Former Tonight Show host Jay Leno has a thing that he likes to say about being on the sidelines at a time when, to put it mildly, late night hosts have a lot of material to work into their monologues. Ahem.
“I did late night TV when Clinton was horny and Bush was dumb, and it was just easier. Now it’s all … it’s just kind of nasty out there now,” he tells Yahoo Entertainment in a variation of what he’s said to others about departing the iconic show in 2014. “I’m sort of glad I’m out of it. So, no, I have no regrets at all. I lived in the time that I lived in and that was a great time to do it. Now I’ll let the younger guys take over.”
While those younger guys follow the goings-on of President Trump, Twitter, and the rest of the world, Leno, who turns 68 on April 28, is focused on cars. He now hosts Jay Leno’s Garage on CNBC, which showcases his collection of more than 100 cars and motorcycles. On Saturday, the comedian will spend part of his birthday kicking off the Hot Wheels Legends Tour, marking 50 years since the cars were first sold, at Mattel headquarters in El Segundo, Calif. Hot Wheels will host additional family-friendly events at 14 Walmart stores across the country, from Bentonville, Ark., to Teterboro, N.J., where people can bring their own life-size vehicles for a chance to get it made into a Hot Wheels toy or simply to ogle.
“It doesn’t have to be a fancy Lamborghini or Ferrari. We just want regular people’s cars that they’ve modified in some way — paint job, body work, engine, anything that makes it interesting or different,” Leno says. “Anything that they think might make it a Hot Wheels car. And there’s no admission; it’s all free.”
Leno recalls that he first fell in love with cars as a teenager in Massachusetts.
“You know, when I was 14, my dad helped me buy a ’34 Ford pickup truck that didn’t run,” Leno says. “And we dragged it back home, and I worked on it for two years, until I got my license, and I was able to drive it.”
Leno still appreciates what it feels like to get a car running.
“It gives you a sense of accomplishment,” he says. “Netflix is OK, but you can’t watch it all day long. You have to do something. It’s fun to fix things, and there’s a great deal of satisfaction in it.”
Over the years, Leno has taken pleasure in assembling a fleet of vehicles, featuring everything from a rare McLaren F1 to a 1931 Duesenberg Model J Town Car once owned by the Levi Strauss family, many of them that he restored himself. Some of them have dramatically increased in value since he acquired them. For instance, CNN reported that the McLaren F1, which Leno bought for $800,000, was worth $12 million in October 2016.
“I have three criteria for buying cars,” Leno explains. “It should be attractive to look at, it should be fun to drive, and it should be of technical or historical importance. Because if it has all three of those elements, and if I like it, then probably other people will like it too. And that’s kind of the fun part of it, ya know. I don’t buy them to sell them. I buy them cause I like ’em. The fact that they happen to go up in value, that’s just a plus.”
Leno — who points out that he’s still on the air but is no longer tied to a nightly show — says these days he travels 210 days a year for standup performances. His cars are no help with that, since much of the time he has back-to-back gigs in locations that are far apart. One day he’s in Detroit and the next he’s in Orlando, he says, but he often drives to shows in San Diego or Palm Springs, Calif., which are close to his L.A. home. When that happens, he enjoys the ride, sure, but the car is really the point anytime Leno is behind the wheel.
“What I’m driving is way more important than where I’m going,” he says.
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