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Jay Leno: The Collector

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Not every car has to be iconic, some just have to be memorable.

I’m trying to understand why I enjoy driving certain cars that, to many, might not seem remarkable. I have a 1971 Mercedes-Benz SEL 6.3 and I also have a modern AMG E55, as well as an SLR. So why is the 6.3 my favorite of the three to drive? It’s certainly more primitive than the other two. When it was introduced it was the fastest four-door in America, with its 6.3-liter engine and 250 horsepower. It felt like a real 250, not like an American 250.

When I was a teenager I worked at a place called Foreign Motors. We were importers of Mercedes-Benz as well as other ‘fine foreign cars’. It was my job to detail them and deliver them to their new owners. I remember at the time Mercedes ran an ad asking why anyone would pay $ 10,000 for a four-door sedan, which seemed like an outrageous price at the time, and they had the whole list of reasons. When I delivered a 6.3 to a customer it always seemed like the richest, most luxurious car in the world.

When I drive mine now I notice the leather seems richer than new cars’ but the electric window switches don’t integrate the way they do in a modern Mercedes, the doors are way thinner and the steering wheel rim is extremely slim. But there’s something about driving it that’s fulfilling.

I was driving mine spiritedly and noticed, as I put my foot in while going around a corner, the right rear tire lift up and spin. I laughed to myself. It has air suspension, quite sophisticated back in the day, but that spinning wheel made me smile because it seemed so primitive. It seems much easier to place on the road because there’s not so much space between me and the outside, and there’s a lot of fuss and noise - like when you turn on the air-conditioner – that you don’t get in a modern Mercedes. There’s a rawness about it that I like.

This one has 326,000 miles on it. It’s got a few dings and dents and I picked it up quite cheaply. It’s my favorite style, with the two headlights stacked on top of each other. It looks like a prestigious car. But perhaps the reason I like it now is because it was so unobtainable in my youth, just so far out of my reach. When the 6.3 came out I was washing cars for $ 1.50 an hour. 
I would have had to work for ten years to have one.

It’s also about the time in which you grew up. When I was young anything with less than four doors might as well have been a Ferrari, because I grew up in a rural area in New England and people drove big four-door sedans or Galaxies or pick-up trucks. It was the type of place where you’d go uptown and you’d go home at 10:30 and someone would call up and say ‘Hey, a Corvette drove by!’ And you’d say ‘Nooooooooo! I missed it! 
I should have been hanging out with you guys!’ There was a guy 
a couple of towns over who owned a Vincent Black Shadow motorbike and he would ride through town. He never stopped, just went on through. And people would say, ‘Oh, that guy came by the other night. Where does he live?’

When I moved to California 25 years later my friend called me and said ‘Hey, that Vincent that used to go through town is for sale.’ Well, I bought it!

I didn’t know what it looked like, I’d only seen it go by, but I had to have it. It was such a legend! I get a huge kick out of riding it now, and there are maybe five guys in the whole world who are impressed that I have that one. As soon as I got it I called a friend from high school I hadn’t seen in 15 years and said ‘Remember that Black Shadow? I got it!’ He said ‘You did?!?’ He was so excited.

My wife thinks I’m crazy. She sort of understands most of the cars but there are some she just doesn’t get at all. One is a 1966 green Hemi Coronet, blackwall tires, dog-dish hubcaps, no power brakes, no power steering, but a big 426 dual-quad Hemi. It was the biggest, baddest Hemi and came with a 90-day warranty. My wife thinks it looks like a taxi.

Most Dodge Coronets were taxis, but down in the front quarter panel of mine is a little insignia that says ‘426 Hemi’. It might as well say Ferrari or Lamborghini because that was the car of legend when I was a kid. It doesn’t stop, it doesn’t go around corners, but you put your foot in it and it’s really fast. That was the one you had to have, but it was just a dream back then.

I think with these cars it all has to do with that sense of the unobtainable. The prettiest girl in high school still seems attractive to me because you go back to how she looked in high school. I guess it’s why we love classic cars; they hark back 
to another era.

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