Jay Leno needs about 1200 tires
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.
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.