There are lots of upsides to having a TV show in the United States but the downside is you don’t get much privacy. The paparazzi tend to invade my life – but not intrusively so – and, because I don’t drink, smoke or gamble, the only stuff they really get on me involves my cars. Not that I mind, but very rarely are any of them petrolheads who know anything about cars.
Recently I pulled up to a comedy club in Hollywood and I was driving my 1925 Model T – I’ve had it for years and I paid something like a few thousand dollars for it. As I pulled up the valet came running out and he immediately wanted to park it. If you know anything about a Model T, you’ll know a valet is not going to know how to park that car. So I said ‘No, that’s okay, I’ll park it myself,’ and the paparazzi came over and took my picture. I didn’t think anything of it. Two days later on one of the tabloid websites and also in a magazine is the headline: ‘Cheapskate Leno refuses to let valet park his ultra-rare, million-dollar Model T.’
First of all, the valet wouldn’t have known how to drive it. Secondly, Model Ts are not rare and they don’t cost a million dollars. There’s still a million of them on the road.
Then a few weeks later I’m driving my 1907 White steam car and as I’m cruising along at 40mph I say to Bernard, who works for me at the shop, ‘Man, the sun is hot on the back of my head,’ and he says ‘I can feel it too.’ I look over and there’s flames licking my ear. The whole back seat is on fire. And I pull over and use the fire extinguisher. I’m right in front of a restaurant.
Some waiters came out and we got the fire out. The car’s made of wood and it had caught on fire but the nice thing is there’s no wires or ignition system and once you’ve put the fire out you’re free to light the burner again and continue driving. I thanked everybody involved and a guy said ‘Can I take some pictures?’ I said ‘Okay’. Then a few days later I see the headline: ‘Leno pimped-out hot rod with oversize wheels catches fire.’ It’s a 1907 White steam car. They never get their facts right.
And America’s litigious too. Once, I’m driving my 1913 Mercer Raceabout and I’m on the 405 freeway – the busiest in the world – and it’s not quite bumper-to-bumper but people are going about 35mph, and this guy pulls up alongside me and says ‘What’s that?’ I tell him and say ‘Careful of the car in front.’ And he’s still chatting and I’m saying ‘Watch the car in front’ and bang! he hits the car in front. He was okay, but a month goes by and I’m named on a lawsuit for driving a ‘mobile distraction’! An automobile designed to get people’s eyes off the road. Well, I went to court and won.
It’s never anything of any real consequence but paparazzi rarely get the story correct. And the thing that bugs me most? They never properly record what the vehicle is!
One day I’m watching the Barrett-Jackson auction and I see ‘The special Leno-edition Corvette’ come up. And I’m thinking ‘What’s that?’ This guy was selling a one-off car, apparently built especially for me, and it was being sold. The thing that annoyed me most was that it was an automatic and everybody who knows me knows I wouldn’t order an automatic Corvette.
But what had happened was, I remember a guy coming up to me once with the plastic valve cover of a Corvette. And he asked me if I’d sign it, and I said ‘Sure’. So I signed my name and he went and put it on his car.
And then he went and had a golf jacket made – I’ve never played golf in my life – and had Jay Leno sewn on the pocket. And he had my name put on a golf hat. Then he got a picture of President George Bush that said ‘To Jay, best of luck, George Bush.’ Put that in a frame. And sold it as a package.
Now I’m watching the auction, and I hear them say: ‘This is a car made especially for Jay Leno and it’s been verified by a company in Arizona.’ And none of this is true. But Barrett-Jackson were great. When I told them, they gave the guy who bought the car his money back. And I called the people who authorized it and they said ‘Well, it looked like your car. It had your name on it and we assumed it was yours.’ I said ‘It’s your job to verify it!’
But my favorite is ‘Jay Leno, who has over a hundred cars, is so tired of losing his car keys, he has had a gold master key made to fit all his cars.’ Yeah… from Stanley steamer to McLaren F1!