Dec 22 2008 Jeremy Hart
Leno's Jaguar trip down memory lane
'I HOPE the Jag has aged better than those of us going to my high school reunion tonight,' sniggers Jay Leno from across the black marble bar bisecting the kitchen of his family home in Andover, Massachusetts - 20 minutes north of Boston.
That night he and one of his childhood friends will head to a local country club to join the Class of '68 for a trip down teenage memory lane. The question on Leno and his buddy Lou's lips - will childhood sweethearts still be head-turner's or will 40 years have taken its toll? They fear the worst.
Leno is more optimistic, and on the face of it, more excited about the other reunion he has today. For the first time in 49 years he will lay eyes and lay hands on the car which ignited his lifelong obsession with the automobile. An obsession which extends to a private collection of over 150 cars and motorbikes in Los Angeles.
It was in the spring of 1959 that Leno had his quasi-religious automotive epiphany on the leafy suburban street of Andover.
'Like most boys, I spent many of my days out on my bike,' Leno tells me as we ready to leave his house and drive the mile or so to the scene of his lightning bolt of a motor car moment. 'One day I got to the top of the hill near my house and stopped for a rest. I had been up that hill many times and past the house that stood by the road. This time though, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something flash. There, outside a barn was a man polishing a beautiful blue Jaguar XK 120.
'I knew it was a Jaguar. I had seen pictures of them in magazines. But the pictures were always black and white. Here, for the first time in Technicolor, was the real deal. And so I sat, mesmerized, and watched this man polish his beauty. For five minutes I stood and watched.
'It was a sign of the times I guess that he beckoned to me, and asked if I wanted to sit in it. And to this day the memory of sitting in the XK remains one of the strongest of in my automotive memory. I liked cars before and had some knowledge of them but this was the car that brought that to life.'
The memory remained alive in his mind ever since. But Leno, who thought the man polishing the Jag was 40 at the time, presumed he was now at least 90 or had even passed away. As for the XK, hopes over ever seeing it had long evaporated.
'But a few weeks back I received a letter at The Tonight Show,' Leno explains as we make the short drive towards town. 'It came from a man in Andover. He had read one of my columns where I talked about the encounter and said he knew the man and the car I had seen 50 years back. What's more, both still existed. I called the owner, Don Milligan, and I said I was coming back east for a high school reunion and asked if I could come and meet him and see the car.'
That brings us to the then and now. In the car. On the route to the Milligan's 18th Century white clapperboard house on the fringes of Andover.
Leno is unusually quiet. Maybe it's jet lag. His Lear Jet 55 landed at 4am from Hollywood. But given we are making the exact same journey as he had 49 years back, aged nine but then by bicycle, his anticipation is palpable.
'Here, its here,' he chirrups as the house comes into view. 'On the left.'
The time-capsule moment of Leno looking left to see the Jag glinting in the sunlight does not happen. A few tired 1980's wagons are the only cars on the grassy knoll where the XK had stood half a century back. Jay looks momentarily deflated before collecting himself and jumping out to meet Don and his family.
Dwarfing the Milligan's pretty house is a 19th Century barn big enough to park a 737 fuselage. It's into the barn the Don leads Jay. It is clear with the first step inside the barn that it is unlikely the XK will still be a runner.
A wall of car parts, farm equipment, automobilia and logsnot to mention a 1941 Buick languishing beneath a dusty coverstand between the door and the Jag, hidden away in a far alcove. The taste of disappointment fights with the smell of history in the atmosphere of the musky barn. Until Don unveils the sleeping beauty....
No curves on a British sports car, possibly with the exception of the XKE, evoke such carnal response as the XK120's. From its chrome grille, up over 'The Leaper' mascot, back past its elegant engine cover, open cockpit and spat-covered rear wheel arches the XK is sensuality on wheels.
Don's unveiling of the XK is the first time since it last run in 1970. That year, after racking up over 100,000 miles, he laid his 'Iron Mistress' to rest so he could focus his attention on his other cars like Rileys.
'It turns out that this is also an unveiling for his family,' Leno whispers, his eyes rarely leaving the lines of the car that cemented his love for the automobile. 'His grown-up children have never seen the whole car at once.'
Almost 40 years in a barn does not improve a car and the dark blue bodywork has developed a faded and broken patina. Likewise the leather cockpit. Leno does not seem bothered.
'Except for age, it's exactly as I remembered. The split screen, the steel wheels, the spats on the rear wheel arches. Time has stood still,' he grins, squeezing behind the wheel as he would have done outside the barn walls in 1959.
For an hour or so, Don uploads all the minute detail he had gathered on the car. The chassis number, the engine number, the modifications. Everything. And all from memory. Leno, equally fastidious, soaks up the obsessive history like a chamois leather would have dried the XK's curvaceous body. The pair have a natural bond beyond that moment out front of the house, a moment which Don, honestly, admits he does not remember.
But this day is more about Leno's recollections and expectations. Sure, the car is no longer running but the fact it and Don still exist and this completing of the circle of `Leno's car life counts for much more.
'It was an emotional return down memory lane,' Jay acknowledges wistfully after we have left the Milligan's. 'This was the car that kicked this obsession off for me. The car that inspired my car collection. This was the first car I really wanted. And if it was not for the kind man who beckoned me over, I might never have had this passion. And 24 years afterwards, the first classic car I bought was a 1954 XK120. That was the power of that day in 1959.
"It's also why I encourage kids to come look at my cars. It's also why, when a kid wrote to me saying he was in trouble - that he had lied to his friends saying I was his uncle and that I had a Lamborghini Countach (I do), I agreed to drive him to school. When we pulled up in front and the Countach doors rose up his friends were stunned. Maybe that moment will have the same effect on them as the Jaguar did on me.'