BURBANK, CALIFORNIA—Trust me, hanging out at Jay Leno’s Big Dog Garage is a lot like wasting a perfectly good afternoon at Car Talk Plaza, though the latter doesn’t smell quite so strongly of motor oil and aged leather. I had been invited to drop by Leno’s kid-in-a-candy-store car collection for an interview about my book High Voltage: The Fast Track to Plug in the Auto Industry (Rodale), which comes out November 8.
Ohmigosh. Whatever you think about this collection, you’re probably not dreaming large enough dreams. It’s not just that it features splendidly restored vehicles from every era back to the dawn of motoring, there are also such amazing artifacts as room-sized 19th century steam engines and one-of-a-kind Benz-Mercedes (not a typo) race cars with aircraft engines. I wandered around with the look of a happy idiot on my face.
It’s amazing to me that a guy like Leno, who does TV five days a week, would also be willing to film back-to-back segments for the garage website. But there he was, in jeans, holding forth with car folk from all over the world, including some good-natured Aussies who’d developed suspension upgrades for muscle cars, and a team from Rapidform, whose 3D scanning tools let you form a brand-new auto part from a rusty, useless but irreplaceable original.
Then it was my turn. Leno and I sat on stools in front of his Chevy Volt, which has somehow managed to accumulate 10,000 miles (all but about 130 of them electric) in the few short months he’s owned it. We bantered about the plug-in future of the automobile. Leno wants all-electric EVs to solve the range thing, but he’s definitely a battery fan. “Electricity is like sex,” Leno says. “People lie about it.”
The previous night, I’d encountered Leno behind the wheel of his 1909 Baker Electric (110 miles on a charge, 25 mph top speed!) at the theatrical premiere of the new film Revenge of the Electric Car. He’s often seen around town with the Baker, but had a lot of fun with the Tesla Roadster Sport, too.
Leno gave me a tour of the collection, and I got a huge kick out of his steam cars, which included a whole room full of Stanleys, Whites and Dobles, as well as a truly stupendous 1906 Advance steam tractor sized for giants (13 tons!), and a mid-60s steam car from Pontiac that remains one of a kind. Bill Lear, responsible for the Lear Jet and eight-track tape, was also a modern steam enthusiast but didn’t get too far with his experiments. The Age of Steam is not forgotten in this collection.
Like the best car museums, this collection would take days to take in properly. I didn’t have days, but I did get to see these highlights:
1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing with race history.
I have always lusted after the 300SL, and once passed up a chance to buy a Roadster version for $30,000. Of course, I didn’t have $30,000, but I would promptly have increased my money more than tenfold with that investment. But Leno has a better story than mine. He told Popular Mechanics, “When I was in college in 1969, working for a Mercedes-Benz dealer, we took one in trade. We gave the guy $5,500 for it, which seemed like a lot of money back then. Within 10 days, we’d sold it for $7,200. We thought we’d pulled off quite a con job ... we got 7200 bucks for that thing.” Leno’s example saw competition, and was put into storage in the California desert in the 1970s. What a find; everybody wants one of these. An unrestored '62 convertible recently sold for $951,500.
1937 Bugatti 57 SC Atlantic Coupe Replica.
Only four cars were made to Jean Bugatti’s incredibly sexy design (dig that riveted spine!), and three still exist. One of them is the Ralph Lauren car you may have seen around. (I’ve encountered it at the Greenwich Concours.) Jay’s supercharged car is an exacting replica, built on an original Bugatti chassis. Something like 120 mph is possible, though you wouldn’t want to do it in a car worth millions, would you? Leno also showed me another 1920s Bugatti replica he owns, a beautiful piece built, I believe he said, in Argentina.
963/64 Chrysler Gas Turbine Car.
In 1964, I was taken by my parents to the World’s Fair in New York, where I encountered this copper-colored beauty, styled by Italy’s Ghia. It was love at first sight. I admired its futuristic looks, its copper color, its science-fiction power plant (with a fifth the moving parts of gas engines, and no oil changes), everything. Some 50 were made and handed over to 200 average Joe motorists in a test program. Results weren’t totally satisfying, and the program wasn’t continues. Forty six of the cars were destroyed, and only two are now in private hands—one of them being Jay’s. He told me he was similarly captivated by the car when he was a kid, though it’s no great revelation on the road.
I never got around to asking Jay what he plans to do with this car, which is among the more utilitarian vehicles in the collection. This one hasn’t yet benefited from the restorer’s art, and appeared to have had an engine fire. These pull emotional strings for me, because BMW 1600s and 2002s were my first enthusiast-type cars. I owned a string of them, starting with a very rusty example my aunt gave me. The very clean styling, the Euro performance—it was all a revelation after owning a series of Chevy IIs, Dodge Darts and Plymouth Valiants.
If I tell you we’re scratching the surface here, believe me. Here’s a video tour, looking at some highlights: