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Jay Leno: The Collector

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First hand experience is the real automotive treasure.

When you own multiple cars, as I do, you belong to a lot of car clubs, and each has its own peculiarities. I am eternally grateful to these people because they are truly the keepers of the flame. Much like the monks during the Dark Ages, who saved the Gutenberg bibles, the knowledge of the ancient vehicle would be lost without their dedication. Most work tirelessly for no money, putting out newsletters. I realise a year seems like a lot for a pamphlet, but try to get that information on your own and see how much it costs.

Not long after acquiring my Tatra T87, I received a phone call from a gentleman overseas asking if I’d like to join the Tatra Club. I asked what was involved, he told me there was a newsletter published four times a year, a parts scheme, a get-together in the summer and a Christmas party. Eager to meet with other Tatra owners, I said it sounded terrific and asked how many members were in the club. He said ‘With you, it’ll make four.’ Just by joining I was 25% of the club.

I always thought that most car guys liked all makes of car but that’s not necessarily true. I have a friend who’s a Hemi expert. Not only can he decipher any Chrysler vehicle code, he can tell you what guys were working on the line the day that car was built.

When he came to my garage to see my two Hemis he noticed my Duesenberg. ‘What’s that?’ I said ‘It’s a Duesenberg SJ’. He asked if it was German. ‘No, it’s American. How can you be an American car guy and not know what a Duesenberg is?’ But he wasn’t really a car guy. He was a Hemi guy. He knew only that car.

What’s funny about some English clubs is that there are guys who have been in them for decades, so you have to be careful whom you befriend. I was at a Vincent club meeting once, talking about an old boy who had helped me with my Vincent and the club president stopped me. ‘Tell that bastard to return my spanners! He borrowed my wrench in ’74 and he never returned it!’ I am not interested in politics. I just want to keep my bike running.

The thing that unites all of these clubs is that most of them seem to be one-make fanatical. Vincent guys are Vincent guys, and there are no other motorcycles. Same for the Brough guys, the MG guys, the Triumph guys too. The ones I sometimes smile at are the couples at the meets; you know, the husband and wife in matching outfits – Mustang or Corvair or whatever it might 
be. That’s a bit OTT for me.

There’s a book, and a movie of course, called Fahrenheit 451, and it was about the Government burning books. Everyone had to memorize one book, and they carried that with them. That’s what a lot of these club guys are like. For example, I’ve had my Mercedes Gullwing for five or six years and I will meet these old guys in their 70s and 80s that have encyclopaedic knowledge of this vehicle – down to the smallest detail. It’s unbelievable. The Gullwing newsletter is fantastic: everything you wanted to know about your car. Every time I read it I find some little idiosyncrasy about my car; something you would not normally find in an owners’ manual. It’s fascinating to meet guys in their 80s who bought their Gullwing new. They’ve been driving it 50 years 
and know everything about keeping it on the road. That’s knowledge that can only be drawn from experience.

The internet has been a boon for all car stuff. Things that would normally have been thrown away end up on eBay. Now you go on eBay and type in Duesenberg and bing bing bing bing. The oddest things come up; someone puts it on eBay and someone buys it, for pretty big money. Normally that stuff would have gone in the back of a newsletter and now it goes on the internet.

What I would suggest all club owners do is this: at the next club meeting find your oldest member and videotape him telling stories about his car and how they dealt with it, how they fixed it and the problems they had with it. Save it, because when that old boy goes maybe 80% of his information will be passed on but there’s always a certain amount that is lost to history.

If you videotape them you get a sense of someone talking about what your car was like when it was new and you make that connection of seeing them and hearing them explain things. What might come across as extremely dry in a newsletter might come to life if you see a guy talking about it. The guy who bought his Gullwing in 1955 is not going to be around much longer.

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