It’s no small thing that Jay Leno’s car-guy life in many ways outshines his long, storied and successful career as one of the most famous and recognizable entertainers in history. When you talk to him, it’s easy to forget that Leno wore a suit and tie and rubbed elbows with every famous person in the world for decades, or that he helmed a lucrative stand-up comedy career for even longer. Leno just talks like a car guy, and in case you’re wondering, on the phone, he even sounds like he’s wearing all denim.
I spoke to Leno last week, just days before he took the stage in sunny California at the Hot Wheels Design Center to host the Hot Wheels Legends Tour kickoff event. The series of car meets, which will take place across the country in the following weeks, is “in search of life-size cars worthy of being immortalized into a Hot Wheels 1:64 diecast car.” The deal is, bring your Hot Wheels-worthy ride — whatever kind of car, whatever kind of style — to an event and you have a shot at it being memorialized forever as a tiny, detailed, $1 model. (Find details about the tour on the official Facebook event page, here and register your own car in an upcoming event, here.)
Leno spoke at length about what he values in Hot Wheels (we agree that as a cultural icon, there may not be another product quite as fun and nostalgic — at least for car guys); he waxed on about the people behind some of the favorite real cars in his massive, famous collection; and he even shared some advice about starting a collection of your own.
Q: You’ve had a longstanding relationship with Hot Wheels?
A: They asked me to pick four of my cars they could make into a Hot Wheels Jay Leno collection, and that was fun. They built a running version of the Darth Vader car we had on the show, and that was kinda fun too. It’s just car guys hanging out. You know, so much of the [Hot Wheels] design team are real designers from Ford, Chrysler, so you wind up talking cars. It’s like guys talking sports, really.
Q: Maybe if you’d concentrated on collecting just Hot WHeels you wouldn’t need such a big garage.
A: Well, probably would because I’d have a gazillion. They’ve built, like, four billion, so I’d try to have at least one billion here. That’d take up a lot of space. The cool thing about them is they’re still a buck. They were a dollar in 1968 and they’re the same price now. It’s a real high-quality model. When you roll them you realize the wheels spin easier because of the high-tech bearing they use. That’s what makes them so fascinating to me. Because there are a lot of other car models out there but they’re off — they kind of resemble a ‘66 Corvette, but not really. They’re a little bit off. That’s what so amazing about [Hot Wheels]: they’re so amazingly accurate, and they’re so small.
Q: They’re little rolling memories.
A: You can put them in a drawer and pull it out in twenty years. I’m not sure kids would have the same affection for a video game. Try and find a Nintendo from the ‘80s that still works. That’s the difference. The Hot Wheels, you pass on and on and on.
Nowadays kids go places virtually, but we had to go places in reality. That makes it a little more interesting.
If you grew up with Hot Wheels and you see the one you bought in 1968 when you were eight years old and it’s still a dollar, you’re gonna buy it again. That’s what makes it fun.
Q: Have you personally seen any of the cars?
A: No, I’m anxious to see them. It’ll be interesting to see what shows up. There will be lowriders, there will be street rods, there will be every kind of wacky — this is Southern California, where it all started. So there should be some interesting, unusual types of vehicles there. I’m sure a lot of the old guys will bring up stuff from the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, as well as slammed Hondas and Lexuses and all kinds of stuff. It’s wide open, it’s not a snobby car show where it’s only ‘pre-1960’ or whatever. It can be anything – it can be a modern car you’ve heavily modified. So we have no idea what’s going to show up. It’s actually more fun than giving everybody a list of rules and regulations.
Q: We talk a lot at GP about relatively modern Japanese cars becoming super popular.
A: That’s what really makes it interesting because you have a new generation of cars that are more tech than mechanical and they’re welcome too. I’m sure you’ll see some custom Priuses and some electric cars as well. We had a Prius on the show – a guy put in a big block Chrysler engine. Hilarious.
Q: What makes cars special?
A: Well I think a lot of it has to do with the memories. Some people like a particular car not because it’s technically interesting or supposedly important or an outrageous design. It’s because it’s the car that grandpa took them to get ice cream in every Sunday. If your grandpa had a ‘77 Cadillac and grandpa would get the car meticulous… When you see one on the road you’re going to say to yourself, “I’m gonna get one of those one day because I rode in one of those every Sunday from age six to twelve.” I have a lot of cars like that.
Jay Leno and Chris Down, General Manager & Senior Vice President at Hot Wheels, brief the crowd at the Legends Tour kickoff event last wekend. Photo by Mattel.
I bought a car from an old lady – she called me up, had a ‘51 Hudson Hornet. She [and her husband] bought it new in ‘51. The only car they had. [Her husband] died in ‘96 and she’s 94. So I bought it from her. I restored it; took us two years. I call her up — she’s 96 — I asked if she’d like to go for a ride and she says, “oh, can I bring my kids?” Well, the kids are 72 and 74. So I go out there; they’ve got her in a blindfolded … and she starts crying. She sits in the front, and her kids sit in the back… [and] the kids start poking each other. She turns around and just starts smacking the crap out of them. “I told you two…!” Just hitting them as hard as she can in the head. And the three of them are laughing so hard. The kids started telling me how in the ‘60s when their dad would drive them to school in the ‘51 Hudson they were so embarrassed because they didn’t want to be seen in this old car which is now a classic.
She died when she was 104. She had so much fun and had all these great memories. Whenever I take that car out I think of that day with her. Just whacking the crap out of this 70-year-old man and the three of them just laughing. For a lot of people, it’s not the car; it’s the memories.
Q: Anything you’ve got your eye on now for your collection?
A: I’m just fixing all the broken stuff now. Every now and then something catches your eye. I had an old man call me up — he lived in Beverly Hills. He had an old ‘67 Chrysler Imperial two-door coupe with twin air conditioners front and back. So I go over to his house and he’s got this long, winding driveway, and I get to the top. He’s 93 and has an ascot and a smoking jacket. It turns out this guy was a movie producer who produced African American movies for African American audiences. They were real movies, but that was when theaters were segregated, and he had all these black movie stars’ pictures all over the house.
He brings me into his house, which looks like something that hasn’t been touched since the 1950s. I see a picture of this beautiful woman that looked like it had been taken in the 1940s. “That’s my wife,” he says. “Is she still alive?” I asked. He says, “oh, she’s here. You know, she doesn’t look like that anymore.”
He takes me to the garage and opens the car next to [the Imperial] — he was so afraid he was going to have an accident that he ought every spare part you can imagine for the car. And obviously, now I have to buy the car! The story is so unbelievable and that’s what makes it fun. So whenever I take my ‘67 Imperial out, I think of Leo.
Q: Our readers love finding great vintage cars…
A: Here’s my advice if you’re trying to find an old car. Go to the oldest gas station you can find… and ask the guy if there’s anyone who used to come in a lot who hasn’t been in a while. Most gas stations have a story – ‘an old lady has a ‘68 Chrysler; she hasn’t been in a couple of years.’ Try and find that person. That car is probably still around. Gas stations are a good place to go, especially if they’re full service with a lift and whatnot.
I always look for cars in rich neighborhoods because rich people take care of cars. At least they keep them in the garage and out of the sun so the upholstery isn’t all cracked. That’s where you’ll find the most interesting stuff. I had a lady call me. She bought a ‘66 Lincoln Continental brand new and she still had it. She only drove it a thousand miles a year. Only lived three miles from my house, I never knew the car was there; I went over to look at it and bought it. A brand new ‘66 Lincoln…