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Jay Leno's Column: The Collector

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Whenever I read Letters to the editor in some magazines, people complain about the relevance of the Lamborghinis, the Enzo Ferraris and the SLR McLarens: no-one can drive these things quickly, so what’s the point of having them?

Well, the point is that the technology starts with these cars and then gets used on everyday motors. For example, I’ve had a tremendous amount of publicity here in America for the Z06 Corvette that’s been heavily modified by Pratt & Miller, the guys who won Le Mans five times with the Corvette; and it runs on E85, an alternative fuel.

It’s got 600bhp, 600lb ft of torque and has been on the cover of Autoweek and some other magazines here in the States. Now, if I said I had a four-cylinder econobox that runs on E85 and gets 25 miles per gallon and doesn’t use any fossil gasoline, I wouldn’t even get a mention. People like high performance and this is a way of having your cake and eating it.

Performance cars are important because everything from airbags to anti-lock brakes started in the high-end models and then trickled down to more mainstream cars. In fact, here in America, land of the lawsuit, there’s a guy suing one of the major automobile manufacturers on the grounds that his 1976 car should have had an airbag because they were thinking about it at the time. They had thought about inventing it but hadn’t actually done it. So he is now suing because he had an accident in this 32-year-old car.

My Corvette is what they call a Flexfuel vehicle: it can run on E85 or it can run on gasoline. Although E85 is still a little tricky to get in California, I’ve cut my gas consumption by at least two-thirds, and I still have all the power I need. If E85 is not a superior fuel – and many hot rodders say it is – it is at least an equal fuel. The downside is that you lose 20-30% gas mileage. The cool thing is that you drive on it, you wait for the crops to come in, and then you drive on it again. The fact that the price of a tortilla might hit is neither here nor there.

Pratt & Miller have also fixed all the complaints people have had about the Corvette. Many people thought the interior was not up to the standards of Porsche and Ferrari, so that’s been upgraded with custom leather and carbonfiber. The real excitement, though, is that they’ve equipped the car with a 500 cubic-inch small-block V8 – the first aluminium 500cu-in small-block.

Back to alternative fuels: I don’t think E85 will save the car from extinction but I do think it will save supercar owners from angry mobs. There are people who think I go back to my garage and start all of my cars up and leave them idling 24 hours a day. That’s not right. My goal is to be as carbon neutral as possible.

I now have wind turbines and 270 solar panels on the roof of my garage and I actually produce more electricity during the day than I am using. I give it back to the electricity company and at the end of the month it sends me a check.

E85 is not 100% guilt-free because energy is used to raise the crops. I understand that, but it is also putting our farmers back to work. I think we’ll find more and more efficient ways of making E85 or bio-diesel or even hydrogen. This is a very exciting time to live, because you can get supercar performance with some pretty good energy trade-offs. I have driven some hydrogen vehicles, the BMW 7-Series for instance, and they’re been really impressive.

A friend of mine has a ’38 Packard that he’s been driving for 25 years on natural gas. Most of the buses in most of the cities here in the States run on compressed natural gas. The problem is not the car; the problem is the fuel.

I don’t think gasoline will run out. I think there are reasonable supplies for the next couple of hundred years. If we conserve it, I think what will happen is you will drive to work in some fuel-efficient hydrogen/electric/bio-diesel vehicle, and at the weekends your Hemi Cuda, your Ferrari, even your MG or your TR3, will become the equivalent of a snowmobile or similar: something that you just use for recreation.

Also, the average collector car in America rarely does more than 2000 miles a year, if that. Nobody that I know is driving a Hemi Cuda to work every day. I mean, I’ve got a Hemi Challenger and the minute hand and the gas gauge needle move at almost the same rate.As alternative fuels come into play, we can still roll, explode and make noise – but our supercars will just run on different fuels.


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