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Jay Leno: The Collector

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What happened to concept cars and coachbuilding?

When I look at concept cars now they don’t seem to be concepts anymore, just cars that are more stylized – more like prototypes. Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, you’d go to an auto show and every car would have a bubble top, fighter plane controls instead of a steering wheel, and a jet engine or similar sort of propulsion. These flights of fancy were never meant to be produced, they were just fantasy cars; somebody’s idea of what the future would perhaps look like.

A lot of concepts now are like iPhones on wheels. They’re about the driver being able to text and play games while driving, which I never understood. So the cars drive themselves and you just sit there? Where I come from, that’s called the bus. That’s not driving. But I’m probably in the minority.

A huge old Popular Mechanics poster in my garage shows a space ship-looking car with four people sitting as if they’re in a living room, and it says: ‘It’ll be here in two years!’ Well, that was 1941 and it still hasn’t arrived.

Back in the 1980s, Franco Sbarro would make these crazy concepts. And Bertone had cars with such raked windshields that you couldn’t even sit in them, you’d have to lay down. But that’s OK, because it was a concept and it looked cool. Most concepts I see now are more practical because the auto business is so on the edge.

All that said, I think we’re in a golden age of coachbuilding. Back in the 1920s and ’30s there were any number of design houses that would build you whatever you wanted – if you had enough money. You’d bring, say, your Bentley chassis and they’d make a body to suit. Those days are back: consider the X-1, the one-off McLaren MP4-12C commissioned by a Middle Eastern client. Government regulations mean you must now buy the car, licence it, tax it and then give it to the coachbuilder to remake. The days of the car leaving the factory as you want it are over. With enough money, you can have whatever you want.

Most people have no idea what they want. You have to design it first and show it to them. It’s best to let the stylist come to you with his ideas. But occasionally you’ll see a car a rich guy designed himself and they’re just hilariously awful. It makes you appreciate how good real designers are. Sometimes, though, a bespoke automobile works. I have an aerodynamic Duesenberg that was the marque’s most expensive factory-bodied car ever. It was made for Josiah Lilly, son of Eli – the pharmaceutical Lilly. It was the first Duesenberg designed in a wind tunnel, a true one-off. Josiah was very conservative and he didn’t realise it was a flashy, bullet-looking car. People would throw rocks at it; this was mid-Depression and he looked like the guy coming to collect the rent. He kept it only a short time because it was so racy-looking and ostentatious, it embarrassed him. When I got the car it had been converted to a tow truck, with the whole back end cut out of it.

These days the car market is feast or famine. In America the price break is $50,000. Anything above that is a little too much for most people. Unless you count different-colored Minis, the idea of getting a custom in that range is impossible, but at the other end of the spectrum you have billionaires who will pay millions.

The Forbes richest Americans used to be millionaires. Now they’re all billionaires. So you have people who can’t afford anything over $50,000, and then this very different group who don’t want a regular car, they want something different. They go to, say, Bentley, and they get what they want.

Thanks to these billionaires there is now a market for it. Savile Row for car guys. The difference is, if a suit is badly made it’s not going to kill anybody. A lot more work goes into an automobile. Nobody can make a bespoke car from the ground up without adhering to government regulations.

Would I order a bespoke car? I have a lot of unique automobiles but I really don’t want a Leno special. Cars with people’s names on them have never been particularly successful. The ego gets in the way and ruins the design purity. I’m not a designer, but I’d like to see what other people could do: I realise something someone else has made for me is better than I could make for myself.

As I did recently at a people’s car design forum in Beijing with Simon Loasby, Bentley Continental GT designer and now working for VW in China, I’d be happy to give my opinion about what I like: two doors only, reasonably aerodynamic, not flashy, no wing, no flares or add-ons, a clean design. Then see what people bring to you. That’d be fun. Please just don’t make it an iPhone on wheels.

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