Occasionally we see something that just makes our jaw drop in awe. It might be your future spouse, standing at the bottom of the Burj Khalifa, looking out over the vastness of the Kalahari Desert, or getting your first look at the Victoria Falls. Or it could be getting a very rare look inside a couple of nondescript beige warehouses alongside the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, California.
Inside these warehouses, which feature no signage, is one of the most incredible collections of cars, bikes and memorabilia I have ever seen. If the whole world was destroyed in an instant at the moment I stepped inside and only these beige warehouses remained, I would be happy for the rest of my life. Wow does not even begin to describe it, and I have seen some impressive car collections.
The collection belongs to none other than Jay Leno, formerly of the Tonight Show and worth an estimated $350m at last count. He is also a self-confessed car nut and much of his fortune has been spent on the cars, motorbikes and assorted paraphernalia in his collection.
He has 180 cars and 160 bikes and impressively he knows the story behind every single one of them. He has a team of six staff who look after the collection but generally only Leno drives or rides any of the vehicles himself.
At one point he climbed onto a stealth-looking black motorbike. The numerous guests of BMW in attendance gathered close, until he started the bike. It features a helicopter jet engine and everyone took a couple of paces back.
Like the other vehicles in his collection, this is not just something he looks at in his rare spare time. He drives everything in his collection around the streets of Los Angeles and the jet bike even has more than 13,000 miles on the clock.
He even arrived at the warehouses on an old motorbike, which had no brakes and barely any lights. I asked him what he would take home that night.
“Not that bike — it’s hard enough trying to ride around LA on a bike with no brakes in daytime, let alone at night. No, I have a dentist appointment in the morning, so I’ll have to take something more practical.”
Practical is redefined when you are talking to someone who rides a bike with no brakes or a bike with a jet engine, but he did hint that he might take the Tesla Model S which was quietly charging in the corner next to a line that included a McLaren P1, a McLaren-Mercedes SLR and the iconic McLaren F1.
Leno admits to being a fan of European cars, particularly British models. Chatting to a member of his team, I was told that the British collection is getting too big and encroaching on other collections in the warehouses. There is an American, German, and even an East European collection.
Security was tight as we were taken on a tour by Leno himself. He knows everything about every model and also about the vast collection of memorabilia adorning the walls and shelves throughout the warehouses. Every painting on the walls, whether original or a copy, was bought by Leno personally, although many other items are donated or acquired by the rest of the team.
That team has a great deal of work to do, looking after the collection and even restoring vehicles. One chap I spoke to was working on the restoration of a Rolls-Royce Merlin roadster. Parts are not even a problem, he said, because Leno has invested in a 3D printer and if they can’t find the parts, they create them.
Many of the cars are iconic. There is a 1928 Bentley Speed 6 which won Le Mans in 1929 and 1930 and a replica of a 1930 Bentley with a 27l Merlin engine from a Spitfire plane. I counted nine Bugattis, including a replica of the famous Type 57 Atlantic SC which sits on a Bugatti chassis.
Elsewhere there was a 2001 Chrysler Tank Car, fitted with a 37l Patton Tank engine. It weighs more than five tonnes, but can do a quarter mile in just 12 seconds.
There were two Lamborghini Miuras and a Countach, which at one point was Leno’s daily driver. Interestingly there are no Ferraris. Leno says “they are just too expensive, too much drama and too much trouble”.
There are Ford Model Ts and a number of American icons including a replica Chevrolet Corvette Stingray and Mustangs.
One of the cars that Leno spent the most time explaining was a 1909 Baker. He finds it hilarious that there is such a focus on electric vehicles today because the Baker was also electric. It could do 80 miles on a single charge and there were even public charging points around New York for them.
No autonomous cars as yet, but Leno sees no need for them. “Most drivers in LA are autonomous already. They drive around without looking where they’re going because they’re looking at their phones.” As a keen motorcyclist, he says “cellphones have killed more motorcyclists” than anything else.
And he loves his bikes, with more than 160 of them in his collections from old Nortons, Triumphs, Harley-Davidsons and BSAs to the more modern road and race bikes.
I can go on and on about how incredible Leno’s collection is, but there just isn’t the space. – Mark Smyth