Leno: How I got steamed

Getty Images | Paul Drinkwater | NBCU Photo Bank

The fun thing about a steam car is it’s a lost technology, and if you’re reasonably knowledgeable about them, you get to be the answer man at any car show, because nobody knows anything about how to start or operate a steam car today. The other thing about a steam car is that they are both nearly silent and very fast. A Stanley went 127 mph in 1906 to set the land speed record. They called it “The Hand of God” back then, because you’ve got 800 to 1000 lb-ft of torque pushing you from zero. They’re quite addictive.

Anyway, you probably heard that I had a little accident with my 1907 White back in November. It was totally my fault. It’s not like steam cars are dangerous contraptions—at least, they’re not any more dangerous than any other old car. The White works like a tankless water heater, making the steam as you use it. Liquid gasoline comes down from a tube in the tank to a vaporizer, under which is a burner to heat up this tube. As the liquid gas goes in, it turns into a gaseous state from the heat, and under pressure, it shoots out and gets ignited by the pilot light—PHOOOM! The flame burns up and heats tubes full of water. If you can’t see the fuel spray, then it’s working right. As a vapor, the gasoline combusts more efficiently, just like in a regular engine.

Well, carbon builds up in the vaporizer over time and you have to clean it out. We did that, but the fuel line was still clogged for some reason. So I was lying under the car poking at it and I told my friend Dave Killackey to blow air through the fuel line, and it suddenly unclogged and gas went everywhere, hitting me in the face. I was fortunate I saw it coming and closed my eyes, otherwise I might have been blinded. Some of it hit the pilot light and ignited. I could feel the heat and I said, “Dave, I’m on fire.” He thought I was kidding. I’m not a yeller, I don’t really scream or yell, so I said, “DAVE, I’m on fire.” And he turned around and my face was on fire, so he smothered me and actually burned his own arm pretty bad.

I put some cold water on it and immediately assumed I was OK, but the guys in the garage took one look at me and said they didn’t think so. I said, “Nah, I’ll be all right. I got a show tonight.” Then the fire department came and said pretty much the same thing, so they took me to Providence Saint Joseph by my old Tonight Show studio in Burbank. Those guys said I had to go to the Grossman Burn Center about 20 miles away. Luckily, I got in before the Thanksgiving rush. Turns out that if you drop a turkey that hasn’t been defrosted into boiling oil, it explodes. They get about 50 of those people every year.

They are very nice folks at Grossman and they wanted to admit me right away, but I said that I had to go home and see Mavis and reassure her I was OK. Mavis wasn’t too happy about it, but I wasn’t freaking out, so she didn’t freak out. After ruining a pillow at home that night, I went back to Grossman. They wanted to fix one thing and send me home for a couple weeks, then have me come back to fix another thing. I told them, “When you paint a car, you paint the whole car at once. Let’s just take it all off. I’m here, I’m not doing anything else.” And that’s what they did. I spent about four hours a day in a hyperbaric chamber, which is like a coffin and is a high-oxygen environment that helps with healing. We got it done in eight days, a new face in eight days. It’s like new glasses in an hour. Now, the fact that I came out with wrinkle-free skin, poutier lips, and a tighter butt, that was just a coincidence …

And now I’m one of the new faces of comedy! Nobody wants to hear rich whiny celebrities complain about stuff, so you just do jokes. I tell people I do two shows, regular and extra crispy, that I never really thought of myself as a roast comic, that the National Enquirer said I was in the hospital because Nancy Pelosi hit me with a hammer.

The funny part about being a celebrity type in this situation is the way the media treats you. For example, you never answer a question, you “break your silence.” Leno Breaks His Silence on the Accident! Now when am I ever silent?! I talk all the time! Then they said my wife was making me sell all the cars. I assure you she isn’t, so keep watching this space.

Editor’s Note: While Hagerty never used the “Breaks His Silence” tactic in our coverage of the steam-car accident, we did report a couple months later that he “broke several bones” upon crashing his 1940 Indian. Take care of yourself, Jay!


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    I have learned much watching Jay’s Garage shows over the years – and especially about steam vehicles, of which I knew virtually nothing. In addition to entertaining me for decades in his profession, he is just a great personality for presenting his (and his team’s) knowledge about all sorts of transportation. To his ultimate credit, he hasn’t treated these recent misfortunes like he is a “victim” – instead keeping his sense of humor and making them into instructional sessions. I read somewhere that he had done some wonderful things for the staff at the burn center, which is totally consistent with his lifelong altruistic behavior. I feel fortunate that we’re going to have Jay around a while longer so he can continue to share himself with us!

    Agree with Dub 6. Could not have been said better. I’ll just add that we are all so glad that Jay is ok and had a speedy recovery

    Hard to make up my mind between Dub & Mustang as to whom to reply. Both said it well. Fortunately, I can share the same space in time with Jay and his followers like Dub & Mustang.

    Great sense of humor and caring for the win. And your looking younger too. Thank you for all your humor and car videos. Between you, Kermit Weeks, and utube I made it thru the Pandemic! Be safe out there.

    Jay is one of my most admired people not because of his success but because he always owns his mistakes. Many year ago, shortly after he took over the Tonight show he was mugged on his way to work. When he returned to the air he explained that it was actually his fault for driving a fancy car and wearing expensive jewelry while driving through the rough neighborhood to get to the studio. “What did he expect” was his quote and started driving an old car and not looking all that prosperous on his way through Burbank. His refusal to blame others makes him stand out in my book.

    I really like Jay for a number of reasons. However to akin himself driving a nice car and dressing well as a justification to be mugged is ridiculous. His Cali lib is showing. No excuse for perpetrators of crime, anytime anywhere.

    Its not justification for being mugged, its common sense. Many ( too many) years ago I had a successful service business in NYC. If I was working in the South Bronx I did not bring my brand new well equipped van, I brought the old run down one that already had graffiti painted on it. Its just smart.

    No, actually, what he said is just common sense. No excuse for perps, true, but they still exist – and if you notice, Jay did NOT make any Leftist-style excuses for the criminal. He just recognized his share of the blame.

    After watching Jay Leno for many years, I conclude that he is NOT a Liberal, but more of a Moderate. The media has never been able to pin him down as to his leanings.

    That’s true…and the stories we could tell, right? Maybe an on-going Hagerty Series: “That One Time I Set My Car/ Self/ Garage/ Yard/ Friend On Fire”

    The ONE time I didn’t have a bucket of water and a garden hose ready while replacing fuel lines on my 928 was the time I started it on fire. Burned for 15-20 seconds, which seemed like an eternity, but surprisingly nothing was harmed. Never be in a hurry and always be prepared.

    His motorcycle accident also was a hairs breadth from being very serious, hell, he could have been decapitated.

    “Luckily, I got in before the Thanksgiving rush.” Oh Jay are you calling yourself a Turkey? You made me laugh so mission accomplished.

    Tighter Butt? Which end were they working on? hehehe

    We had a race car and one day while working on it, our owner was watching us work and the driver was under the car welding something, and it caught a rag on fire inside the car. The owner, standing there watching, said very, v e r y, slowly, “Joe, The car’s on fire.” Joe came out from under the car like a shot.

    Jay recognizes just how lucky he was. I’m glad he’s OK and still has his humor. Truly inspirational to see someone who owns so much still has room to own his mistakes.

    He never mentioned that they needed 2 rooms for him at the burn center, one for him and one for his chin. Glad you’re still around you old fart, we need you in this world!

    I taught a home school class, ‘small engine’ and such, first thing I told those kids was; Gasoline is very dangerous highly inflammable, always turn off any ignition or battery power before fooling with this fuel or things that contain it or use it, and especially on a hot day or with a machine that is still hot. There are times when the keys need to be in your pocket before you attempt a fix, gasoline has no forgiveness.

    Man you got that right! And the rest of the ‘late night’ people too. It all fell apart after Jay left. And Jay knows that, even though he’ll never say it.

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