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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    I have read numerous articles that the EPA mandated a formula change in tires so they would degrade in landfills etc. Hence the limited life cycle on current tires. However truck tires and trailer tires were not changed as they are repeatedly recapped. How many times over how many years?
    I purchased a set of 5 Goodyear Wingfoot tires in 1980 for my ’73 Corvette. They sat in my garage still in their wrappers till 4 years ago. I had them mounted after a couple of refusals by a tire store that besides passanger and light truck tires sold commercial tires, class 8 truck and recaps.
    The old curmudgeon said he had no qualms mounting them as they were ” old formula”.
    What is the real truth? I feel uneasy taking the word of a tire manufacture whose goal is to sell tires and I see recaps on class 8 truck and trailers as common place.

    Gary – I have been in the industry for over 30 years and although the composition of tires has changed dramatically in this time, along with tire sizes (when I started there were about 300 tire sizes, now there are over 3,000!), they aren’t compositionally different today, nor will they EVER break down in a landfill.

    Tires should not go to a landfill, they need to be recycled responsibly and are in many 1st and 2nd world jurisdictions. Old tires are being used in new asphalt, playground surfacing, driveways, ground up and re-used in new tire construction (Name brand companies follow guidelines for % of recycled rubber they can use), as well as powering kilns at concrete plants – there are many environmentally responsible ways to recycle tires.

    You will see ‘recaps’ on transport trucks and trailers, but never on the steering axle – only drive axles and trailers. But keep in mind, 19.5 and 22.5 transport truck tires have full steel casings and are true 14, 16, and 18 ply, which can take re-treading – premium casings can take a few retreads, depending on condition of the casing, rock drilling, number of repairs, etc.

    Realistically, if your Goodyears were stored correctly, and out of the heat and elements, they should be fine. In today’s litigious society, many shops don’t want the liability of mounting older tires. Uneducated and misinformed is all.

    And, most tire manufacturers’ goal is to properly educate consumers, but many (unscrupulous) tire RETAILER’s goal is to just sell tires, so may make things up for their benefit.

    Frequently check the air pressure and condition of your Wingfoots (or take them to an Authorized Goodyear dealer) and rotate them often; and consider taking the weight off them when not driving the ‘Vette for long periods of time – flat spots of older-tech tires may not fully ’round out’ after the weight of the car sitting on the tires for extended periods. Good luck!

    Thank You. As a side note Airlines do not own their tires. They lease them from the manufacture. There is a FAA recap facility in California where casings are inspected before recapping. I purchased truckloads of rejected casings to use as fenders on commercial boats and barges. Most casings were 28-32 ply fabric casings. No steel in aircraft casings as on impact when landing the found the steel damaged the casing.

    Gary, correct on all points – NASCAR (and other race series) don’t own their tires either – they are leased from the manufacturer and each team gets a finite number of tires for testing, qualifying and race day… lots people don’t know about tires they see every day, in many applications!

    Yep, tires are the only vehicle parts that are working all of the time, even when the vehicle is parked ….

    Kind of stunning that a true aficionado like Jay would be so lax regarding tires on his collection or storing cars in a way to prevent flat spots.

    Jay, any paint or body damage to your 600 when the tires blew? If not, you’re lucky. A few year ago I was moving along the freeway in my 1958 Edsel and a front tire blew at like 70 mph. Fortunately, after recovering from what sounded like a gunshot, the car stayed straight as an arrow since I was only a few feet away from the concrete barrier between the two directions of the freeway. When I got to the side of the road, those same sharp strands of steel belts had taken paint off the fender, about half way back on the door, and up onto the hood as well. Worse, the steel strands wrapped around the turn signal wiring and pulled the grill into the car.
    Come to think of it, that happened about 12 years ago and I need new tires again.

    NOT eating too many McDonald’s hamburgers may also be essential to one’s safety. My 55′ Merc has four brand new ten year old tires on it. So I need…WHEW! Only four tires.

    Basic math. If jay needs 1200 tires and he wants to get good tires, let’s say the average cost is 300 / tire. That’s a $360,000 tire bill. The ouch of owning a collection.

    A real conundrum especially when the tires you need were not available or need to be custom made. Such is the case with some directional tires made for specific cars when new and even space saver spares which folks are now looking for their show cars.

    I was an engineer for Cadillac Motor Division and every tire went through a grinding process after mounting. Not only do tires have a possible tolerance variation, so do the actual wheels, and after mounting, each assemble was spun with steel roller against it to simulate the rolling weight of the car to make sure each tire is seated properly on each wheel.

    Great points, Steve Maac. Thank you for pointing out that not only the tire can have a tolerance variation, but the wheel assembly can too!

    In fact, when it comes to balance, many tire manufacturers use a bar code on the bead of the tire which, if referenced with the tire manufacturer, will tell you exactly what the tire needed for balance weight when balanced at the factory. If not within standard spec, manufacturers will reject the tires; when going to a premium car company that has engineered the geometry of the suspension with consideration for the tires, the spec is less tolerant and tires will be rejected outright.

    For Cadillac lately (and other premium and performance cars like the ZL1 1SE Camaro), the tires are manufactured specifically for each corner of the vehicle!

    Thank Jay,
    This story is so important but facts on tire life for collector cars are sorely lacking. How long really? Years since first mounted on rim? Does mileage matter? Also, are there rules on repairing a flat in an older tire? Post this on a car club forum or fb page and watch the fur fly. And rarely are any true facts posted in reply just opinions. Maybe an idea for a carefully researched Hagerty article?

    Great idea Brian – Hagerty could put questions to a panel of major tire manufacturers’ engineers and squash misinformation once and for all – there are many people much smarter than me when speaking of their personal expertise, but when it comes to tires (through no fault of their own) have no real knowledge, or are sharing hearsay and conjecture from opinionated people when talking about tires, and refuse to agree with someone who has been in the industry for over 30 years.

    Hagerty, please take Brian’s idea and publish real information on tires!

    Just put four new ones on the 1990 XJS yesterday. I Don’t drive it often and the old ones still looked brand new. I hated to have to change them, but I don’t like doing body work after a blowout even more. Don’t know how old they were due to no date code -(at LEAST twenty years old!) Amazing how much better the ride is when the rubber is not as hard as a set of woodpecker lips.

    if it’s one thing I miss about getting the Hagerty magazine, it’s reading Jay Leno’s column. The guy can make anything interesting

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