buy Harlequin romance novels. You know the ones: A lady meets a man who seems to be an innocuous guy but later turns out to be a prince. They have titles like So-and-So's First Date, or They Met at the Market. Why does anybody read this stuff?
But that's exactly the kind of romantic relationship you can have with old cars. You see one; you pine for it; you dream about what it'll be like when it's fixed up. So searching for cars is like the plots in those Harlequin novels. The best advice I can give is to find the oldest garage or gas station in your town. Go talk to the owner. Ask him if he has customers who haven't been in for a long time. Do they have an interesting car? Maybe there's a '69 Bonneville or some other model like that just waiting to be discovered.
If you like old things, I recommend that you talk to old guys. Seek them out. They were all young guys once. And a lot of them don't have any family left; they just want to see the love of their life, the car they were always going to restore — but never got around to — go to a good home.
Price is always a consideration, so don't expect these guys to give away their pride and joy. They want a fair deal, but they certainly aren't looking to get rich either. For a lot of these guys, it's more about the car going to the right garage — yours. So ask around the local old folks' home and talk to old folks. "Hey, didja' ever have an old car?" They might say: "Oh yeah, the old people next door to us had an old car. Now what the hell was that?"
So you go to that house and maybe there's something cool in the garage, like a '49 Nash Airflyte. Maybe it's a Hudson Hornet buried under 45 years of barn dust. Maybe it's something equally interesting.
But you have to take the initiative. There are people who'd like you to have their car. You just have to find them.
By Jay Leno
Photograph by John Lamm
Published in the July 2007 issue of Popular Mechanics.