Leno: Stop worrying about the fate of your classic car

Years ago, my wife and I sold our house in Nichols Canyon, just up the hill from downtown Hollywood. A woman came in with a child and made an offer that was less than what we were asking. Mavis and I talked it over and decided to sell it to this single mom even though we had higher offers. And since we had never cleaned the curtains while we lived there, we sent them out and had them cleaned, just so the house would be nice for the new owner. About a month after the sale, we went by the house to see how the mom was doing. We got there just as the bulldozer was leveling it. Turns out the single mom worked for a Realtor, and she went around buying properties to be flipped. I felt pretty stupid, but what could I do? No law was broken.

The biggest fear I hear from older people is that they (or their heirs) will sell their favorite car to somebody who looks nice and says the right things, and then a few months later, the car will show up in an auction catalog for two or three times the money and they’ll look like suckers. As one of those suckers, I have to say I don’t give much thought to it. I don’t have any children to pass my stuff on to, and I sure don’t think I’m going to be up in heaven shouting, “Don’t sell it to that guy!” And anyway, as we all know, even though there’s a stairway to heaven, there’s a highway to hell, so we can guess where most of the traffic is headed.

We’ve all had a lot of fun buying cars and motorcycles over the past few decades. At least, I know I have. I bought what interested me and gave me pleasure, and I’ve always been more excited about what I’m driving than where I’m going. But what happens to my vehicles after I’m gone I can’t really control, nor do I particularly care to. I’m pretty sure there will be no way for me to check, so what am I worried about? I can pretend now that they will go to good people, but I know how the world works. The world moves on, and you can’t assume that other people will love what you love.

vintage packard on road
Carol Gould

If I had a son or daughter, it would be wonderful if they shared my passion. If your kids do, you’re lucky, and you need to make sure your affairs are organized so you don’t leave them a mess. But I hear from kids all the time, “When my dad was alive we tolerated it, but now we just want to get rid of the car.” And I get it. If you’re a struggling young couple living in a townhouse and somebody leaves you a 1937 Packard, what do you do with it? You have no place to put it, much less any interest in working on it.

So what happens to your stuff? Well, you can donate it to a museum, but unless it’s a very special car, the museum will likely only keep it for a year or two until it needs the money, and then the car will be sold. If you have a lot of cars and a lot of cash, you could start your own museum, but that has its problems, too. I remember talking to Otis Chandler, the late owner of the Los Angeles Times and a huge car collector, and he said opening a museum was the biggest mistake he ever made. The regulation hoops are endless and costly, down to the number of bathroom stalls and parking spaces and the type of air ventilation and the requirements for signs that say things like, “Do not drink contents of battery.” And the cars tend to just sit. They don’t get used, everything dries out, and it’s hideously expensive to employ somebody to come in and repack the water-pump bearings and so forth, so the knowledge of how to fix the cars gets lost.

Some people say it was sad that the collection of the late casino magnate Bill Harrah got sold off. And it was indeed sad, but the nice thing is that all those vehicles went to people who are using them, and they’re not sitting in one stagnant place never to be run again. As they say, if you love something, set it free. At least our cars have value now. There was a time when old automobiles were just thrown away. Ultimately, what should happen to your cars is that they would go to true believers, to the people who want them and understand them and will use them. That’s what I hope would happen to mine, but I really don’t know. And don’t call me—I’m not ready to sell anything yet.

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