Jay Leno discusses where his love of British cars originates, and some of his all-time favourites.
I realise I have a passion for British automobiles; they always seem to be the ones that draw me in. A close second? Italian cars. This may have something to do with the fact that my father was Italian and my mother was born in Scotland. And America and England share a common language, thus making the history and the stories more accessible.
I realise there are probably planes out there equally emotive as the Merlin-powered Supermarine Spitfire, but not in my eyes. Reading stories about the Battle of Britain and the brave men who flew them, as well as the men and women who built them, really helps tip the scales towards the English side. It’s why I own three Merlin engines, two of which are in automobiles.
We managed to put a Merlin engine out of a De Havilland Mosquito into a 1934 Rolls-Royce Phantom II chassis. Using our 3D printer we designed an intake manifold so we now have, I believe, the only Merlin engine running on Weber carburettors. We even have a plaque on the valve cover dedicated to my friend’s father, who was an American and who married an English girl, and then died on Normandy Beach two weeks before my friend was born.
The first car that knocked my socks off when I was a child was a Jaguar XK120. The neighbour who saw me staring at it from across the street near my childhood home in New England invited me over to sit in it, starting a love affair that has endured to this day. My own XK120 was one of the first cars I bought; it was also the model Jaguar gave me to tackle the Mille Miglia a few years ago.
One of the greatest days of my life was when I got to drive Steve McQueen’s XKSS. Very few cars have spoken to me the way that one did. Being an American, and growing up in the US, I’ve always been partial to big displays of an engine. That’s why WO Bentley has always been one of my favourite British engineers. When he wanted to go faster, he just made the engine bigger; first three litres, then 4½, then six, and finally his masterpiece, the 8 Litre. He didn’t believe in supercharging because it put undue stress on the engine. When others tried this with his cars, they were unsuccessful. And while it’s true Tim Birkin supercharged a 4½ Litre Bentley – making a fearsome beast of a car that has reached almost mythical status – I don’t believe one ever won a race.
In my youth, I could never understand why anyone would buy a Lotus Elan with a four-cylinder engine that made about 125 horsepower, when for the same money you could get a V8 Corvette or a Mustang, which did well over 300. Until I drove one. That was another car that changed the way I viewed automobiles. I never understood the concept of less is more until I got behind the wheel of a Lotus Elan.
No-one in modern times has embraced this concept of lighter being better quite as effectively as Gordon Murray. I know he’s South African, but he built his cars in England and they’ve always been groundbreaking, from the Rocket, which weighed barely 380kg and had 143bhp, to the McLaren F1, which many consider the greatest car of the 20th Century.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I cheered in the Bond film Skyfall when Daniel Craig pulled out Sean Connery’s DB5 to catch the bad guy, and was heartbroken to see it destroyed. I know it wasn’t actually destroyed and it was just a bunch of miniatures, but hey, I get emotional about cars in movies.
Which brings me to my latest British purchase. It’s one of the most unusual cars I’ve ever owned, and has a Rolls-Royce six-cylinder engine putting out 129 horsepower and a fantastic pre-selector gearbox with five speeds, which is very unusual for a British car built in 1959. It has all-wheel drive and goes just as fast in reverse as it does going forward. It also weighs four tons and features a Browning 30-calibre machine gun. It’s called a Ferret Mark 2/3 Scout car.
As far as armoured vehicles go, it’s not that big but it’s still big enough to be intimidating. It rides on four enormous rubber tyres and has lights, turn signals and everything else you need to make it road legal. It has a top speed of around 60mph and it’s perfect for LA’s pothole-ridden streets. Yet it’s still small enough for the drive-thru at any one of LA’s In-N-Out burger stands. When other motorists see that machine gun sticking out of the turret, road rage becomes a thing of the past.
God Save The Queen! Maybe she will let me drive her bespoke Bentley…
Jay Leno – Comedian and talk show legend Jay Leno is one of the most famous entertainers in the USA. He is also a true petrolhead, with a massive collection of cars and bikes.
This column was originally printed in the June 2018 issue of Octane.