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!


Check out the Hagerty Media homepage so you don’t miss a single story, or better yet, bookmark it. To get our best stories delivered right to your inbox, subscribe to our newsletters.

Click below for more about
Read next Up next: Dino v Daytona


    Jay, we’re so happy you pulled through so quickly. Love the “PHOOM” tale. Car Guys and Gals we’re a bunch of tough old Turkeys and Crows. 😎 Bless you.

    I love the fact that this man does some of the work on his cars, bikes, and engines himself. Many celebs and rich collectors don’t know one end of a wrench from another, and here he is underneath his car not only getting his hands dirty (although as nice as that car looks, I don’t think it’d be too dirty!), but doing the hazardous part of the job as well.

    Keep up the work and the promotion of exceptionally engineered pieces of machinery Jay. By exposing America to our past technology and greatness will inspire the future generations to continue engineering the future!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *