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Leno To Be Lauded

Distinguished car collector also has some TV experience.

by on May.29, 2009

What makes Jay run - or drive - could it be keeping up his incredible car collection?

What makes Jay run - or drive - could it be keeping up his incredible car collection?

Like most celebrities, Jay Leno has learned to smile politely and pen a quick autograph, but if you want to really get his attention, ask him about his car collection.

The lantern-jawed comedian’s vast assemblage fills two hangars at the Burbank Airport and the new home he’s building, in Orange County, has a garage as large as some corporate office buildings.  So, while the 59-year-old Leno may be giving up his seat on the set of the Tonight Show with this evening’s special farewell, he’ll likely only spend more time tinkering on a collection that includes everything from Duesenbergs to Lamborghinis to a jet-powered motorcycle and a tank-engined 30-foot hot rod.

A regular – and repeat winner – at tony events like the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the NBC host has gotten an offer he can’t refuse.  Leno will receive the “La Bella Macchina’ award at the 24thAnnual Italian Celebration of Style.  It’s part of the Concorso Italiano, which helps kick off the “Pebble Beach weekend,” which draws some of the world’s top cars and collectors.

“Jay is the international face of the ultimate car guy and has been an enthusiastic ambassador for the hobby for more than 30 years,” says Concorso owner, Tom McDowell. “Jay’s eclectic taste knows no boundaries, other than making sure it has four wheels and a great history. He’s a hands-on, passionate guy who’s not afraid to get a little dirt under his fingernails and he has everything we look for in an honoree.  He’s the car guy’s car guy.”

“I wanted to build a modern car that didn’t run on fossil fuel,” explained Jay Leno, at the 2006 unveiling of the turbojet-powered EcoJet he designed with help from General Motors, “but (also) didn’t drive like a Prius."  He later admitted it would need more bio-diesel to run the sports car "than an Amish farm could produce in a year."

“I wanted to build a modern car that didn’t run on fossil fuel,” explained Jay Leno, at the 2006 unveiling of the turbojet-powered EcoJet he designed with help from General Motors, “but (also) didn’t drive like a Prius." He later admitted it would need more bio-diesel to run the sports car "than an Amish farm could produce in a year."

In fact, concedes Leno, his wife, Mavis, often has to bring dinner to Jay’s “garage,” if she hopes to see him more than every other week.  Leno’s interest in cars dates back to his days as a struggling comedian on the East Coast.  “I’ve never sold a car,” he insisted, during a conversation several years ago.  Indeed, while Leno admits to owning, “maybe a 100 cars or so,” some of his friends suggest the number is significantly larger, with the odd Lambo or Bugatti tucked into odd corners of various storage facilities.

Leno is a tough competitor at events like the Pebble Beach Concours, but he’s not the classic “trailer queen,” who buys a rare or exotic automobile to only show at car shows and then park away in a hermetically-sealed garage.  While “he’ll fix something up til it’s a real 100-pointer,” says a friend, referring to a perfect score at the demanding event, “he’ll then start driving it until it’s time to fix it up again.”

Several years ago, Leno showed up in a pre-War Duesenberg he “pulled it out of a barn,” he explained with a broad smile. Its original owner tucked it away back in 1947, after some mechanical problems, and ultimately “lost interest.” The man’s daughter didn’t even know what was in the barn in an old section of the LA suburb of Burbank until it was opened up last August. Once Leno got the engine cleaned up and running again, he began using the Doozie for the daily commute to tape the Tonight show.

Collectors converge: ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and Jay Leno and a classic Lamborghini Miura.

Collectors converge: ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and Jay Leno and a classic Lamborghini Miura.

Leno is known to make some extravagant and wacky modifications, such as the tank-powered hot rod.  One of his more sophisticated efforts was conducted with the help of General Motors.  The 2-seat EcoJet sports car is powered by a helicopter turbojet and runs on biodiesel, though “more than an Amish farm could produce in a year,” he admitted, during its 2006 unveiling.

When asked how much the project cost, Leno looped his eyes and gave the coy smile that he has used during his 17-year tenure on the Tonight Show, to loosen up stiff guests, and admitted, “I’m not sure. I’m afraid my wife would find out.  I am president of the more money than brains club.”

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