Visiting USD Knapp Humanities Chair and historian John Heitmann’s class is studying the automobile, based on Heitmann’s book, The Automobile and American Life. Heitmann’s class studies this machine that changed the world from various perspectives throughout the semester, including reading about the automobile and its history, watching films and listening to music. But one aspect was missing — seeing in person the cars often illustrated in their textbooks. It was an important part of visualizing and truly understanding the historically significant vehicles including their technological foundations and scale.
“Throughout the semester I try to give my students a visual sense of the technology we are studying,” Heitmann explained. “What better way than going to a museum on a field trip? And why not visit Jay Leno’s Big Dog Garage, especially since students had been watching YouTube clips of Jay explaining the complexities of steam and electric cars?”
Naturally, but with little expectation that it would all materialize, Heitmann sent an email to Jay Leno. Leno, the host of NBC’s Tonight Show with Jay Leno and well-known comedian, leads a double life. His real passion? The automobile and basically, anything he can drive with a roaring engine. The owner of 131 automobiles and 130 motorcycles, Leno’s garage is a private, working garage open to very few people. Surprisingly, Leno said yes and was eager to allow USD students the opportunity to continue their automobile education.
Upon arriving at the garage, located in an industrial section of Burbank, the non-descript warehouse could have been anywhere. Heitmann and his class were greeted by Jay’s “Car Guy” Bob Sailes who motioned his hand toward the warehouse and said, “Let’s go, come on in!” The grandfatherly figure, most proud perhaps of his 53- year long marriage to his sweetheart, beamed as the eyes of USD students grew round as they walked into the garage. True and utter disbelief was evident on all faces as car after gleaming car could be seen in perfectly straight lines as far as the eye could see. Cars in every shade of the rainbow in pristine condition; their wheels all like new and paint that looked freshly polished.
Sailes, a 22-year veteran of the garage, spoke about each car with a knowledge clearly fueled by his passion for the automobile. Highlighting a particular car’s significance in history, its contribution to the field and in some cases, the previous owners of the car, Sailes created a narrative that drew in all 18 USD students.
Among the highlights: a Packard once owned by Howard Hughes, a Lambourghini once owned by Dean Martin, a Volvo that was a gift from Colin Powell, and a custom silk-embroidered interior owned by Evelyn McClean, the heiress to the Washington Post fortune. Leno owns several cars that were mere prototypes, some of which never made it to the road, except of course, for Leno. His collection includes cars from the turn of the 19th century through to 2011. His favorite car for a rainy day? The Volt. He prefers to drive to the airport in his silver Mercedes.
“This was one of the best experiences I’ve had at USD,” said Ed Hickey ’11. “It’s one thing to read about steam cars or the automobiles of the Olympian Age, but it’s quite another to see a steam engine turning or a Duesenberg leaking oil right in front of you.”
Leno drives a different car each day, giving them each a chance to drive him to work five miles at the NBC studios where he films a live show every day at 4 p.m. Earlier in the week it was a 1920 Model T, and the day of the tour it was a 1966 Ford Galaxy convertible.
The garage is three warehouses packed with cars and motorcycles, but it’s also a working garage where parts are made and refurbished, where dying classic cars come back to life by the hands of Leno’s eight full-time employees, and an art museum. The walls are covered with original art work that Leno chooses and commissions from car advertisements and posters he sees and likes. In many cases, the paintings, which are flawless and almost as appealing to see as the cars themselves, are typically vintage advertisements of the cars that hang below. It may be a working garage and a car collector’s dream, but Leno’s garage is also a working museum that has something for everyone. For good measure, one can also see some of Henry Ford’s originally machinery used to make some of America’s first cars at the entrance of the garage, where high-tech machines are now hum operated by computer.
After a whirlwind 90 minutes of steel, stories and Sailes, USD students headed to NBC Studios where Leno invited them to watch his show and meet with him privately afterward. For many students, the show and the production were an education in itself, as Theatre Arts majors and Communication Studies enthusiasts watched a national live production before their eyes.
After the show, where Vin Diesel, Ashley Tisdale and the Scissor Sisters were guests, Leno quickly changed back into his regular outfit of jeans and a denim shirt, and spoke with USD students about their experience at the garage. When asked about his favorite car, Leno quickly said he didn’t really have a favorite but that the “Model T is the most brilliant car there is.” Clearly a “car guy” who can talk about every aspect of his cars, Leno was energized talking with students and Heitmann about the aesthetics, the machinery and the soul of his cars. Asked how he decides what car to drive each morning, Leno softly says, “Everyone should have that problem.”
Students posed for photos with Leno on the Tonight Show stage and left the studios in bewilderment at the day they just experienced.
“My advisors told me to take a class that interested me for an elective this semester. I could not have chosen a better, more interesting class with a more fun and knowledgeable professor,” said junior Lexi Deol. “Such a great experience!”
— Melissa Wagoner