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Jay Leno's Column: The Collector

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When I was a kid I used to read about the monks that saved the Book of Hours from the rampaging hordes

They hid it and spent their whole lives protecting it, and I know guys who kind of do that with car parts.

One day I was driving my ’55 Buick down the street and these two old guys pulled up next to me in a ’56 or ’57 Buick. They had Buick hats on and satin Buick jackets and they were honking the horn. So I waved at them and they shouted over, ‘We’re the Buick Club! Follow us! Follow us!’ So I followed this guy to his house in The Valley and there were Buicks all over the guy’s front and back yards.

We went in the back door and through the kitchen. As we went in, I saw there were two sinks, one of which was filled with car parts soaking in some kind of degreaser. All the cabinet doors were off and there were carburettors and parts labelled and lovingly put in the cabinets.

Then, as we walked through the living room, there were piles of tires and old license plates. So I said to the guy, ‘Single man, are you?’ And he said, ‘Yeah. How’d you know?’ His wife left, like, eight years ago. So I said, ‘Well, what do you guys do?’ And he explained, ‘We collect Buicks. Every time we see a Buick we stop the guy and bring him here and show him what we got.’

I used to think they were rather odd, but as I get older and collect more eclectic-type vehicles I find I love these guys. They are the monks of the 21st century. I just bought a ’58 Lancia Aurelia. It’s a car that had been sitting for quite a while, so I put it up on the ramps and dropped the transaxle and I realized water had got in somewhere and it needed new bearings. So I started calling Italy and I was having a hard time, until I found out there was a Lancia Aurelia guy in Pennsylvania. All he does is Lancia Aurelia parts. How many Lancia Aurelias are there in the US? There can’t be more than 15.

So I called this guy, whose phone must ring about once every four months, and he said, ‘Yeah. I got all those parts.’ He had everything: brand new clutch, new bearings, everything. Everything new in the box. For some reason he bought all these things years ago and saved them, then just waited for someone like me to come along and buy them.

Cars that attract these guys tend to be cars that were misunderstood in their time. I have a friend in The Valley here who collects nothing but Austin [Morris in Europe] Marina parts. He thinks they’re the greatest cars and he has all the parts you need for an Austin Marina.

It’s not just collecting parts that people are compulsive about. There are guys who will know every single thing about just one car. I have a buddy who’s a Hemi expert. He knows every Hemi ever put in any car. He can look at the engine block and tell you the day it was manufactured, what options the car has, what the paint code means. He can tell you by a chalk mark whether Larry was working on the line that week. Everything.

So I invited him over one day to have a look at my two Hemi cars, a ’66 Coronet and a ’70 Dodge Challenger. Then I asked if he wanted to have a look at the Duesenbergs. ‘What’s that? A German car?’ So I said, ‘No, it’s American. How can you know cars and not know that?’ And then I realized that he doesn’t know anything else. It’s like in the novel Fahrenheit 451, when books are banned and everyone memorizes one book and they just walk in circles reciting it so they can pass it on to the next person.

What these guys have in common is that they all tend to be over 50 and divorced. They all tend to be social misfits, but I have to admit I’m somewhat attracted to that. They can talk for hours on their chosen field. That’s what I always find interesting.

In one way I am like these guys. I have almost every automobile magazine I have bought since I was 15. I have copies of Road & Track, Car and Driver. I even have my issue of Car magazine with Setright on the cover driving the Miura. Those are such vivid images to me. When I think back to my teenage years, I can’t remember the name of the first girl I had sex with, but I remember the Miura on the cover of Car.I cannot bring myself to throw out a car magazine, so I just rent garages and put the magazines in there.

I couldn’t possibly read all the magazines I have, but some day a 15- or 16-year-old kid will say to me, you know, I love the era of the ’50s and ’60s. And I’ll say, I have every magazine! And I will be a hero to that young man.


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