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Jay Leno: The Collector

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Sometimes making something better is more important than making it original.

As our cars get older, we need to work hard to keep them on the road. The good news is 
that there are ways to do so, using modern technology, that don’t compromise the car. 

For example, if you have anything from before World War Two, chances are it has a non-pressurized cooling system and the chances of overheating are fairly high. Here in America we have a thing called Evans, which is a water-free coolant. I’ve had it in my Bugatti for almost seven years and it’s as clean as the day I put it in. It’s a life-of-the-car coolant. It’s not inexpensive, about $ 35 a gallon, but your boiling point is well over 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

I also have a 1941 fire truck, which is tremendously heavy, about six tons. It’s got drum brakes, and what I put in that is something called a Telma. It’s a frictionless brake that uses two big electromagnets fitted on the driveshaft; instead of using your brakes you have a lever on the dash, which you push and the magnets act on the shaft. Normally on a big truck you need new brake pads every 90 days. You can go five to seven years with this.

Then there’s my Doble steam car, which is considered the most advanced steam car ever built. It goes down the road at 70mph with 1000 pounds of pressure at 850 degrees. However hot you think internal combustion is, it pales in comparison to steam. This thing has 600 feet of coil wrapped inside a burner can.  When I got it I was curious about the temperature inside the burner so I put a thermometer in there as it went along. It was 2500 degrees. Pretty hot. Then the guy with me said, ‘Look it’s cooling,’ and I saw the gauge go to 1800 degrees, then 1500 degrees and I thought the fire had gone out. No, the probe had melted. It was almost 3500 degrees in there.

What happened eventually was, even though it was Inconel, it had burned through over 2000 miles of driving. The heat was so intense that the baffles inside were burning through.

I talked to a friend in the aerospace industry and we talked to 
a company called Plasma Coating who showed us what they did 
on the space shuttle. You bring them a piece of metal and electronically, using a laser, they paint on this ceramic coating.  You can hold this piece of coated metal in your hand and put a torch on it and you’ll feel the heat, but it won’t burn. So we’ve had this put on the inside of the burner can of the Doble.

Probably the greatest single tool for a car restorer is a 3D printer. Using this, you can make just about any part for any car.  When they first came out they were $2 million, then they were $250,000, and the one I have cost about $25,000. You scan anything and it makes you a piece, either plastic or cobalt steel – an exact copy of what you need.

Let’s say you have an Isabella and the Isabella script is missing from the side. You can either spend your life going to swap meets trying to find one or you can draw one on a computer or scan a real one and it will make you exactly that piece. We’ve used it to make connecting rods, parts that were thought to be no longer available. I mean, cars would sit for years, waiting for some little piece you can now make using the 3D printer.  Not only does the piece come out complete, it comes out functioning. If you put a crescent wrench in there and press the button, a couple of hours later you will get a working crescent wrench. Unbelievable. 

It’s a bit like the Jetsons – you press the button and a steak and baked potato come out. It can be the most complicated piece in the world, with lots of moving parts.  Or if the original piece broke, you can build up the metal in that area to make it just a little bit thicker than it was and therefore stronger than it was originally.

I don’t update all my cars. If you’re dealing with a rare Type 35 Bugatti or something, then you want to stick to original parts.  But if you’re like most people, running a car from the ’50s 
or ’60s, then converting to a dual master cylinder for the brakes just makes sense. Putting seatbelts in makes sense. Sensible upgrades make a car safer and often more efficient.

As for cars like my Toronado, where I have effectively made a modern car from the original, I think of this as ‘restomodding’ – restoring and modifying at the same time. I would never do that with a car that was a nice original old girl. But there are plenty of cars you can buy for a few hundred dollars that were more than likely going to be broken up anyway, so why not make them into your vision of what they should be. Worked for Carroll Shelby…


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