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Car Struck: Jay Leno Talks

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y, and I soon felt like I was shootin’ the breeze with just another motorhead.

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But I didn’t go in unprepared. Prior to talking with Leno, I did some checking and learned that he was born in New Rochelle, N.Y., in 1950 and spent his youth in Andover, Mass. He’s one of the hardest-working people in show business and still works 300 days a year.

How’d Leno end up in show biz? Watching a comedian – a comedian who he thought was terrible – on the “Tonight” show in the early ’70s inspired him. Leno was on a plane to California the next day. He didn’t even pack. He just left.

“I think it’s good to back yourself into a corner because if you leave yourself options, you’ll take them,” says Leno. “If you have no options but success, you’ll hustle more.”

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Good advice whether you’re talking show business or body shop business.

Mike Regan: May I call you Jay?

Jay Leno: “Yeah, yeah I’m Jay.”

MR: What’s your first fond vehicle memory?

JL: “Well, my first car was a ’34 Ford Pickup I bought when I was 14 years old and living in a kind of rural area in Massachusetts. I had a long driveway and spent about two years getting it running while I drove it back and forward in the driveway. I still have a crick in my neck from looking over my shoulder back and forth. I must have done that 10,000 times.”MR: I had a ’57 Chevy with no reverse. I’d push it back and drive it forward.

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JL: “With a Powerglide it’s not much of a forward either.”

MR: What was your first collectible car?

JL: “Well, they were all collectible to me. One of my first cars was a ’54 Hudson Hornet. Just earlier this year I bought a ’53 again. We just finished that one. I have some pretty good body guys. Do many guys still use an English Wheel?

“I have a scholarship set up for kids who want to do this kind of work. To me machinists, body guys, tin knockers – this is a lost skill. All the best guys seem to be, the youngest seem to be in their late 40s. So I’ve set up with McPherson College in Kansas, which has a four-year program in auto restoration. They teach body work – everything from flathead motors and magnetos – and how to do the work correctly. When you graduate, you have a degree. They even have an intern program where we send students to restoration shops. They get paid to learn the trade.

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“We’re probably one of the only countries in the world where if you want to be a mechanic, you just say, ‘I’m a mechanic’ or ‘I’m a bodyman.’ Nobody has any way to judge your skills. What happens is that the people who are really good and do their job well get thrown into the same pot as the hacks and the bondo boys – and it’s sad. It’s as skillful a profession as someone who makes fine furniture.

MR: They’re craftsmen. Artisans.

JL: “That’s right. I’ve got an old Lamborghini Miura, and I’ve got a couple of guys knocking the body out for me. They’re like geniuses. They do such incredible work. They have a clean shop, they don’t get themselves filthy and they just massage the metal and work it. It’s just fascinating to watch them do it. It’s a shame that the career is in its present state. When I was a kid, if you were dumb, you got stuck in shop class. It’s not really fair because once you get there, you’re a skilled technician. And the ones who are really good at it make really good money. The guys I know who do it well are the guys with the fancy houses and the whole deal.”

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MR: They live well.

JL: “That’s why I have the scholarship program. I have great respect for the men and women who do it.”

MR: I work with vocational education programs in the greater Cleveland area, and one of the biggest problems is that career counselors and administrators steer smart kids away from vo-ed programs.

JL: “It’s a shame. The reason we won the World War isn’t because we were the best soldiers – although we were very good soldiers. It was our ability to manufacture and make things. We had machinists and people who could turn out parts. When the Japanese and the Germans would shoot down 100 American bombers, the next day, there’d be another 100 coming over. Henry Ford turned the River Rouge plant into airplane production overnight. They banged out those huge bombers like they were Model A Fords. The rest of the world was astonished at our abilities. Now all our stuff goes to third-world countries, and it’s a shame.”

MR: There were a number of Cleveland car manufacturers that switched to aircraft production during the war.

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JL: “That’s true, and then Henry Kaiser switched back. After planes, he went back to making cars.

“It’s a shame they steer students away from shop programs. In one sense actually, when something is in demand, the price goes up. And I see how much good bodymen make. Especially here in Los Angeles. These guys are treated with a great deal of respect. They have all the work they can handle. Maybe they’re keeping the secret to themselves.”

MR: Do you do any of the work yourself?

JL: “I enjoy and I like to work in my shop. That’s what I do on Saturday and Sunday. I enjoy dabbling – I change oil and fix alternators and generators, I play with magnetos and stuff like that. I don’t do much body work or anything of that nature because A) I’m not very good at it and B) it’s a time-consuming process and hey, I’ve got a day job.

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MR: Do you ever get there for the final paint work on a car?

JL: “We don’t have a paint booth on site at my shop so we use an offsite booth.”

MR: Do you have favorite car collections or museums around the country?

JL: “I spend a lot of time with cars and motorcycles. The Nethercutt collection in Sylmar, Calif., is pretty amazing. I like the smaller car shows – the Father’s day shows. Pebble Beach is fun, but it’s a highly competitive atmosphere; whereas the Sunday afternoon or the local car shows where the guy who bought his ’56 Ford new is there. Those are the ones I really like.”

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MR: Do you have any current restorations going on?

JL: “Right now I’ve got the Lamborghini Miura. It was a bondo special so we’ve completely stripped it down. It’s a real nightmare, but I’ve got a good metal guy working on that right now in my shop.”

MR: Do you have a favorite vehicle color?

JL: “No, I like all colors. I like to go back to the factory original specs. Hot rods are fun, but I find that the guys who designed these cars in the first place pretty much knew what they were doing. And if you put stuff back to the original specs – like 6-volt always gets such a bad rap; they won’t start; well no, you’re not using 6-volt wire; you’re using the wrong gauge wire; you’ve hopped up the motor; you put high-compression pistons in it – but if you put it back the way it’s supposed to be, it’ll run forever.”

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MR: If you had to live in one of your vehicles, what would be your first choice?JL: “I did live in my ’55 Buick Roadmaster when I first came out here. I actually slept in it one or two nights a week.”

Writer Michael Regan is president of The J.J.R. Company in Cleveland, Ohio, and a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

Are there other superstar car collectors you’d like to know more about? If so, e-mail your suggestions to editor Georgina K. Carson at [email protected]

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Jay Leno’s Autobody Scholarship
McPherson College
Attn: Endowment Scholarship Fund
1600 East Euclid, P.O. Box 1402
McPherson, Kan. 67460

For information on their summer auto restoration workshops, change the second line to Attn: Summer Workshops.

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