Curtis Vincent owned by Jay Leno
|It's tough being rich and famous. If you own a load of classic bikes, some people will say you collect for the wrong reasons. As a cynical image boosting exercise, maybe, or the indulgence of a passing whim. Or worse, you love motorcycles only for their monetary value. Jay Leno is as well known in America as Jimmy Carter, Cindy Crawford, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tina Turner. They've all been on his late night TV show, beamed into millions of house-holds across 50 states five nights a week. The Tonight Show, a mix of Leno's comedy, interviews with celebrities of the moment and music, makes NBC $100m a year. Leno's hobby is playing with his collection of 40-odd classic motorcycles, and a fleet of historic high performance cars. He's on his way over to the hangar at Hollywood Burbank airport where most of his vehicles are kept. So before he arrives, there's a chance to nose round and work out what kind of rich and famous motorcyclist Leno is.
First clue: the machines aren't filed in ranks as they usually are in museums or private collections. They're in a circle, pointing outwards, ready to exit. Also, most of this high quality collection appears to be registered and road ready.
There are tools scattered around, pools of oil on the floor, and the pile of helmets, gloves and battered boots near the door tells a story. Leno is more of a rider than polisher.
A deafening roar outside makes me jump. Just my luck to be in California when the dreaded earthquake strikes! Panic over: it's Jay Leno arriving from the studios in the rorty 1931 8 liter open topped Bentley he's driving today.
“Sorry to keep you,” he says. Are Hollywood megastars always so polite? After living on his wits entertaining armchair American and making NBC another $1/4m, he could be entitled to punch out a couple of journalists and slink off home to kill a bottle of bourbon. But that's not Leno's style. “I come here most evenings after doing the show”, he explains, and immediately relaxes into bike talk. His enthusiasm, and an attention span about as long as it takes one of his vehicles to get from 0-60mph, are obvious as he flits between machines. “This was my first Vincent,” he says, pointing out a Rapide vee-twin. “A great everyday machine, a real fun bike. And this one here, a '51 Series C Black Shadow restored by Sid and Bob Chantland in Minnesota: I ride that a lot.
“Nothing sounds like a Vincent, does it? Any of them is faster than a new stock Harley – they'll run at 100-110 mph all day long.” We move on.
“This Vincent was famous in my home town: we'd hang around ‘til 11 at night hoping to see it go by. Years later I went back and bought it.” I ask about the non-standard frame, but we're already on to the next machine.
“That's kinda interesting, too,” he's pointing to a Vincent-engined café racer built by Canadian frame builder Dennis Curtis. A 1000cc vee-twin engine is mated with a Norton transmission in a tubular twin shock chassis, with a Betor front fork. The disc brakes are by Performance Machine, whose products are seen on many American specials and competition machines.
“It's great to ride a Vincent that stops,” Leno laughs, but adds honestly that this one has been vibrating ominously. He has problems with his Series D Black Knight, too, which stands partially dismantled.
“A fat guy with short legs on a BMW ran into it when it was parked. Smashed up all my glass fibre.”
It will be repaired properly, because that's part of Leno's philosophy. “Nothing ruins a bike worse than when someone does a bad repair, then somebody does a fax on that fix, with the wrong part. Oh, man it's unbelievable what people do.”
Fascinated by vehicles from an early age, Leno worked as a mechanic on Mercedes and Rolls-Royce cars before he climbed the showbiz tree. Although he relies on professional restorers like the Chantlands, and his local Vincent specialist mike Partee, Leno enjoys spannering himself.
“The great thing about English bikes is that when they break you can always get home. When you stop now for a motorcyclist by the road, and they say ‘my black box fried' there's nothing you can do, except let them use your mobile phone.”
As a professional joke teller and raconteur Leno likes the yarns and mythology surrounding British bikes.
“I love all those myths, the quite ridiculous stories of men and machines,” he says.
“One guy told me he was having a race to a bar with some other fellow on a Vincent. This guy went past, dropped the bike in a corner and slid 300ft with it, and while it was sliding, he put his foot down, got it upright again, kicked it in gear and… you know, it's just ri-dic-ulous man!
“And then someone tells you he met a guy whose father had the Vincent Black Angel: ‘you know, the really special one, the only one like it ever made by the factory?' What rid-iculous stories!
“He had a little dog, it was blue, kinda shriveled up, and it couldn't bark: it just made this funny noise (Leno makes a yapping noise). I was petting it, when I noticed this blue stuff was coming off on me. I said ‘how old is the dog, about 15?'
“He said: ‘aw no, it's only a year old, but he fell in this toxic waste stuff and he's never been the same since'.
“And did you ever hear of Creepy George, up in San Francisco? He's a real legend. This guy George's son was killed riding a Vincent, so he bought up as many as he could find, put them in plastic bags, and buried them in his back yard. When he died, they found 70 of them!” his unmistakable heavy jawed features beam with mirth.
Big vee-twins are clearly Leno's favourites. There are four Brough Superiors here, a 680, an SS80, an 11-50 and an SS100, and more are at the Beverly Hills home he shares with his wife, Mavis.
“They're not real fast, and the brakes are pretty bad, but I just like to run them. I ride that a lot”, he says, pointing to a 1000cc ohv JAP-engined SS100. “It will go 75-80 on the highway, no problem.
“You know I feel sorry for kids now, ‘cause it seems to me they missed out on some great bikes.”
Christened James Leno (pronounced Lenno) by his Scottish mother and Italian-American father, he grew up on the Boston area of Massachusetts. His first bike was a Honda twin.
“I'm 44 now, so when I was a kid, you could either get a secondhand beat up Triumph, or a new Honda 305 with electric start and five gears that could blow the doors off it.
“I remember when Triumph came out with a five speed box years later, they put a sticker on with a big ‘FIVE SPEED' like it was the latest space technology or some-thing – that was funny!
“Then I had a 650cc Yamaha. In 1979 I bought a new six cylinder Honda CBX. But just to adjust the valves you needed a Honda tool number 899038 or something, and a whole box of other shit. Then I crashed it and it was so expensive to fix.
“Round about that time I had gotten a Classic Bike magazine, and I saw a picture of a Brough Superior.” He dashes over to the centre spread of an SS100 racer from the Winter 1979 issue of CB stuck on the wall. “That just set me off. To me, that's how a motorcycle should look.”
As a vee-twin fan and an American, Leno obviously enjoys his Harleys, but he's keen on Indian, too.
“Chiefs are just great, and they're real comfortable. They're built to go down a straight road in a high gear,” he says, touching the saddle of a Twenties example.
“And that's nice too,” he says pointing out his 1933 Indian Four. “Boy, these are fun to drive. This is the most fun of any bike to go slow on, it just sort of pulls you along.
“And, man, that is fast,” says Leno of his Henderson Four. He's the second owner of this 1931 model, which still carries original paint and transfers, and has run it up to 100 miles at a time.
Then we come to the massive silver 1966 1200cc Munch Mammoth four parked by the back wall.
“I remember reading about these things under the desk at the back of the math class, and thinking: ‘wow, that must be the fastest thing in the world'.
“The two ignition keys are like the dual key nuclear war thing – as though you have to ask to have someone with the second key to ask: ‘are you sure you want to do this?'” Leno says in a mock serious voice.
He owns several Ducati vee-twins, including a Mike Hailwood Replica and a '79 900SS. He has later models, including a 1988 750cc Paso, a present from a hotel in Las Vegas, although enclosures don't appeal to him.
“I like a motorcycle I can see through. You know that Yamaha with a single sided front end, and a big plastic thing covering it? I don't even want to get on that thing. It's got no visceral appeal.”
There are a few parallel twins here. A BSA Lightning, two Triumph Bonnevilles from 1964, and a '70, a Fifties Thunderbird, plus an 850cc Norton John Player Special with a PM disc front brake. Singles include a plunger-framed all alloy ohc Norton, and a 250cc Rudge awaiting restoration. He also has a racing version of a Megola, the five cylinder German machine of the Twenties, with radial cylinders in the front wheel.
Some rich Americans are an easy touch for classic machine dealers, but not Leno, who's fussy about sourcing his bikes. “I don't like to buy a motorcycle until I've seen the garage it came from. If it's just, like, four walls and no tools – forget it! I tend to buy from enthusiasts, even if it means paying more.
“I guess I'm a member of the More Money Than Brains Club – I lost on every vehicle I own. If a guy tells you he's made money on bikes like this, he's probably not an enthusiast.”
One price of fame is that people use Leno's name for their own unscrupulous ends. They advertise a vehicle, and when an offer is made, they say: ‘well, Jay Leno offered me $5000 more'. “I found out, ‘cause angry people were ringing me up,” Leno says.
He chooses not to plug motorcycling heavily on TV, saying he prefers to keep his work and hobby separate. Some precious Hollywood stars are banned from hazardous pursuits like motorcycling: how does Leno's employer view his activities?
“They can afford to lose a few comics,” he jokes. “I love to see those executives' faces when they look out the window and see me lighting the headlamp on my 1908 Pope with a match!”
Leno's interest in motorcycles is plainly no pose. When he talks about his bikes, almost everything he says relates to what they're like to ride.
He doesn't like being called a collector. As he says: “The word suggests one of those guys who doesn't start his bikes up. That kind of things is not only harmful to the machinery, it's also bad for the guys who make spare parts”
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