My First Car: Jay Leno
Editor’s Note: Everyone has a story about their first car. The smell of the leather, their first kiss in the backseat, the carburetor that just wouldn’t ever behave. At Petrolicious we’re well aware of the intimate bond between man and machine, which is why we’re going to be showcasing the origin stories that developed into full blown, life long obsessions. It’s with great pleasure that we’re able to introduce “My First Car” to you with a conversation with our friend Jay Leno, a car guy who needs no introduction.
Petrolicious: Tell us about your first car.
Jay Leno: My first car was a 1934 Ford pickup truck. It was in Reading, Massachusetts. We lived the next town over which is Andover. We were driving by, with my Dad, we saw it parked at a gas station. The most important part, that my Dad liked the best, is that it didn’t run. I had saved up three hundred fifty dollars and we bought it. I’m not sure how we got it back, I’m not sure if we towed it with my Dad’s car or what we did, but we got it back to my house. The idea was that I would spend the next year and a half or two years figuring out how to get it to run.
Petrolicious: How old were you at the time?
Jay Leno: I was about fourteen and a half. Back then, for me at least, a driver’s license was the modern equivalent of the iPhone now or the computer. When I was a kid, you couldn’t go places virtually, you had to go places in reality. A car meant so much more. I mean, like we had one phone, it was in the kitchen. If you called a girl, your mother was standing right there for the whole conversation. There was no privacy. The car could physically take you to different places.
Petrolicious: It was freedom.
Jay Leno: Yeah, much like a computer is to kids today. The worst day of my life, I was sixteen and a half years old. Uptown was seven miles. I’m riding my bicycle and my friend, Louie, who was six months older and got his license, drives by in his Dad’s convertible and he’s got a girl in the car. “Jay, you going uptown?” I said, “Yeah. I’ll meet you guys up there.” Meanwhile, I’m pedaling. I get up there like forty-five minutes to an hour later and, of course, everybody’s gone. I’m like, “You know, I’ve got to get my license. This is a nightmare.” Anyway, I spent the next couple of years working on the truck, sanding it, painting it. We found a guy that would paint it for a hundred dollars which was actually a good paint job in those days. You got a really good paint job for a hundred bucks, but we had to do all the prep work on it.
Petrolicious: Was there any feeling of initial helplessness because it was your first car you ever worked on? Were you like, “Holy crap. Where do I even begin on this thing?”
Jay Leno: The helplessness came way before the pickup truck. Years earlier my Dad had given me an old lawnmower to work on to see if I could get it running. I took it apart. I took the head off, “Here’s why it doesn’t run. There’s a piece of paper stuck between the head and the block!” I was a kid, I was like twelve. Of course what I took out was a gasket. I took the paper off, it was jammed in there and I put the head back on. He goes, “My God.” It would fire once or twice and just shoot out flames. I’m like, “Oh, great.” My Dad’s going, “Well, that’s a head gasket. You kinda need that.” “Oh, okay.” That’s how I learned what a head gasket was. By the time I got my hands on the car I had some concept of what I was doing. You know, it was a Ford flathead, it was a V8 truck. It was pretty simple to get running. That euphoria, that sense of accomplishment when you get it running though, that was really amazing.
We lived in a rural area. We had three and a half, four acres. In those days, almost everybody in the neighborhood had a huge backyard and you could drive around in circles and make a homemade track. That’s what we did. You get the neighborhood kids, me and a couple of the other guys, we’d just drive around in circles, do burnouts and donuts and your Mom’s watching through the kitchen window worried half to death. That’s what kids did back in the day. You could buy cars for ten dollars or twenty dollars, cars that ran. It almost seems inconceivable now. Nobody called Child Services if your twelve year old was driving an old car around a yard. It’s just what you learned how to do.
We had a three hundred fifty foot driveway. I spent my formative years going forward then backing up, going forward, backing up, over and over again. I still have a crick in my neck from looking over my shoulder. I remember staying awake nights thinking, “What if I get it running and I can’t drive a stick? Oh, my God, what if I’m just one of those people, what if I’m not coordinated?” I used to worry about stuff like that, when you’re a kid, you know. It ended up all coming second nature. I got it running and I loved my ’34 Ford. Of course being a kid, I loved it until I saw a Datsun 1600 sports car. I thought, “Oh.” I traded my truck for some money for that. My truck is still in New England somewhere. I’d love to find it. I’ve had a few other cars, but then my other first car, when I came to California, was my ’55 Buick Roadmaster.
Petrolicious: You still have it?
Jay Leno: I’ve had that car for forty years. Once I got to California, I never sold another vehicle.
Petrolicious: Was it a conscious decision never to sell it?
Jay Leno: You know what? I had my Buick and it was my car. I came to California, I bought it for three hundred fifty dollars like I did my truck out of the Penny Saver. I lived in it for awhile and slept in it a little bit and stuff. It ran. It was a nice big Dynaflow, all that kind of stuff. I found a Buick guy who painted it for me. It looked pretty nice. Then I started to get a little successful and I parked it in my mother-in-law’s driveway. She didn’t drive and their garage was full. It sat there for like sixteen years. One day I went over there, I hadn’t been there a while. All the tires were flat and there was a note on the windshield that said, “Somebody obviously doesn’t care about this car. I would like to buy it and restore it.” I choked up, “I care about it.” I felt so horrible that someone thought my car was so neglected, that I didn’t even care. I said, “Well, that’s it,” so we dragged it back to my shop here.
Jay Leno: We brought it back and we put the Corvette suspension in it, put the 572 in it, it’s a great car now, it blows away Corvettes.
Petrolicious: Do you have to make time to drive cars like that?
Jay Leno: I drive all my cars. Everything’s registered, everything’s on the road. That’s the worst thing you can do, is not drive them. California gasoline is so bad.
Petrolicious: It’s incredible, isn’t it?
Jay Leno: The stupid ethanol crap, it goes bad after two months so you do have to drive everything.
Petrolicious: Seeing as you have a large collection, how do you keep all the titles maintained?
Jay Leno: It’s not that hard. When the stickers come in, I put them on the car and I put the registration in the glove box. It’s pretty much what it is. Admittedly, it’s once or twice a week, but that’s okay.
Keep in touch with Jay:
CNBC Show Wednesdays at 10 PM: Jay Leno’s Garage
YouTube Show: Jay Leno’s Garage