Jay Leno: The Man and The Motorcycles

Jay's still riding, are you?

Twenty-two years on late-night television enshrined Jay Leno as a TV legend, but it is his voracious appetite for vehicles that earns him ultimate notoriety among petrolheads. Freed from the restraints of daily tapings, the comedian is now able to focus his enthusiasm on CNBC's Jay Leno's Garage, which enters its third season this year. Because motor oil seems to ooze through Leno's veins, we quizzed the comic to find out what's irresistible about creaky old bikes, why he seems to ride more these days, and what sorts of motorcycles make his heart go pitter-patter.

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"It's harder to travel and get around and do things on a motorcycle. But it's way more fun." - Jay Leno, comic and collectorIllustration: Kent Barton

Q: What have you loved about bikes from day one, and what do you still find joy in when you ride?
A: One thing I like about bikes is that they wear their mechanicals on the outside. Modern vehicles, you know there's an engine there, but you can't see the engine and you can't access it. Motorcycles are like watches. You can see all the internals moving. Open the hood of any mid-'60s hot rod, and there's a dress-up kit there, three or four carburetors; it's attractive to look at. With motorcycles, especially Harleys, Indians, these kinds of bikes, they wear their skeleton on the outside.

Q: With such a broad array of cars and bikes at your disposal, what motivates your choice to ride versus drive?
A: Right now I'm really into riding because I realize I'm almost 67, so I think I've got one good crash left before I can't really ride anymore. When you fall down now, geez, it hurts, you know? You used to fall down, and three or four weeks later you'd ride again. Now, a year later, "I've still got that scab!" So consequently, I'm into riding the old Indians and Brough Superiors and Vincents. Plus, you get to a point where you can literally outrun your eyesight. I've got a Kawasaki H2 and it's unbelievable. You're looking at zero to 200 in, what, 18 seconds? It's crazy fast. So right now, I'm really enjoying the vintage stuff a lot.

Q: What is it about the experience of riding an old bike?
A: With old bikes, people aren't amazed you got there quickly; they're amazed you got there at all. They go, "What? You were on the freeway with this?" So that's the fun part about it. My Brough Superior SS100 is a V-twin. It weighs maybe 450 pounds, but it's got 50 horsepower and it's [from] 1930. Consequently, it's pretty quick. But when it's time to stop, you just find yourself saying, "Excuse me! Sorry!" sailing through stoplights and stuff. You learn to use the accident-avoidance technology, you know?

Q: How would you sum up motorcycle people versus car people?
A: Motorcycle people tend to be a little more conservative, in the sense that motorcycles have looked the same pretty much for the last, what, 50 years? Linked braking has been around for, like, 30 years? Most people are pretty suspicious of it. Even to this day, what do people clamor to? The simple ones. The Triumph Bonnevilles, the Harley Sportsters, the ones with the least amount of electronic nanny stuff on 'em. You can be a car person and not be mechanical at all. Motorcycle people have to be a little bit mechanical; at least they enjoy having a sense of the mechanical. They enjoy doing it the hard way, as opposed to the easy way. It's harder to travel and get around and do things on a motorcycle. But it's also way more fun.

Q: You seem to enjoy the Y2K jet bike more than most. What's it like to ride?
A: The Y2K bike is a lot of fun. It makes noise and frightens children, and it's hilarious. I mean, it pulls so hard. You have 475 pound-feet of torque in a bike that weighs less than 500 pounds. But you've got to get it spinning to do it. And it takes a certain…technique. You have a second of delay on acceleration and a second delay on shutoff, so you have to plan ahead. You just have to learn how to ride it. It's great fun, and you're so glad when you get off it. You say, "Oh, my god, I'm still alive!"