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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    Glad it wasn’t very serious and Jay made a full recovery. If you’re from SoCal and into cars then chances are you’ve run into him. Great guy and really knows how to get everyone involved and loves sharing his passion.

    Sounds like it was a setup for disaster. On the other hand sometimes bad stuff happens no matter how hard you try to prevent it.
    Kimmel would be a good stand-in, he’s already a flaming a……. .

    Jay, I thank you many many times. Thank you for what you have done for the car community – a thousand times over! Your work to commemorate and educate about the history, individuality, quirkiness, and even how they function is quite a body of work that is equalled by nobody. That you present it in such a fun and friendly way is awesome!

    You make me feel proud to be part of the car community, and I know that when it eventually happens that I meet you at some random car event, you will be a friend and share good conversation. I live in Minnesota and have met some of your motorcycle friends too, and they’ve said the same thing about you.

    Besides the great things you’ve done for the car community, you have made us laugh for so many years, and that’s a true gift!! I thank you for that.

    And, I’m very thankful to whomever or whatever for sparing you in this little incident, thankful your friend was able to help she you, and thankful to you for your grace in how you have handled it since it happened. You’re a great man, and we’re lucky to have you in our hobby. Thanks, and many great wishes!!

    Steve in Minnesota

    I miss being able to give a thumbs up. But after reading all the comments my thumb would be sore.

    Oh darn, that’s no fun.
    I’ve deep fried turkeys for years. I also hauled 9 thousand gallons of high octane fuels and high purity alcohol. One warm, beautiful day – standing on top of the trailer as it loaded I felt a bunch of insects nibbling on my ankles – looked down to see a blue ring dancing about my feet. I didn’t use the ladder.

    By the way: I live on the top of Dead Horse Hill, Leicester, MA. Years ago they raced ‘One more time’. Big fun. A friend entered his 1916 Cadillac. Very classy. Another friend entered his ‘White’ White steamer. He easily outran the Cops on Harleys. Be well Jay. Good fortune to you and yours. B~

    Leno was born funny. He mastered the ability to “live” in an automotive environment of his own creation. Same car, same wife, same humor. He’s a great wrench with a terrific sense of humor!

    I can’t add to anything that’s already been said so I’ll just say it’s great news that you got through that accident without permanent problems. Really enjoy your humour Jay and all your car shows. Hope you continue for a very long time.

    Jay has always been an inspiration to me. He’s a few years older, not much. Wishing him many more ‘healthy’ years.

    I have a 2016 Callaway with 7500 + miles that developed a fuel line leak at high pressure, so the thing was to fix it But find it first so while attempting that part, fuel leak washed down cowling, hot exhaust, fire started quick put out quick but fiberglass gone to back of the doors. Total loss, agent says, if you turn in claim, ALL your policy’s will take a hit. lesson for a day

    Great to still have Jay around, I have never seen any of his shows, so I only know him as a Petrol Head.

    On a different note, I highly recommend Jat Leno’s Garage car care products! Bought the ceramic wash, hand wax and plastic dressing. All excellent!

    As a young kid I was welding the oil pan on my “48 ford that was cracked from the front axel coming in contact with it, due to an extreme rake, when the gasoline and oil mixture caused an explosion which violently helped remove me from the underside of my car! I fortunately and instantly learned that removing the pan and cleaning it prior to gas welding the crack was by far the better method!

    Jay ?! We,re SO overjoyed that you are well ! In fact were it not for the mere mention of your name our existance would have no purpose . The planet would once again plunge into the dark ages. I believe it was yesterday that i read your story and gave thanks to the gods you are well . Now? My breakfasts taste better and the mere act of putting on my work boots in the morning have bordered on euphoria ! Thank you brother Jay! You mean the world(💩) to us all .

    Glad Jay is ok. As a kid I let a crescent wrench touch the positive and negative posts on a conventional battery. It blew up in my face. My fault completely. I miraculously suffered not injuries until my dad the auto mechanic got a hold of me.

    Neither the car nor the battery was at fault. A learning experience from 52 years ago and have never forgotten. Sometimes you CAN fix stupid.

    Glad that You are O.K. and Still Keeping the Faith in all the Classics!!! My 69 Camaro has been Both Good and Bad to me but I Love Her All the Same!!! Peace Always

    Ain’t no hyperbaric chamber gonna help with broken bones from a bike wreck. Good luck Jay. Keep the shiny side up!

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