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Jay Leno's Column: The Collector

  • Jay Leno, August 2010 - 0
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Jay Leno on his father's cars, and driving 7-litres at 16.

There’s something about wanting the automobile your dad had as a kid. This seems to be a theme among most car folks that I meet – they want the motor they grew up with.

I was brought home from the hospital in a ’49 Plymouth. My dad then bought a ’57 Plymouth Belvedere with the big fins. The next car was a ’64 Ford Galaxie 500XL. And then the next model was the one I would actually get to drive – because I was 16 and got my driver’s licence – and that was the one that meant the most to me. It was a 1966 Ford 7 Litre, which was basically a big Galaxie.

I always loved that car. But it wasn’t a big success. Ford produced it as a model for only one year, and then in ’67 it just became an option package – you could get the Galaxie and then order the 7 Litre trim package. But for one year only – 1966 – that was the big year. I always wanted to find one of these. I started looking and they just never appeared.

There is a 7 Litre club here in America. I asked these guys to try and find me a four-speed car and we located one up in Canada. I bought it sight unseen. Mice had eaten the wiring. The whole deal. It was in a bit of a state.

It seemed an unbelievable car back in the day but I’d forgotten just how bad mid-’60s American suspension and brakes were. Coming off at exit ramps, if the sign said 45mph and you were doing 46mph, the Ford would be going EEEEEEECCHHHHH, sliding and screeching. I said: ‘Oh boy. We’ve got to update this a little bit.’

We got the car back to the shop and tore it apart. I realised what it would cost to redo the 428 stock engine, which gave only about 345bhp. So I ordered from Jack Roush a 511 cubic-inch fuelinjectedbig block. It’s basically the same block as the 427 Ford. But it’s modern, it’s aluminium, it puts out 575bhp and it meets emissions. And we hooked it to a six-speed gearbox.

We brought in a suspension expert. I wanted a big Ford that handled like a NASCAR. But I wanted to keep it stock looking. I like resto mods. Models that look stock, appear stock, but handle and drive like a modern car. We put air-con in it and sounddeadening material, which is just fantastic. It’s a quiet, modern car underneath.

The Ford originally came with bias-ply tyres. We fitted new radial ones that look like the originals. They even have the original red stripe. Fifteen, 20 years ago you couldn’t find parts for any of these ’60s motors. Now everything’s being re-made, re-manufactured.

It’s great fun to be able to drive these big old cars. And I mean big old car. This Galaxie is enormous. It’s about 3900lb. When I drive this thing around, guys in their 20s come up and go: ‘What is that?’ They can’t believe how big it is. And when you open the hood, not only is the engine enormous but there’s still enough space that you can almost stand inside the hood and work on it. They’re amazed at how accessible everything is. Spark plugs... everything is right there. We put a modern steering rack in it, too.

The car’s incredibly fast. It’s just hilarious. Suddenly you’re back in high school. I should have remarked that the last 7 Litre I had I wrapped around a tree. I’m being careful not to do that this time. That’s not easy.

One of the first times I take it out, I’m going down the highway and I look at the speedometer and the red needle’s gone. And I go, ‘Damn, I broke the speedo.’ Then I lift my foot and I see: ‘Oh, there it is.’ It’s coming back from 120, 115, 110mph. I realise I had buried the needle. It goes to only 120mph. I was just shifting through the gears; I kept my foot on it and I was putting it in sixth when I looked down and the needle had gone. But it didn’t disappear, I just buried it.

I imagine 0-60mph is somewhere around four seconds. It might be a tenth one way or the other. That feels about right. Don’t forget you’re still dealing with a fairly heavy car – it’s almost two tonnes. It’s a big wheelbase. Although we went to 16in wheels and a wider tyre, you still get a lot of wheelspin.

It took us about nine months to finish the Ford. As homage to my dad I did it in the original colour, the vintage burgundy that he ordered. So little wonder that when I get behind the wheel I feel like I’m stealing my old man’s car again.

If you want to see the 7 Litre, check out my website

Comedian and talk show host Jay Leno is one of the most famous entertainers in the USA. He is also a true petrolhead, with a massive collection of cars and bikes (see Jay was speaking with Jeremy Hart.


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