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September 17, 2014

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To say comedian Jay Leno is obsessed with cars is a vast understatement

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Myung Chun / Los Angeles Times

Jay Leno has added a McLaren P1 to his collection of cars. The exotic sports car is considered by many critics to be the best sports car ever made, with a cost of $1.2 million.

On a sunny day in the Burbank hills, Jay Leno’s canary yellow McLaren supercar shatters the silence.

Wedged into the cockpit of the 903-horsepower hybrid P1, Leno darts around a curve and leans into the throttle. With the midday roads free of traffic, the $1.2-million McLaren surges through the canyon with a controlled fury.

“I just can’t stop driving it,” Leno says at a stop sign, before roaring off again. “It’s just a perfect blend of science and technology. ... And you get the anthropomorphic sounds of the engine breathing.”

Back in Burbank where the drive started, a nondescript hangar next to the airport houses Leno’s enviable collection of 130 cars, 93 motorcycles and a menagerie of engines, spare parts and memorabilia. The world knows Leno from late-night TV and stand-up comedy, but within car circles, Leno and his collection eclipse even his contribution to the annals of television.

“The Tonight Show” was a job. Cars are an obsession.

Most blue-chip car collectors focus on a particular marque or era and curate it like artwork. Jerry Seinfeld, for example, sticks to Porsches. Leno’s friend and neighbor Bruce Meyer — board vice chairman at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles — is into American hot rods.

Leno takes a more organic approach: He just buys what he likes, across a seemingly limitless spectrum of styles, eras, cost, countries of origin and methods of propulsion. He’s keen on cars with an intriguing back story, or those marking an engineering milestone.

But mostly Leno just buys cars he wants to drive. He finds it silly to collect cars purely for show.

“I never thought of it as a collection,” Leno said, looking over the rows of neatly parked classics. “Probably in the mid-1980s, I just started to keep stuff.”

The simple strategy has since filled a warehouse with one of the world’s most valuable and eclectic collections.

There are old and new supercars, from such high-flying marques as McLaren and Lamborghini. There’s an American muscle car section, the vintage Bugatti section, the Duesenberg section. There are century-old electric cars and steam-powered cars of the same era. The British grouping houses the old-school Bentleys and Jaguars, and the odd Bristol and Lotus.

Behind nearly every model is a huge, hand-painted replica of an original advertisement for that car. Over the years, when NBC artists had downtime, Leno would pay them to recreate the ads in mural size. Look closely and you’ll notice Leno’s likeness among the drivers.

Click to enlarge photo

Jay Leno's Stanley Steamer was probably the oldest car to be pulled over by the California Highway Patrol on the 405 freeway.

Leno was 14 when he bought his first vehicle, for $350, in 1964. It was a 30-year-old Ford truck that, at first, sat idle in his parent’s driveway in a middle-class suburb of Boston, Mass.

“Of course it didn’t run — why did you think my father let me buy it?” Leno said.

He learned how to get it running before he got his license. Leno then found work at a Rolls-Royce and Bentley dealership, where he first found inspiration to become an entertainer — his only chance, he figured, of ever owning a Bentley. His collection now includes a handful of vintage Bentleys from the 1920s and ’30s.

Leno’s 1967 Lamborghini Miura P400 — which Dean Martin bought new for his son Dino — was given to him nearly 30 years ago. At the time, the car’s engine had seized after Dino hit a berm and cracked the car’s oil pan. A friend of Leno’s acquired the car, but he gave it to Leno after figuring out it would cost more to fix the Miura than it was worth.

Leno had the engine rebuilt. Today, similar cars sell for at least $500,000.

Whatever they are worth, Leno’s cars are always ready to be driven. A key sits in every ignition. Every car has a charger cable running from the wall to the battery.

Even the 1906 Stanley Steamer Cup Racer.

“That has the distinction of being the oldest car ever stopped for speeding on the 405,” Leno said.

It wasn’t the speed that alerted the police. The car’s boiler throws off steam and the occasional flame in normal operation.

“You’re on fire — and it’s a wood car — so you attract some attention,” Leno said.

The Cup Racer is parked with other steam-powered cars in a back room of a second hangar next door. The building holds a custom machine shop and a chassis dynamometer for testing horsepower. Though Leno is plenty handy with a wrench, a famously tight schedule means the entertainer leaves the tuning and maintenance to his staff of four full-time mechanics.

They also build custom projects, such as the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado that Leno had his mechanics convert from front- to rear-wheel drive.

“Because he loves to work on his cars himself, Jay has very broad and in-depth knowledge about everything he owns,” Gooding said. “I’ve never met somebody so passionate and deeply knowledgeable about a wide array of cars.”

That includes his new McLaren P1. Leno was the first customer to take delivery of the ultra-rare $1.2-million sports car. He’s put more than 1,000 miles on the odometer since getting the car in March.

Although the McLaren could devour any racetrack, Leno usually limits his driving to public roads. He’ll often cruise to an infamous curve on Malibu’s Mulholland Highway known as “the Snake,” or to Newcomb’s Ranch, a bar and restaurant on the Angeles Crest Highway.

After finishing up a garage tour, Leno ambled back down the quiet corridor of the hangar and climbed into his 1955 Packard Caribbean for the commute home. Painted off-white with a bold red stripe on both sides that matches the red interior, the car is parked in front of an ad billing it as “America’s most glamorous sports car.”

The V-8 rumbles to life, and a moment later, Leno glides out into daylight. They make quite a pair. Two American icons, facing an open road ahead.

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