Sunday, September 9, 2012

Good night, Jay Leno

UPDATE Feb 6, 2014 -- Tonight's the last night for the Tonight Show, hosted by America's best-known motorcyclist, Jay Leno.

Although Jay hasn't ruled out doing another TV show, the expectation is that he'll enjoy a semi- 'retirement'. The sneer quotes indicate that he'll maintain the same standup schedule, which would be a full-time job for anyone else.

I'm not sure what the implications are for the famed Leno garage and collection. The story's always been that Jay paid for his lifestyle (which, cars and motorcycles excepted is conservative by Hollywood standards) with his comedy money, and that he just banked the TV money. If that's true, the only thing they might notice in the garage is that the boss is around a lot more.

Some time soon, when the man's easier to reach and interview. I'll try to schedule a chat with him about his future plans, the future of the garage and collection, and

In the meantime, here's a profile of Jay and the garage, that I wrote a few years ago...

Hollywood Confidential: a day with Jay Leno

When I arrived at Jay Leno's garage, the door was open and there were three bikes parked in a pool of sunlight. A Vincent Comet was missing its fuel tank. Its fuel lines, petcock and carb were in pieces for cleaning; it had sat too long without running. There was also a Ducati 250 single that, although it looked pristine didn't want to start, and a 1931 Henderson four. The Henderson was one of the last ones ever made and was shown at the '31 New York Auto Show. It was a police special, with a tell-tale speedo (the needle moves up but has to be reset manually, a feature the cops used when ticketing speeders.) 

“Look,” Jay said, as he pointed to the gauge's needle, “I hit 79 miles an hour on it this morning.”

Then he asked me, “Have you ever ridden a Henderson?” When I said no, he said  “Then let's go! I'll get my other one.” 

Yes, he's got two '31 Hendersons. He disappeared into an adjacent building, while one of his mechanics coached me on a few mindbenders I'd need to remember: The left twistgrip was the spark advance; the clutch was operated by my left foot, and that little thing on the left handlebar that looked like a decompression lever was actually for the front brake which, I was warned, was useless. Last but not least, there were two shift levers on the left side of the fuel tank. I mustn't touch the outer one, as it operated the bike in reverse, for sidecar work. “Jay really shouldn't have put that on there, since he doesn't have a sidecar for it,” someone said. I envisioned nudging the wrong lever by accident, locking up the rear wheel, and spending the rest of my life trolling autojumbles for used Henderson parts.

Jay started both bikes and led me out onto the streets of Burbank, a suburb of Los Angeles. His garage is there because it's near the NBC television studio, where he works. He didn't take me past the studio. No, after giving me about 10 blocks to get used to the utterly alien controls of the oldest motorcycle I'd ever ridden, he led me onto the freeway—Interstate 5, in top 'we've-just-emptied-the-asylums' form. 

Movies and television are full of big stars who indulge themselves with expensive toys, or who wear their custom hogs and Ducatis like designer clothing. By that I mean, they use what's given to them for promotional purposes, preferably at some red-carpet gala while paparazzi flashes pop. 

That's not Jay Leno. His garage—actually a 17,000 square-foot restoration shop with 5 full time employees, and four nearby storage buildings totalling nearly 100,000 square feet—is home to about 100 motorcycles and perhaps as many cars. Almost all of them are licensed and insured and at least occasionally ridden—even loaned to perfect strangers like me. 

But seriously folks, Jay's a guy who's hosted nearly 4,000 editions of The Tonight Show; last year he did another 160 gigs as one of America's highest-paid comedians. For him, talking is work. I guess that's why he preferred to go for a ride. As one of America's lowest-paid journalists, conducting interviews is work for me, so I prefer riding, too. At least, that's what I told myself as I shook and bounced along the freeway, trying not to remember that earlier that day, Jay'd been doing nearly 80 on this old thing.

Once we were safely back in the garage—after only one embarrassing stall—Jay told me the bike I was riding still had its original brake shoes. “I'll bet if you gave the average modern rider a bike like this, with almost no brakes and terrible handling,” he said “they'd actually have fewer crashes, because they'd have to think so far ahead.” Maybe so, but I'm not sure I want to give up disc brakes on the freeway!

When he was a kid growing up in Andover, Massachusetts, Leno and his pals hung out at the Dairy Queen. “It was a big deal if a Corvette pulled up,” he recalls. “”Sometimes I'd go home early and the next day someone would say, 'You missed it! We saw the Vincent.'”

According to local legend the Vincent's owner, who lived in a nearby town, had raced it on the Isle of Man. (Jay now owns that very bike. It may or may not have have genuine TT history, but someone fitted a Norton Roadholder fork and a more conventional swingarm with twin shocks—changes that would've been appropriate for The Island.)

Besides that one, most of the high-performance bikes he saw growing up in small-town New England were in magazines. “I was that kid, sitting in the back of math class, with a  copy of Cycle World,” he told me. “I was in the eighth grade in 1964, when they put out an issue with a white and gold Triumph Bonneville on the cover, and I thought it was beautiful. A couple of years later, I saw a new Bonneville at a dealer and there was a sticker on the fuel tank that read, 'For Expert Riders Only.' I was 16 and had never actually ridden a bike. So I thought, that's perfect for me.” 

After fantasizing about it for years, his first riding experience was hardly the stuff dreams were made of. “I was about 18, and I bought a used Honda 350,” he remembered. “I'd never ridden a motorcycle, and the salesman handed me the keys. I was wearing prescription glasses, I had no helmet, and it started to rain as I rode home. A big truck passed me, and in the wind blast, my glasses flew off.”

Seeing the humor in his own misadventures always came naturally to him. Before he was out of college, he got gigs as a stand-up comedian in Playboy clubs. “After I graduated, I worked in car dealerships by day and did comedy at night,” he told me. “I kept the day job money in one pocket, and the comedy money in the other one. When there got to be a lot more money in that pocket, I realized I could make a good living in show business.”

One of his first big purchases was a Honda CBX. “When it came out, it was amazing. I had to have one, and of course I crashed it. By the time I got the insurance settlement, Kawasaki had come out with an even bigger bike, and dealers couldn't move CBX. I replaced it with one with a fairing and saddlebags. It was a better bike, but I didn't like it as much.” Even so, he's still got it. When I asked him if he'd ever sold a bike, he looked at me as if I'd asked whether he'd ever sold a kidney. 

To this day, he's got the two pockets of money, they're just really, really big pockets. “I live off the money I make doing comedy, and bank all the television money,” he told me. That's gotta' be a lot in the bank, considering that he's spent years as the top-rated host in American television. Now, he can buy whatever he wants.

“Sometimes, you buy the story as much as the bike,” he told me. “A few years back, I crashed a Vincent, and I was limping around on the Tonight Show, and I said, 'If anyone out there has a Vincent gas tank they want to sell, call me.' Sure enough, some old guy calls from Florida and says, 'I have a gas tank, but you have to buy the whole bike.' He gives me the serial number, and I call the Vincent club and they tell me the bike with that number is lost. It was the third Black Shadow ever made, it was sold to an American G.I. and never seen again. They mention the G.I.'s name, and I'm stunned. It's the old guy who called. It turned out he brought the bike home, it broke the bronze idler gear, and he put it aside. Then he got married, had kids, he just never got around to it. The bike was still virtually new.”

When I asked him when, along the line, he went from being a guy with lots of cars and bikes to being a serious collector, he winced. “I don't think of myself as a collector,” he said, “because I ride all of them.” He doesn't enter concours. “I've got four or five mechanics and restorers working for me. So it wouldn't be fair to compare one of my bikes to some bike that a fireman worked on, by himself, in his little garage.” Nor does he loan stuff to museums, since he's had bad experiences with it coming back damaged. 

Not that he babies his rides; far from it. He's got a 1924 Brough Superior—an ex-Brooklands race bike that looks as spare and dangerous as anything. I was aghast when he told me he'd been clocked at over 100 miles an hour on it, out on the freeway. Although he's well known to local cops who cut him plenty of slack, he also has the honour of driving the oldest car that's ever been ticketed for speeding in the state of California.

Bernard Juchli is the general manager of Jay's garage, so when a bike's pushed too hard, it becomes one of Bernard's projects. “Most of the year, Jay comes in once a day after taping his show, and spends an hour or two with us,” he said. “Jay only rides or drives one vehicle a day, so he doesn't break too much. But during the summer he's here all day, and he'll take out five or six vehicles, so he creates more work for us.”

“I tell him, Jay, just because it went 100 miles an hour when it was made doesn't mean it should go that fast now,” Bernard says with a smile. In general, Jay doesn't abuse his bikes, but he's not particularly sensitive, either. “Sometimes he'll bring something in that's making a terrible noise, and I'll say, you should have called us, we would have picked you up. He says, 'It's OK, I made it in,' and I'll tell him yes, but...” Bernard's voice trails off with a shrug, and he smiles. He points out that Jay's a pretty good mechanic. “He'll call me up from the side of the road, broken down, and ask me what to do,” he says, “and then half an hour later he'll call back saying, 'I'm home.'”

Working in Jay's Garage is a good job. His mechanics tend to be guys who had their own shops specializing in restoration and vintage race preparation. They appreciate  recession-proof job security, being surrounded by great bikes and cars, and most of all they appreciate the fact that now, they only have one customer to keep happy.

Bernard's been with Jay almost ten years. He's an ex-bike and car racer, who previously owned a Jaguar specialty shop up in San Francisco. His arrival gave Jay's garage more fabrication expertise, and they've acquired quite a set of tools in order to exploit his talents. “I don't know of any private individual who's got this much equipment,” he says, gesturing towards the CNC milling machines, water-jet cutting table with a 15-foot bed, and a 3-D printer for parts prototyping. They can make virtually any part, for any vehicle, in-house.

The afternoon I was there, they were stripping down a '55 gull-wing Mercedes sports car that Jay had recently bought. They found one of the alloy brake drums had some cooling fins broken off. Jay and three or four of his employees stood around, looking at the broken part, and debated the merits of machining a matching alloy piece that could be welded in, versus finding a replacement part. The conversation probably went on ten minutes. The atmosphere was nothing like workers talking to their boss, and even less like mechanics talking to a client. It felt more like a clubhouse, or perhaps like some kind of mechanics' heaven. There was no pressure to find the most economical, or fastest, solution. Just the best one.

Bernard told me that in his past job, he dealt with a lot of rich guys who were perfectly happy to write monthly cheques for two years, then get their car back without ever seeing the work in progress. Jay wants to see all the work as it's done. During his long television season, even if he only drops in once a day he calls five more times. (Jay told me he enjoys his work, but it's clear to me that he'd rather be getting his hands dirty.)

Jay's fascination for vintage bikes is centered on the fact that riders can still understand them, and work on them. I rode up to the garage on a new BMW K1300GT. It's an amazing bike and he was interested in it, but clucked at the bodywork that essentially sealed away the bike's working parts. He definitely doesn't think that represents progress, no matter how good a new bike is.

“I have this book that was published in the '20s,” Jay said, “called 'Projects for Boys.' It's full of projects like building your own steam engines and making your own crystal radios. Those were thought of as projects for boys. Nowadays, men can't do that stuff.”

Although if you're Jay Leno, you've got the money, the will, and the facilities—and will still come up with interesting projects. He showed me a contraption, not quite finished, that is part knucklehead Harley, part 1902 Knox steam engine and (I'm not kidding) a heat exchanger from a Titan nuclear missile. 

“The Air Force sold that to me,” he said. It's obviously good to be Jay Leno when you want a favour. He added wryly, “I guess I built that to gain entrance to the More Money Than Brains Club.” He's a little bit embarrassed by the Hollywood star cult's free-food-for-millionaires ethos; he's aware of the irony in the fact that, now that he can afford anything he wants, manufacturers of new bikes often give him machines.

Like the rest of us, he's always retained a soft spot for the bikes he lusted after back in his salad days. Bonnevilles, Vincents, BSA Gold Stars, and bevel-drive Ducatis predominate. “I'll look at the cover of Classic Bike now, and think, oh, so they're writing about new bikes...” he says, leaving a comic beat before adding, “But it's not that the bikes are new, it's that I'm that old.” 

His interests go back further, too. He's got bikes from the pioneer era, and has even collected several huge steam engines. Towards the end of the day, Jay wheeled out a 1918 Pope. He loving pointed out details like it's front and rear suspension, chain drive, 3-speed tranny; all features that were relatively new in the bike's day. It had elegant concealed cables, and an ingenious half-and-half clutch pedal that, when fully depressed also activated the rear brake. He'd owned it 25 years. 

“Riding this thing,” He said as he pulled on a helmet, “sixty miles an hour feels like 200.”

I stood there with his mechanics and watched as he kicked the Pope to life and rode out the gate and around the corner. Just as we turned back into the garage, there was a loud metallic sound, and they all froze in place, eyes wide. After a moment, one of Jay's guys jogged out for a better look.

“It was just a garbage truck,” he said with relief, adding “I hate that sound.”

With good reason. With the tools at their disposal they can fix any bike, but they can't make another boss like Jay.

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