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Jay Leno: The Collector

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Is the do-it-yourself enthusiast a thing of the past?

There are certain things that bind you to a car and I think changing oil is one of them. It’s relatively easy to do and you get your hands dirty, so you really feel as if you’re working on the car. It never occurred to me at any point not to change the oil on my cars.

I have a Jaguar XJ and the first service was done at the dealer. Now I’m not one of these people that likes to go to 10,000 miles before an oil change, I like to change it every 3000-4000 miles. So when I got my Jag I put it up in the air and there’s a bit of a belly pan you have to take off. So I drained the oil, eight quarts it was, and changed the filter. All OK. There’s no dipstick, so you have to check the level electronically. I’m pressing the button for that and can’t get it to work so I call the Jag dealer. The guy says: ‘Oh yeah, you drive the car, get it hot, shut it off, wait 20 minutes and then press the button.’

‘20 minutes? Why would I wait 20 minutes? What if I pull into a gas station?’ I said.

‘Well, the oil’s not going anywhere,’ was his response.

‘Well, I don’t know whether I put the correct amount in.’ That’s the way the discussion went.

So when I was at Pebble Beach I ran into the Jaguar people and I asked them about changing the oil on my car and they said: ‘Why would you do that?’

I said that I change the oil on all my cars. They said they had never had a customer change the oil on a modern Jag. ‘I can’t be the only one,’ I said. And they said: ‘Yes, you are the only one that has asked that question.’ It just struck me as odd.

I guess people don’t change their oil any more. To me, that seems like a part of the whole car experience. Not only changing the oil, but looking at the oil – is it dark, does it appear to have metallic substances in it? Does it look as if there might be coolant or water in it? But apparently it’s just not done any more.

As I went through my garage, I realized the Duesenbergs are the easiest to change. You put a pan under, open the hood, flick a lever that’s right on the engine block and it automatically opens and dumps the oil, then you shut the lever and it’s oil-tight. Easy. Mind you, it says to change the oil every 750 miles.

The worst for an oil change is the tank car, which has the M47 Patton tank engine in it. It’s got 17 gallons of oil! It’s not easy to drain 17 gallons of oil all at one time because nobody has a 17-gallon bucket. So you stand by with a large number of buckets, usually a minimum of ten, and you slide each one underneath and fill it, then you drive to the waste disposal place with your 17 gallons. That one’s a little tricky.

The best example of the benefit of looking at your engine oil would have to be the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing. I have a 1955 Gullwing and that has mechanical fuel injection. When you shut off it still injects a small amount of gasoline into the cylinder, which can drip into the oil.

It makes me realise that the fuel injection – as amazing as the Gullwing was in its day for being the first fuel-injected vehicle – well, it wasn’t perfect. So that’s a classic example of the importance of looking at your oil. Most of the new supercars are hermetically sealed. With the Porsche 918 or the McLaren P1 you physically can’t open anything to touch the engine. You have to take the car apart.

As much as I love my McLaren 12C, you have to have your seatbelt on to check the oil. You get into the car, buckle your seatbelt, start it up, put it in neutral and then rev the engine and hold it at 2000rpm while you press the button and wait for the oil level reading to appear.

It’s not just how you check your oil (or not) these days. The oil itself has changed. There is a huge difference between modern oils and older oils. Modern oils are amazing. You can go 10,000 miles. You have 0W40 viscosity ratings now. Oils that are so thin, because of friction and bearing surfaces that are so close, that these oils are barely a film. They won’t work in older cars because they’re too thin. The oil pumps in older cars need the thickness of the oil simply to get the pump to work, or else the stuff just slides through it.

I realise that I’m one of a dying breed, and that most people just don’t want to deal with oil anymore, but it really does bond you with the car. Once you’ve changed the oil and cleaned up the car and taken it for a ride, you just feel more of a sense of accomplishment. And you’re not as likely to want to get rid of the car. You like holding onto it because you’ve actually done something to improve it.

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