Jay Leno needs about 1200 tires

When you have more than 130 cars, your tire needs pile up. But don’t neglect these vital components, says our man Jay Leno, or your safety could be at risk. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

I have owned my 1972 Mercedes-Benz 600 for about 20 years, and until recently, it still had the tires on it from when I bought it. I have done just about everything to the car except change the tires because, hey, they looked fine. So, not long ago, my friend Dave Killackey and I went out in the 600. We were going down the 210 freeway here in LA and I ran it up to 80 and—BAM!! An explosion like a shotgun shell.

The car started veering all around. “What the…!” I said to Dave, and I managed to get it over to the side and we got out to take a look. One of the front tires had disintegrated, and all the wire from the radial was hanging out in shreds. Thankfully, the spare, jack, and tools were all in the trunk, so we jacked it up and changed the tire.

Then a thought occurred to me, and I said to Dave, “You know, we should turn around and go home because this is probably going to happen again.” We got about another 5 miles up the road and—BAM!! Another tire exploded on the other side, just blew right off the rim. After we pulled over, you couldn’t even pick up the remnants of the tire because the wires would cut your hand, and I realized in that moment that I had reached the absolute ultimate shelf life of those old radials. So we had to flatbed the Benz back to the garage, and I ran out and bought four new tires.

All of us who collect cars have vehicles we can’t or don’t drive every day, so consequently their tires age out before they wear out. I looked around the garage the other day and realized that I need about 1200 tires. Even stuff in here like the 2005 Ford GT has tires that are “brand new,” but obviously they’re not. So lately I’ve been going through and changing tires.

Vintage cars and motorcycles at Jay Leno's Garage in Burbank high angle
Sandy Huffaker/Corbis/Getty Images
Vintage cars at Jay Leno's Garage in Burbank
Sandy Huffaker/Corbis/Getty Images

Boy, have tires gotten seriously expensive. So have McDonald’s hamburgers, but unlike hamburgers, tires are essential to your safety. And when you’re dealing with older cars that have tubes, there’s another risk factor because you can’t see the tubes to know if they’re going bad. In the old days, it was easy to get good tubes, but now a lot of tubes come from China or India; the slightest scuff inside the tire wears right through them, and it’s dangerous.

Buying tires is like buying shoes: It’s not the time to be cheap. I used to go buy—you know—shoes. Didn’t know what they were, didn’t care. But I was doing two back-to-back 90-minute shows in Vegas, and at the end of three hours on stage, my feet were killing me. Then someone at The Tonight Show gave me a pair of Ferragamos, which were $300 when normal shoes were $60. And years later, I still have that same pair. I get them resoled every so often, they’re comfortable, I wear them all day, and my feet don’t hurt.

It’s the same thing with tires. I’m always amazed when I meet people who are driving some sort of supercar that they’ve put cut-rate tires on. I think, “What are you doing, besides putting a cheap clutch on the car?”

I generally like Michelins, in part because I know they’re round. Which sounds odd, because you assume a new tire will be round. But when you buy some of these retro tires for old cars, they’re really for trophy cars that don’t move much, and often they’re not quite round, so they have to be shaved. When I bought my 1932 Packard from Phil Hill, it had a shimmy, and we tried all kinds of things and couldn’t figure out what the problem was. Finally we found a guy with a tire shaver, and he took a pound of rubber off each tire. After that, it rolled perfectly. There’s nothing wrong with the car—the front end was fine.

I have to admit that the Benz wasn’t my first reminder that tires age even while you sleep. One day, I was driving down the center aisle here at the garage and I heard a really loud BANG! I about jumped out of my skin. I looked around to see where it came from, and my ’66 Hemi Coronet was moving. Why would a car be moving—well, sinking, really—on its own? And it was also going SSSSSSS! The tire blew just sitting there, and it was like a gunshot. All right, I thought, we have to get four new tires there. Well, that was 10 years ago, so now those tires are also old!




This article first appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Click here to subscribe and join the club.

Check out the Hagerty Media homepage so you don’t miss a single story, or better yet, bookmark it. To get our best stories delivered right to your inbox, subscribe to our newsletters

Click below for more about
Read next Up next: Save the date: Alfa Romeo’s new supercar arrives on August 30


    Tire life on a collector car is more due to how and where it is stored. If you keep them away from electric motors and sun light in a cool place they can last longer.

    Also standard tires last better than the soft high performance models.

    There is just no real specific one way to judge a tire and its life.

    How hard the rubber is and is there cracks are sure signs you need tires.

    I never considered this but it could be a dilemma for the large collector.

    Learning and being aware of what a good tire is often is your best defense especially if you have tires you can replace easily.

    Even at Indy they wheel out the vintage winners year after year and still run them on the old tires. Now they are not at full speed. It often is the heat and stress of extremes that kill older tires.

    They also watch and understand what to look for in a old tire that can be a problem. They also admonish the drivers not to go all out. Case in point AJ Foyt the last time he was in his winning roadster he was hammer down till they slowed him up.

    The more you learn about the tire the better off you will be in wear and most other areas. Too many take them for granted ands just don’t know enough about them to start with.

    In most states in the United States commercial vehicles with tires exceeding 4 years old a red tagged and have to be replaced immediately before they could continue on their journey this is a very little known fact Arizona in is one of them who changes their tires on all of their vehicles well before the four-year mark and an excessive cost to the taxpayers but you can’t scoop up the taxpayers that wrecked their cars because their tires blow up if your tires are going to blow up too food for thought

    Opened my eyes, twice!
    Got a mustang convertible, she lives in the garage cuz the Arizona sun eats tops for lunch, as well as tires.

    I put an expensive set of michelin sneakers on her back in 2010, they still look and drive great, but after hearing these stories, definitely going to replace them before the next road trip.
    Lots of life left, They dont show age or bad tread. But don’t want to get “LENO’D” on the freeway (too soon?)

    When I opted for the more expensive tires, driving away
    I was thinking about the extra money I spent on the michelins, (was it a smart move?)
    Suddenly the guy in front of me slammed on his brakes at 45, for a yellow light.
    I locked em up and was less than an inch from rear ending him,
    Right there I knew those spendier tires just saved me thousands…

    Agree about the roundness of the Michelins. They are my go-to tire. They supposedly have the best toolmakers to make their tire molds. I’m about to replace some 1997 T/A’s that aren’t worn at all. Replaced cycle tires of the same vintage last year. Am told the skins on my class B Sprinter should be replaced every five years worn or not due to loads. Maybe I should take up golf lol

    Hi Mike, Stay with the Michelins. Michelins are the last company that still “cold mold” their tires, meaning they allow the mold to cool before they release them from the mold. This allows proper and critical shrinkage rates so that the steel rubber and other compounds in the tires are bonded together with the reduction of separating later during use. That is why you see many tires delaminate, need lots of corrective weight to balance and roundness. Most tires will begin to lose their ability to maintain balance and integrity of the belts not to begin “pulling” after 70% of their legitimate lifespan. Age will accelerate this problem. I will take up golf when they put slicks on the golf carts….

    I was president of the Long Beach Model T Club from 2000-2002. During that time, I started noticing tires on some of the older members’ cars. One of “Old Timers” had a blow-out on a tour, and that really slowed us down. Fortunately, no one was hurt, and there was no damage to the car. He didn’t have a usable spare, so one of the guys on the tour lived nearby and ran home to get a useable tire and rim that fit the car.
    While working to get the club member back on the road, I noticed that on the recently flattened tire was a mark on the sidewall. There it was – S-3 in a circle. S-3 was a WW II tire designation indicating synthetic rubber, 3 ply. I was dumbfounded! Here it was, 2001, and the tire we were changing had been produced in the MID 1940s! At the next month’s club meeting, I brought up the fact that we should all give our tires a close look, and if they’re just a little iffy, CHANGE THEM! Your life and your loved ones’ lives depend on them. The old guy gave me a little grief about bringing the subject up and said that the tires were fine. It was the tube that was bad. Unreal.
    I just put five new 4.50 x 21″ tires on my 1926 Ford Model T Touring Car. The tires I replaced were installed on it when the car was restored. That was by the previous owner in 1977! Yeah, it was due.
    Thanks for the story, Jay. We all need to watch the things that matter not just how shiny the paint is.

    Yeah, it definitely hurts when you need to remove your relatively new-looking tires and shell out big bucks to put new ones on, but it only hurts in the wallet. Blowouts at speed or in a tough cornering situation can lead to things that hurt way worse – and in many more sensitive areas of our (and others’) body. It is definitely the bane of owning seldom driven classics, vintage or collectable cars.

    I had a 944 Porsche that had a tire going soft… So I did what I usually do and soaped down the tire to look for the hole. The entire sidewall started foaming, and it was at the tire shop the next day

    Budget for tires as if your life depended on them (it just might). Don’t cheap out on tires but then again use your common sense. Just because your car’s top speed is around 150mph or higher doesn’t mean you need Z rated tires if you never track it and the speed limit in your country doesn’t go higher than 85 mph. Those cheaper A rated 130 mph tires may do you just fine. On the other hand, if you do track the car and or you are used to triple digit speeds on to autobahn get the best tires you can afford. Put the priority on your neck rather than your pocket book. The extra money you spend may mean the difference between surviving an even and walking away or a trip to the emergency room or the grave. On the other hand you probably dont need Z rated tires if your car’s top end isn’t close to 130 mph. Don’t buy cheap tires. Your life is riding on them

    Down here in the Southeast USA I advise to get a higher speed rating than the minimum that your driving style might indicate.
    IF legally you could use T- speed-rated tire I advise to use an H speed rated tire. The ambient temperature on those concrete interstate highways is brutal in the summer. You’re not doing it to go faster, but to get some extra heat capacity in the tires.

    If you have a brass-era car and drive 35 mph, then old tires are okay. I have a couple of old tires on mine, and they’re still goid. Kept in a heated and cooled garage, on jack stands in the winter.
    Not so much in a car where you are going 55+ for long periods.

    About tire stores, WATCH THEM!
    I bought new tires for my Mercedes coupe. They got the correct size, but ignored the speed rating….despite all the warning stickers on the door jam and common sense.

    …and tire pressure. Tire shops, dealerships, and oil change facilities don’t set pressures according to the door jam sticker. They set the shop compressor regulator high enough to exceed all manufacturers’ specifications. Bleed them off the next morning, after they’ve had a chance to cool.

    And make sure to check that they torqued the lugs correctly. I bought a Kia a few years back & part of the deal was 3 free oil/filter changes & tire rotations. I got the car homeafter the service & just for kicks checked all 4 wheels due to the disc brakes. 3 had at least 1 lug hand tight, while others on the same wheel had lugs so tight I had to use my super impact to get them loose to be torqued properly. Needless to say, on the other visits for the free service, I told them NOT to touch the wheels. I told the service manager of the problem & that they might need to get new torque sticks for the shop or train the people on how to torque wheels. Tire shops & dealers use torque sticks, which are suppose to only tighten a wheel lug to a set degree, but after several thousand tire changes, I have a feeling they lose their set & then will tighten until you let off on the impact. We have a chain here in my area called Discount Tire, & they hand torque every wheel will a regular torque wrench

    I found an old low mileage 370Z Nismo online in Boston and I’m in south central Pa. and bought it and had it trucked to me. It was rather nice and tires hardly worn. I found that pulling out fast in 1st gear or the beginning of 2nd gear hitting the pedal the tires seemed to bounce around. It cornered ok and I was puzzled. I spoke to a friend about it that races Z’z and he went out got down on his knees and read the side of the tire and found that these tires were eleven years old and he told me ” These tires are as hard as bricks, buy new tires..!” I did and what a difference that immediately made. I went home and checked the tires on my Jeep, dry rotting, and my Murano which were also in good shape but getting old. We had a Tire Celebration Month..$

    When I finished the restoration on my 65 Mustang Fastback 2+2 in 1987, I put a set of BF Goodrich Radial T/A’s on it and drove it for 2 yrs on them. I then replaced them with a set of reproduction U.S. Royal dual redline bias-ply tires for show use. The T/A’s were put away and I drove on a couple sets of the redlines until around 2008. At that point I needed “new tires” but was going to wait until the next spring. A friend of mine begged me to go on a cruise he was running and not wanting to run the old & worn redlines I put the T/A’s back on.

    After re-discovering how much better the ride was with the radials (over the bias-ply) I left them on. Last year my wife kept telling me that the tires were old & not safe to ride on. Even though the tires didn’t have any cracking and the rubber wasn’t hard I decided in Sept to buy new tires. I wanted the look of the original redlines but wanted the ride of the radials so I purchased a set of Redline Radials from Coker. Being it was the end of the season I stored them for the winter and plan to get them on ASAP.

    So maybe I was lucky to have been using 35 yr old tires but I believe that keeping them in a dark, cooler garage does help to keep them from deteriorating as quickly.

    You’re right of course. How tires are stored makes a huge difference. Also using them helps enormously to keep them fresh. Tires used on the road two or three times a month will outlast tires never used by a wide margin.

    Wait. Isn’t that a 308/328 GTB in the picture? I thought Leno had no Ferraris. Is that just a myth?

    I thought the same thing. Larger wheels suggest it’s a QV (1983-1985) but the side mirror looks older. Either could have been swapped though.

    I had a tire blow out sitting static in my garage. I was working at my bench when “bang” a tire blew out. I immediately jacked the car which was a Daimler V8-250 sedan and let the air out of the other tires. New tires were installed by the time it was ready to drive.

    Heat is a tire killer. It will stress a good tire and kill a weak tire. This is why proper pressure is needed as too low pressure will run hotter.

    As for Michelin. I have worked for a number of tire companies and with a number of their staffs. They all have good and bad tires even Michelin.

    In fact my last three sets of Michelins were crap. Two sets had terrible tire wear on my wife’s SUV and the ones that came on my SS were no traction at all. But I know you can get good Michelin tires.

    Good tires amount to the latest models and tech like on cars. You get an older car that has not been updated it can be behind and tires are just the same. Compounding has come a long way.

    Also you get what you pay for often but at times you can get more when you buy brands owned by the larger company. Dunlop is Goodyear, Michelin can be Uniroyal, Continental is General Firestone is Bridgestone.

    Just Goodyear alone is now Dunlop, Avon, Micky Thompson, Fulda, Riken, Kelly Springfield and Dunlop to name a few.

    I am running a set of Nitto on my one car and have been surprised how well they work so far.

    The bottom line is many people do not know much about tires. They think they are just round tubes to hold air. But the tech in them is amazing any more. I have have had several gens in my family at the MFGs and a number of friends who are engineers who have taught me much about tires today. They really have come a long way.

    Used to be 15K miles was good wear and if you only had three flats a year you were doing good.

    hyperv6 your message is the best so far – there is too much conjecture and sharing of misinformation ‘around the campfire’ when it comes to tires these days. Like you, I have been in the tire business a long time (since 1989) and so much of what people share is just wrong.

    Go to the ‘tires age out before they wear out’ link near the beginning of Jay’s article – there is one very long, multipoint comment there that has so much misinformation, it is stunning. I (like you) have seen so much change regarding tires and tire technology in the last 30 years. Michelin now makes ‘less-than’ tires through their subsidiaries and puts the Michelin name on some of them; Goodyear (as you note) has many subsidiaries that make entry-level tires (more now with the purchase of Cooper), that are good for some uses, but not others; same for Bridgestone/Firestone, Conti/General, etc.

    Thanks for stepping up and trying to educate – it can be frustrating sometimes because many people think they know better and just don’t.

    Jay, great article, and I hope it makes people go to a reputable, name-brand tire shop and have their tires inspected by a professional. In my training of dealers I always say, ‘…just because your customer may be a doctor, engineer, astrophysicist or PhD, it doesn’t mean they know anything about tires. They have come to you for expertise in an area where YOU are the expert. Inspect their tires, ask good questions, share your expertise and information, and sell them the tires that will work best for their conditions and usage.’

    And, you always get what you pay for; as the contact patch is not much larger than the palm of your hand, and that’s all that is keeping you between the road and the ditch, DO NOT scrimp on tires!

    Excellent points, Rob and hyperv6.
    Because I have a buddy whose business involves a fleet of trucks, I’ve known about the tire age issue for quite a while. So two years ago when I was working on a battery / electrical system issue on another friend’s 2003 Pace Arrow, I was appalled to discover that his tires dated to — you got it — 2002 and 2003. Tried to educate him on the age issue, but $4K for 6 tires was definitely an issue. I think he sold it with the old tires.
    Then I looked at the A/T tires on my seldom-driven 95 Tahoe and discovered 10 year old hard rubber. !! Time flies …. they were replaced with Dueler R3 that local Costco special ordered AND still gave the Bridgestone sale pricing.

    But the key point and main question, as with most everything else anymore, is how to know which models from which brands are the good ones, and how to know if a local tire shop is providing good info or spewing hype? Is there some listing of known good tire models?

    Hey LarryJ – thanks for your kind words and input.

    I worked for a major tire manufacturer for a long time and with today’s technology, even entry-level name-brand tires are well-made. The equipment, materials, and processes are much better than in the past. And, to be frank, and clear, all major manufacturers have plants in overseas and South American countries – and in most cases, these plants are the most technologically advanced plants in that manufacturer’s portfolio. And the molds they use to vulcanize the tires are the same as the molds used domestically. So don’t shy away from recognizable brand tires made outside of North America.

    And to comment on your last point, there are more and more retailers selling tires (think muffler shops and quick lube franchises) as there isn’t much else on the newer vehicles that wear out or need maintenance. So it is becoming increasingly difficult to know who to trust. I have always maintained that tire business employees and techs (like plumbers, HVAC, electricians, etc.) should take proper training and be certified. Keep in mind, all there isn’t between you and the ditch is a palm-sized rubber footprint underneath cars that even in the most economical and compact form, generate more HP than a mid-70’s muscle car! So you have to learn all you can from research and looking for experts that have the CORRECT knowledge before you buy.

    Name brand is always best, so search for company-owned outlets (think Goodyear, Firestone) or tire shops that specialize in tires first, and are official partners with a major brand. There will be training offered by the major manufacturer and the counter staff will usually be excellent. As far as a listing of good models, Consumer Reports does an annual tire test, but as with any non-trade publication, there is some opinion involved – they are usually pretty good, but I have read some misinformation there too. Tire Rack does a fantastic job of testing tires and posting quality reviews from purchasers – and their teams have great training and knowledge.

    Good luck and all the best!

    Hi Rob,
    thanks for the note and good to see your opinion of Tire Rack. I’ve spent many hours over the years reading their reviews.

    A present dilemma is OEM size tires for an 81 RX-7, which is 185/70-13. It seems “nobody” makes crisp handling small tires any longer; the ones Les Schwab sold me are so squirrely as to be dangerous, even at maximum pressure.
    TR’s searches recommend a summer-only Vredestein “Classic”. I’m unfamiliar with them; evidently designed in Italy and made by Apollo in India. Some of their tires get great reviews but no data on their “Classic” series and I don’t like the warning about not letting them get cold even if just stored. Central OR is not LA; it frequently gets below freezing here 🙂

    Any insights into that company?

    Hey Larry – love the original RX-7! Played hockey at college with a teammate who had a 1984 GSL-SE – gorgeous car!

    Many companies take over molds from name brand manufacturers and continue to make those tires under license. Think Kelsey for Goodyear and Coker for Firestone and BFG – for classics that are judged, or to keep a period look. These are all made with more up-to-date materials and can usually be relied upon.

    Vredestein makes/made great tires, so I imagine Apollo is continuing that trend. Regarding not allowing them to get cold makes sense for a true summer-only performance-oriented tire. The compounds aren’t meant to get cold and even with today’s tech the UHP tires used on many European and North American cars come with warnings that warranty won’t be offered if driven or parked in cold temperatures. I have seen brand new UHP tires with craked tread blocks due to the cold. They are designed to stick like glue in hot weather, but that sticky compound hardens in cold temps.

    I am not directly familiar with the Apollo Vredestein’s, but if the other tires they make are getting good reviews I would think these Classics would work for your needs.

    All the best and keep that classic Mazda on the road!

    Tires are that thing we all want them and need em but few want to pay for or care for them.

    We see many buy the lowest price and never check pressures or alignment then complain about them.

    Yet many think they know all on tires.

    Even with so many types today it is important to match the right tire to need. Yet many fail and complain about performance. Tires today are like tools and you need to match it to the job.

    The web has just made things worse at times.

    To be fair the industry as a whole could do a better job of education too but that cost money and money is short in the tire business.

    While we pay much on tires the profits are not great. This is why so many companies are merging and selling out.

    Amazing points hyperv6 and all are bang on.

    The industry has changed much since manufacturers stopped dealing directly with select dealers and instead, moving to a distribution model. And yes, much like the tire (and automotive) retailers who are being ‘merged’ with bigger players, tire companies (like the recent Goodyear/Cooper arrangement) are moving in that direction as more and more disruptive competitors are joining the market.

    All these changes and competition have driven the margins down and it is more difficult to make a dollar, so volume takes over regardless of the name on the tire. So many folks aren’t getting the tire their needs or vehicle demand to keep them and their families safe.

    I was a trainer for a major manufacturer and it is shocking how little some retailers know and this misinformation gets passed to the customer and then they tell two friends, and so on, and so on… frustrating to say the least with so many social media pathways!

    Recently tried to buy 8.25-14s for my 1959 Thunderbird. The old tires had 22 years on them. The price and the wait had me switch to some 15s I had powder coated and saved about $400.

    My car wasn’t handling as well as it used to, and didn’t hold a straight line on the highway anymore. I knew it had a good, tight front end and suspension, so I asked a mechanic friend if he’d take a look at it at his shop. Instead, he asked, how old are the tires? Turned out they were about 10 years old, but still looked great. I followed his advice and went to the tire shop and drove home with a big grin on my face as I could go much faster with no effort whatsoever to keep the car pointed where I wanted it to go.

    “Buying tires is like buying shoes: It’s not the time to be cheap.”
    To that I would add helmets and mattresses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *