Jay Leno - Interview

Likeable US talkshow legend Jay Leno talks jet-bikes, swapping out carbs on a Vincent Black Shadow and getting speeding tickets on a steam-powered car…

Now then, Mr Leno. Have you always been such a petrol-head, or did you work on it?
I’ve been around engines all my life. I worked at car dealerships when I was a kid. I worked for Mercedes Benz, Bentley and Rolls Royce, but then I realised you are never going to be able to buy one of them working for them, so I went into show business to pay for my habit. Thus far, it seems to have worked…

So how many vehicles do you own?

I think I have about 90 cars and probably about the same number of bikes, but it changes. I get new ones and get rid of others all the time, in fact I’ve just got a new 2009 Triumph Thunderbird to go with my 1953 one. I like British bikes, I’ve got a few classic Bonnevilles and a Rocket III. I’ve only done about 15 miles on the Thunderbird so far, just around the block, but I really like it. Just the right mix of modern ride and classic looks.

Sweet Jesus, 90 bikes? How often do you get to ride?
I ride a lot, in fact I was riding my Harley WR just the other day. The WR was made in 1946 and is a Daytona Beach sand bike, it has the big wide bars, hand shift and 750cc flat-head engine with a dry sump oil system. It’s a real beast. It has what they call a bear trap clutch. It’s foot operated and is just on or off. It’s not a bike for cissies, but then I’ve always liked bikes that are different or have something quirky about their character.[#1.2]

So we’re guessing that you’re more into vintage than modern bikes?
The modern stuff is so good that I’m not good enough to do what it can do, whereas with the vintage stuff you just appreciate the fact you physically get to your destination alive. I’ve got a lot of Hendersons, early American inline fours, and those are wonderful 50-60mph bikes. 60mph on one of those is like doing 160mph on a GSX-R or ZZR1400. I’ve got bikes like that, but at those sorts of speeds my head begins to melt. I can’t really deal with it.

That being the case, why on earth did you buy one of those 200mph MTT jetbikes then?

It’s just stupid, but it’s so excessive and such a marvel of engineering. The funny thing about the jetbike is that you ride it somewhere, anywhere, and it shuts the Harley guys right up. They ask ‘what’s that Japanese thing?’ Then you fire it up and that jet noise blasts out the side exhausts and they just sort of back away, which is hilarious! You click it into 2nd gear – it only has two gears – and it pulls 60-150mph way harder than from 0-60mph. It does have a tendency to melt car sideskirts in traffic from the jetwash, which can be a little irksome. And expensive. I have a warning there, saying “Caution! Jetwash.”

Have you ever seen the inside of an internal combustion engine, or are you terrified of getting your hands dirty?
Hey, I love working on the bikes, it’s part of the fun. That’s the nice thing about the old bikes, you can actually do stuff on them. You can’t do anything on a modern bike except change the battery, but with an old bike you have to earn your horsepower. With the Vincent I sometimes have to change a carburettor before it’ll even run.

Despite your love of old bikes, you do have a bit of history when it comes to speeding, don’t you?
Yes! And I have the record for the oldest vehicle to be done for speeding. It was a 1912 Stanley Steamer, and I had it cranked up to 75mph on a freeway. I’m kind of proud of that, especially considering the engine is steam-powered and makes less than 10bhp. The cop who issued the citation was remarkably straight-faced and unimpressed with my feat, which I thought was a little unimaginative of him. How could you seriously issue a speeding ticket to something with the same engine as a small steam locomotive?

Speaking of speed, don’t you have a Desmosedici?

No, but Ducati let me borrow a Desmosedici for a couple of weeks. It was an amazing bike, but I can’t tell the difference between a Desmo and a 1098R. I’m not good enough. I ride a couple of Desmos I bought new, a 1980 in black and gold and a 1985 Hailwood. I like those big old ones, especially the Hailwood, because you find a line, you get it, and it just goes through the corner. It’s not a fast steering bike, just stable, and has lovely low-end torque. The funny thing is that the same handling traits are still in the latest Ducatis – I love the fact that Ducati’s heritage goes back all those years.

You must have had your fair share of spills: aren’t you worried about crashing?

No, I’m not worried about myself, it’s all a myth that you get hurt. I’ve fallen off a bunch of bikes over the years but fortunately have never gotten badly hurt. So long as you wear the right gear and don’t hit anything hard and unyielding, you should be okay.

You've visited the UK to race up the hill at Goodwood and meet Clarkson on Top Gear. Which was better?
Ha! Well it’s always a bit weird being interviewed by a TV host when you’re used to being in the driving seat yourself. But I was pretty pleased with my time around their course, especially as their Stig guy doesn’t seem to talk very much. The Festival of Speed is just my idea of heaven - 100 years’ worth of amazing bikes and cars in one place at one time. Absolutely incredible.

To see the full extent of Jay Leno’s collection go to www.jaylenosgarage.com and prepare to be amazed. This guy knows how to spend his money…

Alternatively, join Jorge Lorenzo for a glimpse on Leno's garage

I have the record for the oldest vehicle to be done for speeding. It was a 1912 Stanley Steamer, and I had it cranked up to 75mph on a freeway.