Jay Leno Never Thought He’d Get to Drive This American Racing Legend

Jay Leno has driven all manner of new, classic, and antique cars over the years. Many have been his, but he’s also featured plenty of ‘guest’ vehicles on his YouTube channel. One might imagine that there aren’t too many cars on his automotive bucket list. But even Jay Leno didn’t think he’d ever get behind the wheel of the Old Yeller II.

Max Blachowsky’s 1959 Old Yeller II was a ‘Junkyard Dog’ that beat Ferrari, Maserati, and Jaguar

Rob Drake driving the Old Yeller II at the 1960 Times Grand Prix
Rob Drake driving the Old Yeller II at the 1960 Times Grand Prix | Al Paloczy/The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images/Getty Images

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, NASCAR was just getting off the ground. And the Indy 500 “was the exception rather than the rule” when it came to road courses, Hemmings reports. At the time, marques like Jaguar, Maserati, and Ferrari were the dominant forces in motorsport. Cars like the C-Type, the ‘Birdcage’ Tipo 60/61, and the original Testa Rossa were on the cutting-edge of race car design. And they were beaten by the work of one Max Balchowsky: the 1959 Old Yeller II.

Max Balchowsky, together with his wife Ina, founded California-based Hollywood Motors to make custom sports and race cars, Silodrome reports. The duo welded, fabricated, and welded on a variety of vehicles, including the original Bullitt Mustang, Silodrome explains. With their motto “We can replace anything with anything,” they earned a reputation as engine-swap experts, Road & Track reports. And one of their most memorable creations is the 1959 Old Yeller II.

Max Balchowsky driving the pale-yellow Old Yeller I at the 1958 Times Grand Prix
Max Balchowsky driving the Old Yeller I at the 1958 Times Grand Prix | Bob D’Olivo/The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images/Getty Images

The 1959 Old Yeller II is a true chop-shop work of art, Goodwood explains, built from a collection of salvaged parts. Max and Ina designed the chassis using chalk outlines drawn on their shop’s floor and used recalled Goodyear station wagon tires, Hagerty reports. The rear axle is from a Studebaker, and the suspension is a mix of Pontiac, Jaguar XK120, and Morris Minor parts, Classic Motorsports reports. And the bodywork and hodge-podge-looking gauges are a testament to the ‘form follows function’ mentality, HotRod describes. Hence the ‘Junkyard Dog’ nickname.

Yet for all that, the Old Yeller II is also an example of ingenious thinking. The Balchowskys used softer, grippier tires when everyone else was going with harder compounds. Those XK120 suspension arms have drilled holes—not to decrease weight, but to turn them into ersatz crumple zones. And then there’s what’s under the hood.

Jay Leno on the Old Yeller II: “That is one of the best cars I’ve ever driven”

https://twitter.com/LenosGarage/status/1396942164626743299

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Under the Old Yeller II’s hood is a 6.6-liter Buick ‘Nailhead’ V8 rated at well over 300 hp and 360 lb-ft, Classic & Sports Car reports. That power goes to the rear wheels via a four-speed manual transmission. As Jay Leno describes in the video below, the engine is “a torque monster.”

And because the car only weighs about 2000 pounds, it’s very quick. 0-60 mph takes less than four seconds, R&T reports, and it can run the ¼-mile in 11.9 seconds. That’s impressive even by modern standards.

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In period, several famous racing drivers spent some time behind the wheel of the Old Yeller II. Brock Yates, Dan Gurney, and Carroll Shelby all competed and won with it. And according to the current owner, Ernie Nagamatsu, it’s partially because of this car that Shelby eventually built the Cobra. Plus, Nagamatsu doesn’t keep the Old Yeller locked away in some garage; he still regularly races it.

By his admission, Jay Leno spent “years and years” reading about the Old Yeller II and its history. And based on his reaction, it seems the wait was worth it.

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“The genius of this car is,” he says, “the brakes are excellent [and] the steering is so light…it almost feels like power steering.” True, the interior is rather cramped; Jay Leno has to drive with his legs bent and almost touching the dashboard. But “no matter what gear you’re in, you’re fine,” he says. And in his opinion, it handles “better than any Corvette from the period.”

To quote Jay Leno, the Old Yeller II may look crude, but it’s really “an impressive piece of machinery.”

The race car icon is still kicking, but it’s a rare sight, indeed

As mentioned earlier, Ernie Nagamatsu regularly competes in his 1959 Old Yeller II. By his reckoning, the car has only sat idle for about two years in total. But while Nagamatsu is a regular sight at classic car races, the Old Yeller itself isn’t.

The yellow-with-blue-stripes 1961 Old Yeller VII in the desert
1961 Old Yeller VII | Bonhams

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The Balchowskys built nine Old Yellers in total. As a result, finding one at a racetrack is difficult; finding one for sale even more so. The last time one went appeared at an auction, to our knowledge, was at a 2011 Bonhams sale.

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