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Jay Leno: The Collector

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Rear-wheel drive isn't an option in Jay's book, it's mandatory!

When i first heard the McLaren P1 would be a hybrid, I got a bit nervous. For most of the world hybrid means, if not front-wheel drive, at least four-wheel drive. I have always preferred my sports cars to be rear-wheel drive.

Having grown up on cars that had big engines and not very good brakes, everything from XK120s to Hemi Mopars, I find the idea of sliding to scrub off speed or using the transmission to slow down makes for a more skilful, more fun, driving experience.

I thought, what’s the P1 going to be? It’ll be 60% rear-wheel drive and when you step on the gas the front wheels will grip. I realize that is probably more efficient and that less energy would be lost through spinning tires and all that, but it doesn’t make it a more fun driving experience.

Driving doesn’t get much purer than the McLaren F1 or the Lotus Elan. Both rear-wheel drive. So I was thrilled when I heard the P1 would be rear-wheel-only and 
that the hybrid power would 
be seamlessly introduced and whatever millisecond of turbo-lag there might be would be more than compensated for by the electric motor. The P1’s hybrid power will help it to be future-proof: supercars might not be allowed into city centers. Hybrid cars are likely to be exempted.

Rear-wheel drive goes way back. Systeme Panhard made sense: engine in the front, transmission in the middle, drive in the back. The idea of pulling a car through a turn, as front-wheel drive does, might be more efficient for a road car, but not so much for a race car or a sporting car. It’s great fun to slide the rear end out.

I grew up in New England with dirt roads and ice, and the idea of hanging the tail out and giving it a bit of throttle and bringing it back and straightening out. I don’t know whether we were good drivers or not but we always felt like racing drivers, like we were saving it from the brink of sliding off the road, that through our superior skill we were able to rescue the car.  To this day, I’ll throw the car sideways and nail it, feel it start to slide, then lift off the pedal until I get a bit more traction, it hooks up and I nail it and kind of fishtail through. It’s a great driving experience.

That’s not to say I don’t like front- or four-wheel drive. I admire what Audi is able to do and in New England there were tons of four-wheel-drive Audis. Their tremendous traction is the benefit, especially in inclement weather.

The first experience I had with front-wheel drive was as a kid and my friend’s mom had a three-cylinder two-stroke Saab with front-wheel drive. In the snow we were astounded! Amazing! But somehow rear-wheel drive has been the default for me.

I grew up in an era when rear-wheel-drive cars were pretty easy to work on because everything was a separate section. You could go to a junkyard and pick up a Ford or a Chevy that had been hit in the front and all that meant was a busted radiator; maybe fix an A-arm and you were back on the road. With a front-wheel-drive car everything was packed so tight in the front that any accident knocked everything out of whack.

Once you put the drive and the steering through the front wheels I think you lose a little bit. Obviously it’s done very well now so you get some road feel, but what you get is simulated. Steering through front wheels that are being driven is never as precise as when those wheels are used for steering alone. With artificial feedback and power steering and all that, they can introduce all those things and you can dial in just how much road feel you want. But it’s not the actual road feel, it’s what you’re dialling in.

So rear-wheel drive will always be my favorite. Last night I drove home in my ’66 Corvair, which has a turbocharged flat-six in the back with 180 horsepower. The steering is so light you only run 18psi in the front tires but it’s such a revelation to drive.

Once you’ve driven a Lotus Elan it spoils you for how light a car should be. You get such joy from just touching the wheel. You can run over a dime and know whether it’s heads or tails. That’s how sensitive it is. With its skinny tires, when you feel it just start to slide and give it a little more gas, you can spin the tires and feel it hook up. You feel like you’re driving, really experiencing the car.

I talk to people who aren’t car people and they have no idea whether their car is four-wheel drive or front-wheel drive. They don’t know what the term even means. I hope and trust, therefore, that the last five minutes or so of your life has not been wasted reading this!

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