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LOS ANGELES — On a sunny day in the hills outside Los Angeles, Jay Leno’s canary yellow McLaren supercar shatters the silence.
Wedged into the cockpit of the 903-horsepower hybrid P1, Mr. 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,” he 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 hangar next to the airport houses Mr. Leno’s collection of 130 cars, 93 motorcycles, and a menagerie of engines, spare parts, and memorabilia. The world knows Mr. Leno from late-night TV and stand-up comedy, but within car circles, he and his collection eclipse 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 example, sticks to Porsches. Mr. Leno’s friend and neighbor Bruce Meyer — board vice chairman at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles — is into American hot rods.
But Mr. Leno buys across a seemingly limitless spectrum of styles, eras, cost, countries of origin, and methods of propulsion.
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But mostly he buys cars he wants to drive.
“I never thought of it as a collection,” said Mr. Leno, looking over the rows of neatly parked classics. “Probably in the mid-1980s, I just started to keep stuff.”
The strategy has 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 has 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. When NBC artists had downtime, Mr. Leno paid them to re-create the ads in mural size. Look closely: You’ll notice Mr. Leno’s likeness among the drivers.
Mr. Leno was 14 when he bought his first vehicle, for $350, in 1964. It was a 30-year-old Ford truck that sat idle in his parents’ driveway in a Boston suburb.
“Of course it didn’t run — why did you think my father let me buy it?” he said.
He learned how to get it running before he got his license. Mr. Leno then found work at a Rolls-Royce and Bentley dealership, where he found his inspiration to become an entertainer. He figured that was his only chance of ever owning a Bentley. His collection now includes a handful of vintage Bentleys from the 1920s and ’30s.
Yet for all Mr. 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, Calif. “His buying is completely out of passion and love.”
Mr. 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. Mr. Gooding’s company sold one last year for $8.5 million. Mr. 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 regularly sell for many millions of dollars.
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Mr. 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 Mr. Leno’s acquired the car, but he gave it to Mr. Leno after figuring out it would cost more to fix the Miura than it was worth.
Mr. Leno had the engine rebuilt. Today, similar cars sell for at least $500,000.
Whatever they are worth, his cars are all ready to drive. A key sits in every ignition. Every car has a charger cable running from the wall to the battery.
Even the 1906 Stanley Steamer Cup Racer.
“That has the distinction of being the oldest car ever stopped for speeding on the 405,” Mr. Leno said.
It wasn’t the speed that alerted the police. The car’s boiler throws off steam and the occasional flame in normal operation.
“You’re on fire — and it’s a wood car — so you attract some attention,” he said.
The Cup Racer is parked with other steam-powered cars in a back room of a second hangar next door. The building holds a custom machine shop and a chassis dynamometer for testing horsepower. Mr. Leno’s tight schedule means the entertainer leaves the tuning and maintenance to his staff of four full-time mechanics.
Not everything in his collection is obscure or valuable; many would be at home in any car enthusiast’s garage. There’s a 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8, a couple of Chevy Corvairs, and a 1957 Buick Roadmaster convertible.
Many of his cars came from the garages of other car fans. The comedian’s respect in the car community means he often gets the first phone call from an elderly owner or widow looking to send a car to a good home.
“I’ve been to car shows, and there will be a great car there, and the owner says, ‘When I get rid of it, I want Jay to have it,’” Mr. Meyer of the Petersen Automotive Museum said.