Imagine you're the ultimate car guy, and you can afford just about any vehicle your high-octane heart desires, Deusenbergs, early Bugatti racers, ultra-rare Bentley touring cars, even such oddities as steam-powered horseless carriages with (magnetic) automatic transmissions. A vast array of mechanized wonders resides in your stable of gasoline-fueled dream machines, and the only requirements are that they be rare, interesting, and in perfect running order. Got a fetish for motorcycles? No problem, just add a few dozen vintage Harleys, some early Triumphs and Nortons, and even a handful of those most-coveted Vincent Black Shadows. Looking for speed? Try on the turbine-powered sport bike or jump into the driver's seat of the handmade roadster powered by an M47 V-12 lifted from a Patton tank. It sounds too good to be true, and the guy in the denim shirt with the famous streaked gray hair who owns it all still can't believe his luck.
It's this down-to-earth attitude that has made Jay Leno the king of late night TV for more than a decade. Dubbed "the hardest-working guy in show biz," Leno has parlayed his comedy act and hosting gig into a pop culture mainstay, yet somehow he's managed to hold onto his working class roots and not let fame or fortune go to his head. A few months ago we were invited along with a handful of other automotive journalist types to scope out Leno's Big Dog Garage, the shop where he stores his vast collection of automotive wonderment. Unlike many large car collections that are simply museums designed to protect long-term financial investments, the Big Dog Garage is a working shop, complete with three full-time employees who do nothing but maintain Jay's current fleet and restore new additions as they arrive. For those of you who haven't had the benefit of seeing the comedy king tooling around L.A. in one of his many wild rides, Leno uses all of his cars on a regular basis, and more than a few of them show signs of recent use and abuse on the torturous Los Angeles freeway system. In fact, it's not uncommon to spot Jay lying on the ground at a car show underneath one of his Stanley Steamers with a portable torch in hand, getting it ready for the trip home. The point is that while he may have a little more disposable income then the average hot rodder, Leno is a hands-on car nut with an undying need to get dirty and go fast.
So what does all of this have to do with ROD & CUSTOM? Simple...While most of his collection is composed of rare but basically stock touring, racing, and sports cars, one interesting exception is the silver and black Buick you see pictured before you. While the heavily chromed '55 Roadmaster looks like a stocker, it's actually a wolf in sheep's clothing that holds a special place in the famous car guy's heart. Jay purchased the Buick for a few hundred bucks after moving to L.A. in the '70s, and while he was waiting for his comedy career to take off, he was occasionally forced to sleep in it. The bone-stock Buford served as daily transportation until some cash finally started to come in, and not wanting to part with his first California ride, Leno parked it in his mother-in-law's driveway, where it stayed for the next 16 years.
Fast forward to the present, when Jay decided that it was finally time to do something with the car in which he first dated his wife. After a 16-year slumber the well-preserved but thoroughly weather-beaten Buick was hauled over to the garage, where Jay and his shop manager Bernard Juchli got together to plan the car's rebirth. The goal was to maintain the classic lines and timeless beauty of the Harley Earl-inspired style but modify the underpinnings so it would keep up with the best sports cars on the road today. Now, asking a 3-ton Buick to handle and accelerate like a Corvette is a major undertaking, which is where the horsepower pros at GM Performance Parts came in. They offered to supply one of their new, ridiculously huge, 572ci, 650hp, pump-gas-friendly ZZ572 big-block crate motors for the buildup, as well as an 4L85E electronic overdrive trans rated to take the grunt. Juchli realized that stuffing such an outrageous mill into an otherwise stock road barge wouldn't do, so the stock frame was stripped of its suspension and retrofitted with cutting-edge C5 Corvette suspension up front and C4 Corvette independent suspension out back. Corvette binders pull the reigns in on the snorting but streetable monster motor, and custom billet aluminum 17-inch wheels fitted with hand-made stock-looking hubcaps and giant whitewall radials provided by Jay's friend Corky Coker put the power to the ground. While the running gear is all full-tilt-boogie, the car still appears basically stock from the outside. Gorgeous mile-deep black and silver paint arrayed in the stock scheme was sprayed by Rydell Chevrolet's in-house body shop, and the car is covered with a pile of chrome-plated trim. The interior looks like something straight out of the '50s, but there are a few hidden tricks here, as well. A hidden climate control system from Vintage Air keeps things comfortable, and a well-camouflaged stereo pumps out driving music. Even the gauges were reworked to be compatible with the big motor and computer-controlled trans. The entire package came together flawlessly, and the car was a resounding hit at the '03 SEMA show, where GM proudly displayed it in their booth.