Jay Leno’s Lucky Escape!

Jay Leno and I have a few things in common. We’ve both been sporting the ‘double denim’ look for decades (a source of great embarrassment to my daughter Nadia and apparently worthy of much ridicule) and we both talk a lot. Oh…. and then there’s the classic car thing.We both definitely have a classic car obsession. So, for years I’ve really been looking forward to meeting Jay and having a chat about rare cars and all things car collecting, engineering, restoration and of course motorcycles too. We both have eclectic tastes in our adoration of the motor-car and we both have that great appreciation of history, engineering and craftsmanship. You see, us car guys have our own language and we love to compare our obsessions. It’s heartening to see that Jay is not a car snob either, which is clearly evident from his interviews and the mix of cars he displays in his garagevideos. This is a big thing for me, because car snobbery has always made me balk, and believe me,I’ve seen a lot of it over the years. Jaguar and RR ownersturning up their noses as I appeared with a1957 Imperial Crown is something I’ve tried to forget. If the snobs only knew I’ve owned, restored and appreciated 1940’s XK Jags, MkV’s, Mk7’s, Mk8’s and IX’s, X’s, E-Types and a host of Rolls Royce and Bentleys over the years too!For me, the old car world should be about universal appreciation of man’s incredible invention ‘the motor-car’ and it’s thoroughly eclectic evolution over the last 100 years or so, no matter how weird, wonderful or quirky! The motor-car is a unique place where engineering meets artistic design and encapsulates it in time, so the preservation of all makes and models deserves respect. So, it will be no surprise when you hear that I am suitably impressed that Jay is also proud to own a1957 Imperial Crown as part of his collection.Of course,I have relished the opportunity to talk with him about his Imperial along withmy Bugatti exploits etc etc,but unfortunately our eventualcrossing of paths did not really go as I’d envisaged!

Ok. So, this is actually a funny story about my Pandemic year. I hope it brings a little laughter, particularly to those who have suffered pain or loss at the hands of this awfulCoronavirus that continues to wreak havoc around the globe.To set the scene for this adventure, we need to go back to 2020....

It’s March 11thand The World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a Global Pandemic. Not something to be taken lightly. My work involves a lot of travel, so bouncing between bases in Los Angeles and the UK suddenly looked like it was going to become a bit of a problem. At the time, I was with my wonderful girlfriend(now wife) Valerie in Thousand Oaks and focussing on my old car escapades in California. My immediate thought was I’d ride this virus thing out in the Golden State and it would be over in a few weeks, just like a bad dose of the flu. Then suddenly the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London demands that all UK citizens return immediately to the shores of Blighty. Hmm. Knickers to that I thought, March is still bloody freezing in the UK so I’m not budging.Come early May however, I’ve got big bills racking up in the UK and old cars literally taking root at The Carding Shed in Yorkshire, so reluctantly, I admit defeat andhead back to what is being dubbed Infection Island. The UK at this point iscondemned as the worst-infected place in the whole world and of course the epicentre would have to be in Central London, right where I have my little apartment. Gulp.

British Airways are the only airline operating a skeleton service from LAX, so I catch an empty but eye-wateringly expensive economy flight back to Heathrow that includes a handsome banquet meal of a packet of mini crackers and bottle of purified water. Crumbs and filtered pee. Nice. This virus thing is super scary so I’m dressed like the Invisible Man wearing a cap, sunglasses, N95 mask and a scarf around my face, complete with a long coat and black leather gloves. My skin is not going to touch anything! Casually arriving at Border Control on my own, the Officer sarcastically shout’s “next” in my direction. Looking at me suspiciously he asks “where have you been?” knowing that the LAX flight is the only one that has landed in hours. Ah, I miss this. Welcome to England… the birth-place of sarcasm and dry wit! “Oh, I’ve been at work” I casually reply. “Doing what exactly?” he asks. “Looking for antique cars in the desert” I reply, to which he instantlyquips“Must have been awfully uncomfortable dressed like that!”“Welcome home!”

Fortunately, I’m soon greeted with some brisk business activity on my return and I’m legally able to travel the length and breadth of the UK in a Covid-safe manner and close a number of deals. After spending some time with my family, I make plans to return to the United States. However, President Trump says no, I can’t. What? The self-proclaimed champion of entrepreneurial business will not let a Business Visa holder return to the US to do business? Seriously? Yet Kanye West is allowed to casually fly back and forth between LA and London as he pleases?! To buy pants?! Come off it! Thank you Donald, your logic is baffling right now.

Months pass and I’m becoming increasingly frustrated. The US Embassy at Nine Elms in London insist they will be considerate if I compose a letter making a strong case for admission to the US. Shall I tell them I want to buy a pair of designer pants?! Their email states I must provide an intended date of travel which cannot be more than 4 weeks from the date of the letter, and I must allow 4 weeks for their decision!? Is this a joke I ask myself?! Regardless, I jump through all the hoops and I write a lengthy love-letter promising to help put food in the mouths of hardworking Americans who are suffering the economic impact of Covidand I detail the amount of US dollars I will be bringing back into the country. Valerie has briefed me on the expected level of patriotism I should include in my application, but 3 weeks later I receive a friendly email containing a resounding ‘No’.

Hmmm. Now I seriously need a ‘Plan B’. Europeans and Brits are categorically barred from entering the US unless they have US citizenship, celebrity, or medical science status -of which I have neither. As we draw nearer to the end of 2020 I’m becoming increasingly desperate to return to the US for work as I can only do accurateevaluation of historic automobiles in person ….‘Zoom’ is just not a serious proposition in my trade. There seems to be no possibility of access to the US unless I enter from a country not on thebarred list, so I hatch a plan to go live in Mexico for a month and take my chances from there. If it fails, I will just have to buy an adventure motorcycle and literally ride-out this pandemic touring South America instead. Fellow Northerner Ewan Macgregor had just completed the ‘Long Way Up’ ride on an electric Harley with his long-time friend and travel companion Charley Boorman, so I figured I would take a similar sabbatical and then forward Ewan a 3 month sound-track of the exhaust-rasp from my internal combustion engine-d Honda Africa Twin doing the same journey (partly because I was miffed I didn’t get an invite to do the electric ride!).

Back in London, from my apartment window I can see the Union Jack looking sorrowful and hanging limply over The Houses of Parliament. The skies are grey and it’s bloody freezing cold.The streets are completely deserted due to the government-imposed lockdown,but it looks post apocalypse. To see one of the busiest cities in the world so completely deserted was a surreal and frightening experience. It was silent and it was haunting. Normally the traffic is bumper to bumper here, it’s very noiseyand there are thousands of commuters walking the streets. PM Boris Johnson is sounding increasingly ominous in the Covid response press briefings and I sense a further grimness is just around the corner following a brief chat with my neighbour Sir Stephen Redwood MP as he returns from a session at the House of Commons. I’ve had it. I’m used to so much travel, I’m missing Valerie, I’ve just got to get out of here. I really feel like a caged animal in this apartment that has no balcony or outside space so I tell Valerie I going to head for Cancun and sweat it out. “No-Way!”she snaps, “I want to go on holiday to Mexico too!”Ok great! She gets straight on the case and does a sterling job of booking all the tickets and accommodation, so it’s all systems go!

At Heathrow it’s like a wartime evacuation. It’s mid-December and people are desperate to try and escape the country and like me, be with their loved ones for Christmas. We are all frantically trying to get out before a total ban on travel is mandated within the next few hours. It’s absolute carnage at the airport as tensions are running highand there’s total confusion as a flight to Haiti is oversubscribed and due to leave at the same time as my flight to Cancun. At check-in the crowd is carrying enough hand luggage and food parcels to fill one of those Amazon cargo flights, and just to add insult to injury,a burst tin of pineapple chunkssends me flailing to the floorin true cartoon style. Great. But I’m soon on my way with BA and I escape London just as the more seriousrestrictions are enforced. Phew. That was a close call!

Three weeks later I’m pretty sunburnt and my belly is fat.Great Mexican food and lots ofMargherita’s. I never got anywhere near a motorcycle on the island of Cozumel, but I did my bit to combat global warming and rising sea level by swallowing a good portion of the Atlantic Ocean whilst learning to scuba dive (a big thank you to my instructor Sergio for his endless patience!).

Alas, the time had come for me to try and clear the Mexican border into the US. Superstar Valerie had booked a number of flights to cover all eventualities as; US Border authorities may arrest me,send me back to the UK, or possibly send me back to Mexico. At Cancun Airport the Delta staff were doing a thorough job checking everyone had a negative PCR test result before boarding, but seeing my UK passport the attendant looked up with eyes of horror and instantly took a step back from me. Oh-oh. “You are from the UK?! You can’t be here! This flight is for Americans only!” she said alarmingly. I go on the charm offensive explaining I’ve been out of the UK for 3 weeks, but she insists she must discuss with the pilotbefore I go any further. I am the only non-US citizen booked on this flight and I feel like an international fugitive. Valerie has more patience to argue the issue, but fortunately I am allowed to board and US Border and Customs can deal with me at LAX.Thank You Mr Delta. First hurdle cleared!

Arriving at LAX, Valerie and I are directed to separate US and non-US entry halls. Anyone who has passed through the non-US border will know that it can be a 2-hour experience as you stand in line with 10,000 people travelling from Asia. Today it’s just me, zig-zagging my way through a mile of roped approach to the customs booths, all on my lonesome. “Next” the officer barks, simultaneously summoning me with his finger, in a schoolteacher to naughty pupil fashion. This was very reminiscent of my welcome to Heathrow, but without the humour. “Passport” is the second bark. He glances at my ID photo and immediately slams the closed passport down onto the counter followed by a third bark of “Not good enough”. Oh dear,it looks like I’m in trouble.Three other wolf-like officers move in towards me for a pack kill. “Got anything else for me?” he asks. Ok.Now this is clearly my one and only chance for the big sell. “Absolutely” I begin, as I thrust my negative PCR test under the glass screen towards him. Then I send my passport back under the screen, but this time I’ve opened it to show my B1 Business Visa whilst pointing out my H1B Specialist Knowledge status. “Today is January 1st, a New Year for business!” I declare.“And YES! we have much to do as our great President has encouraged us to keep the wheels of business turning!”Now I wait for him to ask me what I intend to do in the US,before I play my ace card.This will be the ‘piece de resistance’ of my plea, the slam-dunk guaranteed winner of all entry pleas. The majority of Border Officers here at LAX areHispanic males and these guys just love their cars. Every time I arrive at LAX they grill me, so if I get a particularly tough officer I quickly give them the automobile archaeologist and restoration line and they’re hooked! Their eyes light-up, suddenly they’re happy to let me in, then I’m often propositioned with the likes of “hey, my cousin is selling his 67 Camaro, is that something you would be interested in?….I can give you his number!” On this occasion my ace card seems to bomb asofficer number two walks towards me and asks me to put my hands behind my back. Shit, here we go. He pushes past me between the booths but casually walks on. Just at that moment, the questioning officer behind the desk reaches forward for what I think is his gun and then BANG. Quite possibly the loudest stamping of a passport ever executed by a human being. “Now get out of here before I change my mind” he grunts. Yes!It worked! I briskly headdown the escalator to baggage, only to find a desolate hall with mine and Valerie’s cases going round and round a travelator which is otherwise empty. Ironically, I’m through Border before Valerie as she’s been dragging her feet expecting me to be detained for some time. What a day to remember! I have entered the United States against all the odds! Happy New Year!

After arriving in Thousand Oaks, my friends Joe and Jim are busting at the seams to do the first Malibu ‘Cars and Coffee’ of 2021. I’m jet-lagged, hungover, and half punch-drunk from the previous days, but the guys insistently turn up at the house on Sunday morning to show me their new acquisitions; I haven’t seen them for 9 months and I opt for a ride with Jim in his 1971 Grabber Blue Mach 1 Ford Mustang. The car looks great, but shuddersit’s way down Malibu Canyon like there’s anearthquake, though not as bad as Joe’s 67 Pontiac GTO which managed 2 miles before he turned around and went home. How we laughed! Arriving at the Malibu Country Mart the parking lot is over-flowing with classic cars and enthusiasm as people celebrate the New Year and hopefully the first of many more car gatherings. We are enjoying the beautiful weather, conversation and coffee, but a mean looking motorcycle cop (like the rogue ones from Dirty Harry) starts busting all and sundry, even the poor invalid guy in the disabled parking bay. Jim is running deleted blue license plateson his Mach1 so he freaks out when he sees the cop and gets a $70 ticket in the process.That makes me bend double with laughter and I spill coffee down my jeans and matching denim jacket-I guess I deserved that!

Just then, Joe re-appears, but this time he’s driving his beautiful Roman Red 1960 Corvette and casually remarks “There’s a Duesenberg over there” as he pulls up. “A what?!” I choked. No way. He must be mistaken. A Duesey is not something you will likely see driven to a Sunday coffee meet!But if there was a Duesey here, there’s only one man I could imagine as the likely driver. I fight my way through the crowd that has engulfed the mystery car, and sure enough, it’s a Duesey. Wow! And sure enough, Jay Leno is stood on the other side of the car sporting my double-denim look and casually chatting with the crowd. I’m amazed he’s so laid back and completely at ease with the people pestering for selfies and the non-stop questioning “Hey Jay?!” “Hey Jay?!” “Hey Jay?!”

But My mind is elsewhere.I’m superintrigued. Jay has really blindsided me with this car. My instinct tells me this is a rare example of a Duesenberg and Ican’t take my eyes off it. I don’t recognisethe model, but it’s a big big car so I’m sure it’s based on a model J.My archaeological mind automatically goes into overdriveas I try to work out the history of this car and assess the incredible time-piece in front of me.Ok.It’s a two-door low-cut top-hat style hard-top coupe (unusual) with a small opera style rear window. It’s just a two-seater, with an external fold-away dickie seat. It has late 1920’s /early 1930’sstyling commensurate with Duesenberg period manufacture. It’s finished in a stunningflawless black which is very conservative and un-glitzy for a Duesenberg (no chrome wires or whitewall tyres) but it’s clearly a high-class Gentlemen’s ride and a top-spec luxury build with wonderful interior trimmings, golf club compartment and rear touring rack. It has a very 1930’s Bentley feel about it. Despite the crowds around the car,I’m crawling on the ground and looking underneath it…. Wow! A beautiful job. Although being used on the road, it’s comprehensively restoredand looks like new. I’m training my eyes over the body and scrutinizing the lines, fit and profile. Gee, this is one of the straightest, most ‘level’ aluminium-on-ash bodies I’ve ever seen. It’s simply stunning. Crisp.In fact, it’s so good of a restoration that I’m starting to think that this may actually be a brand-new hand-crafted body. And the reason I say this comes from my experience running an antique vehicle body restoration outfit in the 1990’s where many of our projects had been constructed in this very same way. You see, a timber framed motor-car body skinned with aluminium, will gradually change over time. Firstly, just like an antique chair, over many decades the wood will slowly respond to changing moisture conditions and will continue to age and slightly change shape no-matter how long the pre-construction material seasoning process. Wood can twist and shrink, thus body gaps will move slightly and the position of the aluminium skins will change. We are talking mere milli-meters here, but it is plainly visible to the trained eye. In the words of my mentor Peter Naylor, (the finest time-served English body craftsman I ever had the pleasure to work with) the skins gradually start to fit like Granny’s old tights! Unlike an antique chair however, a motor-car is more likely to have been left outside to the elements of weather on many occasions over an 80 or so year life-span, so wood-aging (and rot) is generally significant in car bodies. Furthermore, we also need to consider the huge physical forces that are put on the body of a motor-car as it hurtles down the road, bumping and banging across all manner of surfaces. All chassis flex under load and road use, as do the bodies that are mounted upon them. Steel bodies flex less so, but timber-framed bodies flex a great deal, further compromising the original crafted shape and form of the wood and the integrity of the construction.So, I’m studying Jay’s beautiful Deusey with drooling admiration, because it really is a work of art and it’s asuniform and ‘new’ as a hand-built motor-car body ever could be. Very very impressive, and bravo to the craftsmen responsible for this wonderful creation. I later understood from a magazine article that this was Jay’s prized Model J Le Grande Duesenberg, so I will say no more and let the man himself tell the detail by referring the reader to his recent J.L. Garage video on YouTube. Regardless to say, if you ever get the chance to examine a DuesenbergModel J in real life, believe me,you will be astounded bythe attention to detail and workmanship, and I can emphatically verify that the Le Grande is a fabulous example of this.

Anyway, back to my story! As I was so immersed in my impromptu evaluation of this wonderful car, next thing I know Jay has cranked it over and he’s heading off. Oh bollocks! ….I’ve missed my chance to have a long-awaited chat! Arghh!Well, never mind,I guess that’s what happens when a car obsessed guy is confronted with a spellbinding piece of motoring exotica, and believe me, I was completely spellbound!

I was incredibly lucky to get up-close and real with the Le Grande that day,but Jay Leno was also incredibly lucky too. Lucky because we didn’t have that cosy chat I envisaged. Lucky, because I had just arrived from the UK via 3 weeks in Mexico and I could very well have been carrying the Covid virus. Officially I should have been in isolation.Ooops. Having written so many times about the extraordinary relationship between man and exotic cars and how cars can affect people’s behaviour in such extreme ways, I think on this occasion I myself would fall into that category of ‘the possessed’ even though I’ve always considered myself to be a very sensible person. Imagine if I’d been infected and Jay got sick from me? Poor guy. Imagine if I got the blame?I can just see the headlines in the notorious British press, ‘Car nut kills Jay Leno!’

To conclude my 2020 Pandemic story, I would just like to make a few last points. Firstly, a big thank you to Jay for adorning our roads with this wonderful piece of Duesenberg machinery and actually using it as it was intended by brothers Fred and Augie. It’s important that these old cars are kept alive but equally important that they are used and get some exercise, just like the human body,an old car needs to get all those parts moving. Doing so is not only good for the vehicle, but it’salso a fascinating education for the public who have never seen such exotica.Quite simply an amazing sight to see and one which instils an appreciation of man’s great historical achievements. Secondly, I sincerely apologise to Jay for peering underneath the Le Grande without asking permission to do so, but I do hope someday we can still have that chat about all things Bugatti, Duesenberg etc etc etc and not forgetting of course, the fabulous Virgil Exner designed 1957 Chrysler Imperial Crown.

Some pictures of the stunning Duesenberg Model J La Grande taken at Malibu Cars and Coffee, Sunday 3rd January 2021.

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