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Hagerty Employee

Leno: The definition of a hot rod is always evolving

I came to Los Angeles in 1972 to get into show business, and when I landed at the airport, I didn’t have a place to live or a car or anything, so I bought a Penny Saver. There was a 1955 Buick for sale, and it was 3 miles from the airport, close enough to take a cab. The car ran and it was $350, and I didn’t want to take cabs all over town to look at other cars, so I bought it. I drove it for a few years, met my wife in it, and then parked it at my mother-in-law’s house in the early ’80s, where it sat for the next 17 years. One day I went over and there was a note on it that read, “This car has obviously been neglected and nobody wants it, so I would like to buy it.” Deeply ashamed, I brought the car back to the garage, and we did a complete makeover, fitting a GM 572 crate engine and a Corvette C6 suspension. I wanted the Buick to look stock, so we made our own reproduction hubcaps to fit over bigger wheels that had disc brakes behind them.


Is it a hot rod? I guess so, though I don’t think of myself as a hot-rodder ... Read the full article on



The truth is the definitions of a Hot Rod has never changed. 


Hot rods are any vehicle modified to make it special in appearance or faster in performance. 


This can entail any type vehicle and and engine into a new canvas of creation. 


While you can build a custom frame car with a Tank engine. It may not beat Garlits in the quarter mile but in appearance and just fun performance it stands out. 


I have built several cars over the years and I always tried to not do what others did. I also tried to increase performance be it an Engine, Brakes or Suspension. To me handling gains rank right with more HP.  Then better brakes are needed to contain it. 


While I do not agree with Jays title here I think his actions of what cars he built are great examples of hot rods. 


I have enjoyed watching Jays car passion from a distance. Years ago he drove a race car for my company and I built a model of it and sent it to him. I still have the autographed photo and hat he sent and it is a major part of my man cave. But over the years I can see how Jay grew as a hot rodder. 


Early on Jay was mostly a Lambo and Duesy guy with a few other stock side interest. Then it happened. He started to look to the modifed vehicles and more odd creations. His turbine car, Corvairs and even the OHC 6 have that special thing about them. Then the tank car. Buick and Toronado also are works of art. P started to see the true hot rod spirit come out in him. 


I was so glad to see it as I see too many collectors limit their interest and only appreciate a small corner of the hobby. I could see Jays love for cars in general was greater and now I can see he is finally enjoying it all. 


We all need to be this way and embrace all aspects of the hobby and not cheat ourselves. While I am not big into some brands or makes I still appreciate them for what they are and the people who toil to preserve and modify them. 


Maybe this is why I have kept my Fiero for so many years. It is different and I created a car that is not like any other Fiero on the road. I get a kick as I have had a number of people that said they never liked Fiero's but they like mine. To me that means I made a connection and maybe they will be more open to not my brand but others. 



Pit Crew

I absolutely love my little Ford roadster even though it has a tilt steering wheel, is automatic, and fiberglass. Who cares, it's beautiful hot rod!


" should have some homemade quality to it." So says the man with a turbine-powered concept car. And just where is that "homemade quality" in your Toronado? I seem to recall that your friends at GM had a hand in its construction. I'm not knocking your opinion, sir, but what you say and what I see are at odds. If I were in the position that you are in, financially speaking, my collection would rival yours. But as to what defines a hot rod is very subjective, and people that do the very best that they can with whatever resources they have to work with should be celebrated. I have created various components for customers (and my own personal cars) using a bench vise, a hacksaw, a hammer, a file and most importantly, an imagination. The finished products have often spawned the question of "Where did you get that?" When I say "I made it," the look of disbelief is priceless. "Homemade" does not always equal crude. But again, you are expressing an opinion, and I take it as just that. Much respect, sir.

Intermediate Driver

Will be interested to see how the Firebird Sprint turns out.  My first car was a 67 Sprint, which was a pretty interesting car.  At 16 years old, I didn't think it was super cool since there were guys running around in Formula 400's, but at 63 I now appreciate how unique it was.  Mine was stock and had the 230CI/230HP OHC 6 with a Rochester 4 BBL quadrajet , Saginaw 4 speed, single leaf rear springs and a standard diff.  It would wheel hop like crazy.  My great idea was to put Monroe Hi-Jackers (air shocks) on it with individual fill lines to try to jack the weight, but of course it didn't work.  Anyway, with a nice independent rear end and all the other goodies Jay will do it should be a nice car. 

Pit Crew

When I think about the Hot Rods,  I always think about the kid who has the need for speed but no money.  The cheapest thing he could do was to use the old T or Model A that he could get for almost nothing and drop in the biggest engine out of an old junk car and go from there.  As they were able to afford it, they would spend a few $ to upgrade.  Sometimes if they had the knowhow they would build what they needed and if it worked well, start selling what they built to other hotrodders.  That's what Ed Iskenderian and Vick Edelbrock.  To me, that's what I think of when I think of hotrodders.

Intermediate Driver

There are hot rod guys, muscle car guys, sports car guys, and car guys.  Jay has always struck me as a car guy.  He dabbles all over the place, touching all the different genres, without staying with one, and appreciating them all.  That is where I see him as being different.  The Toronado wasn't just a big horsepower redo of an American classic.  It was reimagining an American Classic in a way that allowed it to compete with the latest luxury GT cars of Europe.  The Lotus 26R was a bigger badder Elan than Colin Chapman ever built.  Then there are the steam cars.  And the inhouse prototyping in plastic, and now metal 3D printers.  I'm 57, but when I grow up, I want to hang out at the Big Dog Garage.

Pit Crew

Must be nice to be rich. I wouldn't know, even though my passion has been cars cars cars since I played with the toy ones as a small child. Love that Buick!

Intermediate Driver

RE: Firebird Sprint OHC 6

My cousin Christine S had a Robins Egg Blue one with a 4 speed.

I thought it was awesome, even in the days of Goats.


Put your seat belt on Jay.