Nobody knows cars like Jay Leno. He owns 130 of them, give or take, along with about 90 motorcycles, housed inside a 101,000-square-foot facility near Burbank Airport in California. How much is the entire collection worth?
"I have no idea," Leno said, "but I think it's safe to say whatever I paid for, it has doubled or tripled in value."
Leno is bringing his love of cars to a new show that begins airing on CNBC next year. "The show will be a car show for people, not necessarily car people," he said. "I get tired of car shows where people say, 'Brother!' and then they throw tools at each other."
The new program will look at the financial aspects of car collecting and profile the stories behind certain automobiles. "We'll have a segment each week (where) we'll have three cars—which one of these will give you the best investment in terms of restoring a car? Because it costs just as much to restore a worthless car as it does an expensive car, because it's all time and labor."
There is a lot of time and labor spent inside Leno's garage restoring cars. He pointed out a midnight blue Depression-era Duesenberg once owned by Josiah Lilly, son of pharmaceutical magnate Eli Lilly.
"I mean if you look at it, it was meant to run over poor people," he joked, saying people used to throw rocks at the car as Lilly was chauffeured around town. When Leno found the car, it had been converted into a tow truck. He has since restored it to pristine condition—and it's completely drivable.
"I think we've reached a point where automobiles have reached art status," Leno said. "I mean, Bugattis, Ferraris, these cars go for $30 million."
Leno said he doesn't buys cars based on their investment potential. "I buy what I like," he said. "The nice thing is, if you're reasonably knowledgeable, and you buy what you like, chances are other people will like it, too."
The legendary comedian weighed in on a variety of issues during a tour inside his garage.
On Tesla: "It's a brilliant car." Leno is impressed with Elon Musk. "People have no idea, it's almost impossible for an entrepreneur to build an automobile these days in America because there are so many rules and regulations."
Leno was amazed at the media coverage of a few fires involving Teslas, saying the number is minuscule compared with those which occur with internal combustion engines.
"We've reached the point in America now where success is sort of jeered ... we're getting like the English that way," Leno said. "As car companies go out of business one by one ... here's a guy starting a brand-new car company from scratch and being extremely successful with it."
On his favorite cars, "I tend to like noble failures, cars where the designer or the engineer put way more into the car than was necessary to sell it, so consequently they weren't successful because they were too expensive."
He points to the Tucker or the Wills Sainte Claire, both expensive, beautiful failures. "The Mustang is a classic example of a car that was successful because it was basically a Ford Falcon that was sexy. When the car was designed, people wanted independent suspension, and Lee Iacocca said, 'Just make it look good, put a stick shift in and bucket seats, make it cheap, and people will buy it.' And he was correct."
On choosing which cars to restore: "I'm like the Mia Farrow of cars. When I see something, a car abandoned by the side of the road, I have to bring it home and nurture it and try to get it running again," Leno said. "A lot of times I buy the story as much as I buy the car. If a car's got a great story or a great history, that's exciting to me."
On using a 3-D printer to make parts: "I think this is the future of manufacturing in America," Leno said, standing in front of a 3-D printer which he now uses to create missing parts.
"You can't compete with Asian countries for $2 a day and no health care, but by using machinery like this, you can make parts with very low labor costs. I mean, this machine, when they were new, was $2 million. Then it was $250,000. Then they were $25,000. Now you can get home versions of this that are $1,500, or $1,000."
Leno's garage is so pristine, it's like a working museum. As for actually turning it into a museum, Leno said there are too many rules: "You need 24 bathrooms."
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He does, however, let some folks take a tour who have donated to veterans causes. Leno himself just returned from a USO trip to Afghanistan. "It's like Van Nuys with less gunfire," he joked before seriously explaining the need to remember our troops. "We have 1 percent who controls the country, another 1 percent fights for the country."
In the meantime, Leno went back to work in his garage, where an old Lagonda was getting worked on. "You know, they're not making more of these," Leno said, gesturing to the machines around him. "They're printing money left and right ... but they're not making any more of these."