Elkader man, Leno talk cars

Comedian Jay Leno (blue shirt) is pictured at a car show with his Bristol 403. Less than 300 models were produced. One is owned and has been restored by Tom Chandler.


By Pat McTaggart

Freelance Writer


Tom Chandler’s passion for restoring cars recently gave him the unique opportunity to tour one of the best-known, private car and motorcycle collections in the country.  The Elkader man has been restoring cars for the past 50 years.

His experience began when his brother sent him a copy of “Popular Mechanics” last year. In the magazine was an article written by comedian and former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno, which described his purchase of a Bristol 403. He commented on how rare the car was, and that he didn‘t know of another one in the country.

“I read the article with interest,” Chandler said. “I also said to myself ‘I have one of those that is in perfect running condition.’ Only 273 of that particular model were ever made.”

Chandler said he always wanted to see Leno’s collection. “Jay’s collection is not a public thing, and he keeps it very private,” Chandler said. “I also heard that tours of the collection are usually auctioned off at charity events, and that they go for about $10,000. That made me give up on the idea.”

Chandler, his wife Barb, and two other Elkader couples, Jay and Kay Moser and Del and Marla Reimer, were planning a nine-day trip to California set for the second week of March. “There are a lot of nice car collections out there, and I wanted to take a look at a few of them,” he said.

Talking to a friend from Des Moines, he mentioned his trip, and at the same time he talked about the magazine article. His friend, who is also into car restoration, told him that he was acquainted with a person who was very familiar with the Leno collection and gave Chandler the name and telephone number of the collection‘s manager.

“I gave the manager a call and told him that I had the same type of Bristol that Leno had written about,” Chandler said. “He vetted me a little, asking me questions, and finally decided that I was the real deal. I told him that I would really like to see the car, and he said that if I was ever in the area to stop by. Coincidentally, we were headed out there the following week. When I mentioned that, he set up a time and day and told me I would get a tour.”

Arriving at the appointed time, the Chandler’s and their friends were let right in and led to a large building where they met their personal guide. “His name was Bob,” Chandler said.  “He was very polite, considerate and knowledgeable. He also had a story about each of the vehicles he showed us. Unfortunately, there were signs posted all over, prohibiting the taking of photos, but that was a minor inconvenience considering what we were seeing.”

When Chandler mentioned his interest in seeing the Bristol, telling his guide that he also had one, Bob was genuinely interested. “I had some photos of mine with me, which I showed him,” Chandler said. “Bob took a look at them and immediately said ‘Jay will want to see this’.”

Leno’s collection consists of about 160 cars and 140 motorcycles, housed in four large buildings. He also has a restoration shop, which employs eight full-time and four part-time employees. Bob took the group to the restoration room, where Leno was working on a motorcycle restoration with his crew.

“I was taken over to Jay, where Bob introduced me and told him about my Bristol,” Chandler commented.  “When Jay saw my wife and the other two couples standing by the wall, he waved them over to meet him. He was very interested in my photos, especially since his (Bristol) had the same color scheme. He also autographed the ‘Popular Mechanics’ article that I had brought with me. We talked for about 15 minutes, and he said that if I was ever in the area again. I should stop in. As we left, he went back to working on the motorcycle.”

“It was quite a trip,” Chandler commented.  “For a car guy, this was the Mecca of collections. I felt like a kid on Christmas with all the candy in the world in his mouth.”

After doing some additional research, Chandler deduced that his and Leno’s Bristols are among the last six ever made for that model.


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