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.
When we visited with Jay to look the car over shortly before it was shipped to Vegas for the show, he proudly hopped in, cranked the starter, and began shooting revs like a high school kid showing off his first ride. He excitedly claimed that it would put away a Porsche on a mountain road, and we wondered if the smirk on his face meant he was speaking from experience. He may not be in school anymore, but Leno's first ride is about as cool as they come.
Jay LenoBurbank, California'55 Buick Roadmaster
Drivetrain: While mid-'50s Buick nailheads are cool and were quite high performance for their day, little can compare to the gigantic beast that now resides under the hood of this full-sized street brawler. The GM Performance Parts ZZ572/620 crate engine utilizes a tall deck block with a 4.55-inch bore and a 4.375 stroker crank to displace 570 cubes, and with a mild 9.6:1 compression ratio and a hydraulic roller cam the engine produces well over 600 hp. GM Performance Parts now carries high-performance electronic overdrive transmissions to work with their gorilla crate engines, so a 4L85E four-speed automatic was a logical choice to back the beast.
Chassis: General Motors knew how to build a seriously stout frame back in the '50s, but their suspension technology was a little crusty by today's standards. With the goal of being able to drive the Buick like a sports car, Jay had Big Dog Garage foreman Bernard Juchli and his crew graft a new tubular front clip onto the car hung with C5 Corvette suspension. The stock rear rails were retained but fitted with an IRS unit from a C4 Vette, including a custom-made composite monoleaf spring. Big Corvette brakes reside on all four corners, and a custom handmade tubular exhaust system snakes its way around the stock frame and new suspension pieces to get out the back.
Wheels & Tires: Leno's desire to have the car drive like a modern sports car but look like a stocker came into conflict when choosing the wheel-and-tire package, since stock 14-inch steel wheels wouldn't yield the best handling characteristics, but modern aftermarket rims would clash with the car's classic style. The solution? Have a pair made, of course. A one-off set of billet aluminum 17-inch rollers was built for the car, and handmade 17-inch versions of the stock hubcaps were crafted and designed with a threaded center hub that screws onto an extension coming off the wheel. The tires are big 'n' sticky SUV performance tires that Leno sent to his pal Corky Coker, who had the lettering shaved off the sidewall before bonding on a wide whitewall. The finished package looks basically stock, which was the plan from the outset.
Paint & Body: Since the famous comedian/car guy relied on GM engineering for his engine, trans, suspension, and brakes, it's not a surprise that when it came time to paint the car, it was delivered to the in-house body shop at Rydell Chevrolet. Because the car has lived its entire life in sunny Southern California, rust wasn't a problem, so the old paint and body moldings were stripped off. After the body was brought back to shape, the stock paint scheme was used once again, but this time with contrasting shades of black and silver. Every chrome and stainless piece of trim on the car was refinished and put back in place, right down to the portholes in the fenders.
Interior: The interior is as flawless as the rest of the car, and once again, it appears stock but has a few secrets hidden away. Milton's Auto Upholstery finished the front and rear bench seats in stock silver cloth, and the elegant black and chrome instrument cluster has been retrofitted with modern guts behind stock gauges. A secret stereo pumps out tunes loud and clear, and a Vintage Air climate control system keeps the cockpit comfortable. Even the stock steering wheel was restored and left in place.