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By Jan Wagner - syndicated weekly columnist/photojournalist
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MPG Power Tour V & Jay Leno

 

I belong to a great organization called the Motor Press Guild (MPG). We regularly welcome guest speakers from the auto industry, drive manufacturers’ automobiles on track days and occasionally get treated to very special events. One such event took place last Saturday.

Our membership was invited to meet in Torrance and, from there, drive to a “secret” location “full of fascinating cars and other memorabilia.” The invitation added that “if you don’t attend – you will kick yourself once you find out where we went.”

As attractive as this sounded, I had mixed feelings about what to do. You see I also belong to the San Diego Miata Club, and our big annual meeting (and raffle) was to be on Saturday as well. I could not do both.

I decided to take a chance and go to the MPG event. The invitation suggested that we drive up in our “cool rides,” if we wanted. My cool ride is a 2004 MAZDASPEED MX-5 (otherwise known a Miata). It’s red and was from the only year when you could get red inserts in the black cloth seats and also in the door panels. I think that’s cool. The problem with that plan was that I had not bothered to remove my competition wheels and tires after my last autocross. Driving up to LA and back on what are essentially gumball race tires – especially when rain was threatened, would not be a good idea. It would take an hour to change back to my street setup. I decided not to change; a decision I would regret.

I got up early on Saturday, entered the address in my Garmin GPS and drove my Prius (a somewhat cool ride) to our meeting place in Torrance. There are certainly worse things than getting a solid 45 mpg, using regular gas, on the freeway.

As other members continued to arrive, we milled around the parking lot looking at each others “cool rides.” There were definitely some very cool vehicles there, but one in particular stood out for me. Anyone who has read a few car magazines has probably seen what manufacturers do to their yet-to-be-released-for-sale new automobiles when they’re giving them shakedown runs on public roads. They try to disguise them – adding cladding here, false logos there, long pieces of black tape, plastic sheets and so on. Well, one otherwise ordinary and not new car in the parking lot wore such a disguise. You had to see it. It stole the show, as far as I was concerned. What a hoot!

Soon we were given printed driving directions to the mystery location but were still not told specifically what it was we were going to see. The excitement was definitely building as we piled into our collection of interesting rides and took off on our half hour journey to the mystery destination.

We arrived at a nondescript warehouse. Most of us parked on the street and then walked into the gated compound, where we learned the secret. Surprise! It was where fellow MPG member Jay Leno keeps and works on his collection of automobiles. Better yet, Jay himself was there to give us a guided tour!


Mercer

Inside, Jay’s collection reminded me of mine – except that I have mostly 1:18 scale diecasts and, while he had some of those too, it was the ones in 1:1 scale (full size) that were so captivating. Particular vehicles that stood out for me were his antique fire engine, a jet-powered motorcycle, a beautiful Mercer and what looked like a phone booth on wheels. I also noticed a certain little red convertible (more on that later).

This was no hands-off, static collection. For example, Jay fired up his jet-powered motorcycle for us. It was a real jet engine, straight from a helicopter.


Jay Leno & his 1911 Baker

As one of many automotive murals on the walls confirmed, the vehicle that looked like a phone booth on wheels – or perhaps a Popemobile, was actually a 1911 Baker electric car. Jay seemed to really like his Baker too. He got in and silently drove it around the warehouse to entertain us. Since such technology existed way back in 1911, surely it could have been better developed and implemented in all these intervening years. We might not be nearly so dependent on oil had that been done.

At every stop on his tour Jay enthusiastically shared his thorough knowledge of his collection and answered our questions. High tech, low tech, old or new, it didn’t seem to matter. I was very impressed that he knew so much about the vehicles and items in his collection -- their inner workings, history and all.

He also was not hesitant to literally get his hands dirty as he showed us things. At one point he stopped by a workbench, upon which was what appeared to me to be a small assembly of engine parts. Then he started it. I was surprised to see that it was actually a small, yet complete and quite functional engine. He went on to explain what we were looking at.


One of many wall murals

Despite his celebrity, he also seems to be a genuinely nice, down-to-earth person. I mentioned to him that a couple of years ago at a car show at the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, my then-preteen daughter had asked if he would pose for a photo with her. I reminded him that he did so and added that in the process he made her feel very special. To this day she fondly remembers that moment.

I am sure that we all had a wonderful visit, but Power Tour V was not yet over. From Jay’s we drove to a famous, automotive-themed Big Boys restaurant in Burbank where we had lunch. In case you haven’t tried it, I recommend their chili, spaghetti and hamburger patty combination. Don’t scrunch up your face; it really is excellent and quite filling.

Our next (and final) drive on our tour was to a place called AUTOBOOKS/AEROBOOKS, also in Burbank. TV Tommy Ivo, the famous drag racer, was there to do an autograph session. The shop has a great selection of automotive books and diecasts. I could have spent hours there (actually, I did). However, shortly after I went in I noticed that one of the customers was none other than Jay Leno. There was no entourage, no crowd of celebrity hounds, just car guy Jay who had been checking out the neat stuff on the shelves, possibly to add something to his collection, just like us.

He was in the process of leaving and I was curious about his ride. I looked outside and discovered that rather than head towards a limo or perhaps some wonderful exotic, he was walking towards a red Mazda Miata! I think it was the same one that I’d seen earlier in his shop. With all of the cars he could have driven to a car place where his fellow MPG members were, he chose that particular vehicle. It would certainly seem that he really is a normal guy, despite his fame and wealth.

Remember when I told you earlier that I would regret not driving up from San Diego in my Miata? Well, this was when I especially did so. I think he might have enjoyed seeing it and talking with me about it, or perhaps discussing autocrossing.


Jay Leno & his Miata

Luckily I had the presence of mind to remember that I was carrying a camera. The problem, however, was that he was just about to get into the car and leave.  I steeled myself for a negative answer and asked him if I could take a picture of him beside his Miata, explaining that I am a member of the San Diego Miata Club and that my fellow members would probably like to see him with his car. Not only did he graciously agree, but he came back towards me and posed for the photo. Considering how busy he must be, that was nice of him to do.

Afterwards I went back into the shop and slowly walked the aisles, enjoying the many diecasts and books. While there I had the pleasure of speaking with Chet Knox, President of AUTOBOOKS/AEROBOOKS. Like Jay, he also is a fascinating person to talk to and has a special affinity for Corvettes. You might want to check out their website: autobooks-aerobooks.com. According to that, the shop is one of Motor Trend magazine’s top ten automotive destinations. They are located at 3524 West Magnolia Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505.

What a great day this was. Jay Leno is very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about automobiles. He reminds me of a good friend who never seems to tire of talking about cars; someone who will help work on them and is always up for going to an auto show or an auto manufacturer’s ‘ride and drive.’ I suspect that is exactly what he is like with his friends. Lucky them.

As always, please share your stories and send your comments to AutoMatters@gmail.com. Enjoy the archives and more at www.AutoMatters.net.  Drive safely and do join me again next time.

 

Copyright © 2005, 2006 Jan R. Wagner – #146r2 AutoMatters

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