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!




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    Since 2000 the week and year of manufacture should be stamped on the sidewall. Many used tire dealers won’t sell a tire over 5-7 years old. Of course under inflation will overheat and shread a tire very quickly.

    “I generally like Michelins, in part because I know they’re round.”

    I thought that was just Jay Leno humor until I read on. 🙂

    I only have six cars but replacing tires is getting to be a religious experience and twice as expensive.

    Thanks for the reminder Jay! I could not agree more with not buying cheap when it comes to tires and helmets! What’s your brain and body worth!

    Another “Tire Killer”, especially for older tires, is the “Rumble Strips” that are installed on many roadways. Their intent is to make a rumbling sound when you stray beyond the lane in which you are driving. If you have tires that are too old, these Rumble Strips will accelerate and sometimes break open the tire. Also, thanks Jay, for the heads-up.

    Why the new format ? Monster letters that you have to scroll endlessly. What do I do to change back ?

    As a kid in the years immediately after WW II, I saw many a car or truck up on blocks so that the tires did not touch the ground. It was explained to me that rubber was in short supply to civilians during the war years so it was just not possible for many people to be able to buy them. They had to be preserved as long as possible. This was also a period of transition between natural rubber and various alternatives. The inner tubes we used for swimming were either red in color (natural) or black (something else). Of course I believed almost everything adults told me back then so these recollections may have errors.

    I have bought quite a few very low mile older cars with original tires. All were stored in good temps. All “looked” to be in like new condition. Sidewalls appreared as they were also brand new. I have used several as daily drivers using the original tires. Key for me, proper inflation. (not Bidens!) I have had no problems whatsoever. The cars were used as daily drivers were an early CTS Cad, 2 Prowlers, 2 Saturn Skys, and 2 Corvettes. ’08 Sky is currently running an original set, bought last year with 9k miles, now at 20k.

    A couple years ago a guy was going to a Chevy Meet in his 55 Chevy. It had 16 year old tires on it. His friend was following him. He blew a tire and rolled the car. He was not wearing a seatbelt and was thrown from the car and killed. Tragic. True stary.
    1200 tires equals 200 cars. Wow.

    i couldn’t agree more with Jay’s assessment, especially with radials. Even if there’s no loss of control, throwing a belt on a radial tire more often than not wacks off the wheelhouse chrome, damages the fender and makes the paint look like you polished the wheel opening with a grinder. The collateral damage is often more costly than a new set of tires….

    I bought a 23 T last summer. The buyer was nice enough to ensure all the tires had 65 pounds of air. A rifle shot went off as I started winching it out of the dirt floor shed. On the way home, a second shot was heard. I told my wife there goes number two. 4 new tires, tubes, and liners for a T didn’t break the bank.

    Really tire companies legitimately say replace tires at 4-5 years, especially V or Z rated ones. As people has stated extreme temperatures and sunlight are the bane of tires. High heat is the worst. I have original tires for my 81, 92 and 02 Camaro’s. They are all sitting on the original wheels in storage. I will only put them back on AT a car show. They will never be driven on ever again.

    Hey CamaroJoe – as someone who has been in the industry for over 30 years, your post needs the addition of the word, ‘Retail’ before ‘tire companies’.

    Manufacturers don’t say to replace tires at 4-5 years unless there is a good reason to do so. Brand-new tires come with a 5-year workmanship warranty, so unless there is a reason to remove them from service, and the tread is good, there is no need.

    Always get good advice from reputable tire shops – shops that sell tires first and other services second, and if they are backed by a manufacturer, all the better!

    Tires can change everything in personality but it is obviously along with brakes a hugely important safety thing. I never cheap out on those items.

    It would be great if collector cars tire sizes were still available. Just try to find a 205/55-15 in any speed or load rating. It can’t be done.

    The tire industry only makes 16” and larger tires since 10 years ago. It’s probably 17” and larger now.

    17″ snow tires are getting hard to find, I have -1″ rims for snow on my 2012 (that came with 18″ rims/tires), and I only had a couple of choices for snow tires, and none were as good as the Michelin’s I used to buy…

    Try Diamond Back tires, ( DBtires.com ) All custom made white walls on any tire that you pick or their own . Made in South Carolina. I have gotten 3 sets from them and they were of excellent quality and Value

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