Doing America’s most popular nightly TV show ten and a half months a year does not leave many windows for long overseas trips. So, in the summer, between stopping his 17-year run on The Tonight Show and starting The Jay Leno Show, Jay had a rare chance to leave LA behind and jet to England for a week of petrolhead indulgence.
In the space of five days he visited the McLaren Technology Centre, went to The Goodwood Festival of Speed, driving a McLaren F1 Le Mans car up the hill, and appeared on the world’s best known motoring TV show, Top Gear.
“I love England and I love English cars, so having a week like this lined-up was hardly a hardship,” grins Leno, whose eclectic car and motorcycle collection in California numbers almost 200 pieces. His familiar smirk appears as he negotiates leafy lanes en-route to McLaren’s space-age but eco-friendly base south-west of London at Woking. Waiting inside the McLaren Technical Centre is one of the final P11 prototypes of the new MP4-12C supercar. Jay has been granted a sneak preview…
Leno has not been to McLaren for almost a decade, since he took delivery of his own beloved McLaren F1. At that time McLaren’s home was a series of industrial units in Woking’s town centre. Now it has a bespoke and modern facility in the Surrey countryside. And seeing the lake-shrouded ying/yang shaped HQ appear through the windscreen impresses the comedian.
“To see something that is so in tune with its environment, in terms of the way that the lake out front works as a heat sink, and all the technology that has gone in to designing the factory makes you know that whatever you’re gonna see inside should be equally fascinating,” he says as he pulls up at the VIP entrance, where McLaren Automotive Managing Director Antony Sheriff is waiting.
Sheriff leads Jay past Bruce McLaren’s first car, an Austin 7, and by the famous McLaren F1 that won Le Mans at the company’s first attempt. Jay is in time to see the last batch of Stirling Moss SLR’s being finished. Leno is the proud owner of what was the first SLR in America.
“To see a workshop so clean, so open, where everyone doing their job in the most ecologically way possible was a sort of sorbet for my appetite, it sort of cleansed the pallet to get ready to see the new car,” Jay says as Sheriff leads us through a door that says NO UNAUTHORISED ACCESS. He turns and beams. “I like going through doors like this.”
The first stop is a studio where Sheriff shows off the key elements of the new car, the one-piece carbon fiber tub, or MonoCell. Taking inspiration from its racing heritage, the new McLaren is the first car in its market segment to offer such a lightweight engineering solution. It has made this technology accessible to a more affordable sector by pioneering a technique that allows the MonoCell to be molded in one piece, the only car in the world to feature such a structure. Off this hollow lightweight structure, which sits in the centre of the car, is bolted the rest of the car’s components. That means repairs can be made easily. Together Jay and Antony Sheriff lift the MonoCell with ease.
If the MonoCell is the backbone of the car, its heart will be a V8 motor made by McLaren. The engine is not on show but the fact that the MP4-12C will have a McLaren-made engine is important to Leno.
“That’s when you’re really serious about producing a car with your name on it. The motor really is the heart of it. The idea that you sit down and design what you think the motor should be and how you want it to be. It gives it personality and its own unique sound. That’s what it’s all about. I mean they build racing cars so they should build their own motor. If they weren’t using their own motor I think it would be a whole different ball game and that’s the heart and soul of it. “
Decisions about the all-important launch color for the car are in full-swing as Leno makes his visit. Sheriff asks for his opinion. For reference, Jay’s F1 is black. “I like the orange,” Leno points out from a palette of colors. It’s a buzz to find out just a couple of weeks later that the same color ends up as the launch color!
It is then through to a private screening room, where the car’s designer, Frank Stephenson greets Jay. Sheriff and Stephenson sit their guest down in front of a screen almost big enough to show the car life-sized. The moment of truth, the first sight of the P11, comes in the shape of an interactive video. Jay likes the flowing lines of the car and the fact it looks like a McLaren. “The thing I like about McLaren is they design the mechanicals first then shape the body over it. This looks like pure design. It looks like they designed the mechanicals of the car and then figured out how to style the body over it.”
Lastly, it is down to a viewing room to see the real thing…well almost. Months before the MP4-12C is shown to the world, the P11 prototype is close to but not quite the final product. Nevertheless, Jay’s reaction is telling.
“Very impressive! It’s terrific,” he says, hand on chin, as if appraising a piece of art.