One of the best things to have happened to car people, in my opinion, is YouTube. It has changed the game for car lovers, and probably for many other hobbies as well. As a kid, I remember serendipitously catching the occasional Formula 1 race, Indy, and a few other motorsport events. When it happened, I was glued to the TV. That little access I had to video car content is now a minor droplet in the ocean compared to what we can now access online. Highly passionate folks who find themselves at the crossroads of television personality and car culture have emerged as great ways for us to learn more so much more about this hobby than we could in the past. I have extra respect for folks who are not new to the passion for cars. We got there the hard way. Some of these folks had already amassed strong collections long before there was a way to share them with the world. One of the foremost among this special breed is Jay Leno. I’ve watch countless online videos of his in addition to his CNBC program – often on cars I previously knew very little about to the point of not being particularly interested, only to find myself enthralled by the stories of their creation or preservation. When presented with a chance to bid on a trip to see Jay’s “Big Dog Garage” in Burbank for myself, there was little hesitation.
The opportunity came about at last year’s annual gala for the Audrain Automobile Museum in Newport. If you haven’t attended this event, it is spectacular, although not for the faint of wallet. Jay was in attendance along with quite a few luminaries of the car world and was kind enough to present trips to visit his garage as auction prizes to raise funds for the museum. My paddle was poised and ready.
After the dust settled, my wife and I found ourselves with a trip for six people to visit the garage. When they say that the anticipation of a trip is often better than the trip itself, this isn’t the type of event they were describing.
We flew from Providence to Detroit (funny, that) and then out to Los Angeles. Pretty easy flights, all told. We needed a large vehicle for the six of us and our luggage in LA, so we piled into a rental Suburban and motored away from the airport. LA traffic is notorious so we expected the worst. Honestly, yes, it’s bad. But it’s not as bad as some would have you believe. Maybe it feels worse when you have six lanes and they are all packed? But really it was just pockets of slowdowns here and there. Waze did an admirable job of snaking us through neighborhoods at times to avoid the worst of it. We probably saw much more of the city that we would have if the highways were perfectly clear. Every cloud has a GT Silver metallic lining at times.
Our trip to the garage was the day after we landed so we had time to spare and visited the La Brea tar pits right near a few other notable museums – and, yes – the tar is literally bubbling up even now to the surface of the ground. If you walked through it, you’d likely soon be stuck and become a fossil as well. They have excavated many pits so far and in some of them have found over fifty fossilized saber-toothed tigers! LA has been a happening spot for millions of years!
Finally, it was time to drive up to Burbank for a tour of the garage. It was a little uncanny to cruise the same streets where I used to watch Jay on video giving most of the cars he reviewed the good, old-fashioned burnout treatment. The garage is obviously non-descript from the street. We parked up our beastly Suburban on the street and walked over to the call box to attempt to gain entry. We were greeted warmly and buzzed in to find none other than Jim Hall greeting us and making introductions. It’s so cool to meet folks I consider to be pretty famous and to see that they are just as nice off-screen as they appear to be on-screen. Jim passed us over to John, the shop manager and life-long friend of Jay’s, for the full tour.
We walked over to the second building (yes, there are two now) to greet the familiar entry point scene of dual Lamborghini Miuras and the Countach. Beyond the overwhelming cars, what struck me immediately is the scale of the building. It’s far bigger than it appears on film. It looks like it continues on forever almost. What you see on the videos is really about one-seventh of just one of the buildings. When Jay says he has a lot of motorcycles, honestly, you can’t comprehend what he actually means. We’re talking hundreds. More than we had adequate time to even contemplate talking about. We stuck to the cars, mostly, although the entire room filled with Brough Superior motorcycles (not even all of them) is something I’ve never seen on video. It was spectacular. Nearly a religious experience type of space. As we wound our way past his vast holdings and John explained the manners in which many of the cars came into Jay’s possession, what was striking was how the collection really is more of a collection of objects that reflect the incredible stories of interesting people than it is truly about the cars themselves.
One item in Jay’s collection summed that concept up for me nicely. John showed us a car that was hand-built by a young man whose father told him that if he wanted a car, he needed to build one himself. So he did. His name was Bob Shotwell. Bob visited junkyards and salvaged bits of metal and worked odd jobs like crop dusting in order to pull together his own unique, hand-built vehicle. This was in the 1931. It got a few upgrades over time for safety and reliability but remained in the family long into a time where the vehicle was old and in bad shape from sitting in the back yard for years. By then Bob was a very successful pilot and business person and could afford more. But his car, dubbed Philbert the Puddle Jumper, was still very special to him and he feared that it might be torn apart for it’s now-precious Indian motorcycle engine. Unfortunately, Bob became ill and wanted only one thing before he died – he wanted Jay to take over stewardship of his old car. He wrote many letters to Jay but the volume of mail Jay received at that time was over 100,000 letters per month!
The letters didn’t get through and the man’s health deteriorated. After two years of trying, Bob made a last attempt by calling the NBC studios in NYC. They never take calls except this time. NYC happened to pass him through to the studio in California who never take calls. They happened to pass the call through to Jay’s booking person who never takes calls. And she happened to be sitting in the room with Jay at that moment. After speaking with Bob, Jay agreed to come get the car immediately and began to feverishly restore the car to try to finish it before Bob’s final number was called. Despite their best efforts – it took two years – they missed by about a week. But Bob died happily knowing that his singular memento of a life of industry would live on beyond his years.
Jay made good on getting the car restored and it sits proudly in the collection among so many other cars with similarly interesting storied histories. Many of us who are afflicted by a passion for this hobby have similar origin stories that drive so much passion and joy into our lives. Seeing a person collect these stories, largely through the automotive artifacts left behind…well, it really is a thing of great beauty. Being able to see it in person really was a very special experience that I will treasure. Part of my traveling group for this trip included my uncle and Godfather, Brian, the man who introduced me to Porsche in his 1970 911T when I was eight years old. I was able to regale John with my own origin story of riding in that car in the summer from Connecticut up to Fenway for my first Red Sox game with my uncle at the wheel. By 1980, it was already an aging car and had the heat stuck on in August. It smelled of gas and oil and German vinyl. And I loved every minute of it, vowing to make sure to check off the Porsche 911 box in my lifetime.
We had a few more days to fill out in LA and the vicinity so we set about quite a few other tourist pursuits and dining experiences. My son wanted to make a pilgrimage to the three-story Michael Jordan sneaker store in downtown LA which has a basketball court on the roof. We took in the Japanese American National Museum with it’s poignant recollection of the internment camps from WWII. The included exhibit of Ultraman toys lightened the mood a little bit.
And, of course, we had to visit the Peterson Museum. Having missed the Porsche Effect exhibit by just a couple of weeks hurt a bit, made a bit more raw knowing I’d miss the upcoming Luftgekuhlt 6 event. Against my very patient wife’s protestations, we did the much-recommended “vault tour” – and, boy, was it worth it. Not least for the fact that many of the Porsches from the Porsche Effect show were still hanging out down there! To give you a small sense of it, at one point there were three cars next to each other – a 959, a Gmund coupe, and a Porsche 901. Just sitting there. As we moseyed toward a roughly $12M 1969 911 R, we got a surprise visitor to “the vault.” Who happened to pop in to give the Gmund a look but Jeff Zwart himself! We exchanged smiles as he went about his business. His is a hand I have long wanted to shake and I would have loved a picture with him, too. But such fan behavior was not to be solicited in “the vault.” We had to hope for another opportunity. Besides the amazing Porsches down there, we saw things like the very first Ferrari ever built. The first. Priceless and irreplaceable and just sitting there in front of us. How about a Corvette design study that looked just like a Ferrari done by none other than Carroll Shelby. Had that car gone into production, we’d have no Shelby’s or Cobras or Ford GTs!! Ponder that for a moment. True history. Our guide was talking as fast as he possibly could manage and yet we still had to skip about every fourth car in “the vault” for time. It was seriously mind-blowing stuff. Star cars, race cars, presidential cars, show cars, you name it. Sadly, the tour ended and we had to resurface to the main museum.
After I looted the gift shop for a program from the Porsche Effect show and some t-shirts, we headed back to our cargo-barge Suburban but who happened to be right there in the parking garage? Mr. Zwart himself. I’m not shy so I walked up and introduced myself and asked if he wouldn’t mind a quick photo with us. What a nice guy! He was absolutely warm and perfectly nice. He recommended that I attend the Luft show…oh, how I’d love to… Finally, we got our photo. I promptly put it up on my Instagram account and even got a nice comment about it from Jeff! When they say that LA is the place to go if you love cars and Porsches, I will submit this evidence as proof positive.
A few days out West have definitely shown that it’s not as hard to run with the big dogs as it might seem at first – they really are very nice, in fact – but you have to get yourself to LA. As for me, I haven’t even landed back East and I can’t wait to go back.