On a sunny day in the Burbank hills, Jay Leno's canary yellow McLaren supercar shatters the silence.
Wedged into the cockpit of the 903-horsepower hybrid P1, Leno darts around a curve and leans into the throttle. With the midday roads free of traffic, the $1.2-million McLaren surges through the canyon with a controlled fury.
"I just can't stop driving it," Leno says at a stop sign, before roaring off again. "It's just a perfect blend of science and technology.... And you get the anthropomorphic sounds of the engine breathing."
Back in Burbank where the drive started, a nondescript hangar next to the airport houses Leno's enviable collection of 130 cars, 93 motorcycles and a menagerie of engines, spare parts and memorabilia. The world knows Leno from late-night TV and stand-up comedy, but within car circles, Leno and his collection eclipse even his contribution to the annals of television.
"The Tonight Show" was a job. Cars are an obsession.
Most blue-chip car collectors focus on a particular marque or era and curate it like artwork. Jerry Seinfeld, for instance, sticks to Porsches. Local businessman Peter Mullin prefers French art deco cars and keeps his in a museum. Leno's friend and neighbor, Bruce Meyer — board vice chairman at L.A.'s Petersen Automotive Museum — is into American hot rods.
Leno takes a more organic approach: He just buys what he likes, across a seemingly limitless spectrum of styles, eras, cost, countries of origin and methods of propulsion. He's keen on cars with an intriguing back story, or those marking an engineering milestone.
But mostly Leno just buys cars he wants to drive. He finds it silly to collect cars purely for show.
"I never thought of it as a collection," said Leno, looking over the rows of neatly parked classics. "Probably in the mid-1980s, I just started to keep stuff."
The simple strategy has since filled a warehouse with one of the world's most valuable and eclectic collections.
There are old and new supercars, from such high-flying marques as McLaren and Lamborghini. There's an American muscle car section, the vintage Bugatti section, the Duesenberg section. There are century-old electric cars and steam-powered cars of the same era. The British grouping houses the old-school Bentleys and Jaguars, and the odd Bristol and Lotus.
Behind nearly every model is a huge, hand-painted replica of an original advertisement for that car. Over the years, when NBC artists had downtime, Leno would pay them to recreate the ads in mural size. Look closely and you'll notice Leno's likeness among the drivers.
Leno was 14 when he bought his first vehicle, for $350, in 1964. It was a 30-year-old Ford truck that, at first, sat idle in his parent's driveway in a middle-class suburb of Boston, Mass.
"Of course it didn't run — why did you think my father let me buy it?" Leno said with a chuckle.
He learned how to get it running before he got his license. Leno then found work at a Rolls-Royce and Bentley dealership, where he first found inspiration to become an entertainer — his only chance, he figured, of ever owning a Bentley. His collection now includes a handful of vintage Bentleys from the 1920s and '30s.
Yet for all Leno's talk about the intricacies and the history of his cars, he never brings up the large sums of money involved.
"Jay doesn't buy for the investment," said David Gooding, president and founder of Gooding & Co., a high-end auction house in Santa Monica. "His buying is completely out of passion and love."
Leno has picked up many cars long before the collecting world discovered them and started bidding up prices.
These include the McLaren F1. In the late 1990s, these cars sold for about $1 million new. Gooding's company sold one last year for $8.5 million. Leno picked up many of his Duesenbergs before that market exploded. Models that were hundreds of thousands of dollars in the 1980s and 1990s took off after 2000. They now regularly sell for many millions of dollars.
Leno's 1967 Lamborghini Miura P400 — which Dean Martin bought new for his son Dino — was given to him nearly 30 years ago. At the time, the car's engine had seized after Dino hit a berm and cracked the car's oil pan. A friend of Leno's acquired the car, but he gave it to Leno after figuring out it would cost more to fix the Miura than it was worth.