Boyhood memories zoom back for thankful man visiting Jay Leno’s garage

Jay Leno allowed Michael Corman of Phenix City to visit his Burbank, Calif., garage last month and relive some boyhood memories about the experimental Chrysler Turbine his father was allowed to test drive.
Jay Leno allowed Michael Corman of Phenix City to visit his Burbank, Calif., garage last month and relive some boyhood memories about the experimental Chrysler Turbine his father was allowed to test drive.

Five decades after his father was among the lucky 203 drivers to test drive what became known as “Detroit’s Coolest Creation,” a Phenix City man relived that gleaming boyhood memory when former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno allowed him to visit his famous garage.

The marvelous moments for the father, Bob Corman, and his oldest son, Michael Corman, started with letters. The father wrote his as an entry in a national contest, and the son wrote his as a passionate plea to see that beloved car in the comedian’s classic collection.

In 1964, Bob Corman, who later owned two Dunkin’ Donuts stores in Columbus, was a 43-year-old traveling shoe salesman. After answering Chrysler’s magazine ad soliciting applicants, he won the right to drive for three months a Turbine, the two-door hardtop coupe with an experimental jet engine.

Chrysler didn’t mass-produce the Turbine.

“They never-ever brought the car to production,” said Michael Corman, 60, who owns a crafting business called Vinyl Couture. “Chrysler started having financial problems, and this was put on the backburner.”

Only nine of the 55 handmade Turbines still exist, according to MotorTrend.com. Even the time Michael Corman, then 9, had with his father’s Turbine was fleeting, considering it was on the road most of those three months for sales trips. But a few vivid memories of what Corman called “this magnificent machine” still remain.

The mornings his father gave him a lift in the Turbine to Rigdon Road Elementary School boosted the boy’s reputation.

“It was awesome,” he said. “People would come running. Kids would come running. The whole school was around it.”

Then there was the day he accompanied his father in the Turbine on a trip to Birmingham. The drive took double the amount of time because “so many people gather around it at every stop we took. It was the coolest thing.

“I don’t have any collectible cars, but I’ve always thought about this and how special it was in our family’s life, and I just always wanted to see the thing again.”

He did — on TV — when he saw Leno driving a Turbine in the opening clip during an episode of “Jay Leno’s Garage,” the CNBC program in which Leno shows some of the classic cars in his collection. Corman was planning a trip to Las Vegas for the week of Oct. 9 and figured it was convenient time to follow his father’s example and write a letter to achieve his dream.

In the Sept. 4 letter, Corman asked Leno whether he could visit his Burbank, Calif., garage and see that Turbine.

“I don’t even care if you are there or not,” Corman wrote. “… Even though you are a super cool human being among us mere mortals, I know you are a VERY busy individual, and I would not dare think to impose on you in any way. … I am not particularly star-struck or anything like that ‘cause I know you’re just a man … that has the most ULTIMATE auto collection on the planet. … I just wanna see that car!”

Five days later, Leno called Corman and indeed welcomed him to visit.

“I was pretty shocked,” Corman said. He recalled thinking, “I know this can’t be a joke because I didn’t tell anybody about this, so it has to be him. … He called from a blocked number, which I usually don’t answer at all, so it’s kind of serendipitous, I guess, that I even answered.”

Corman and a friend hired a driver for the 280-mile trip from Las Vegas to Burbank. It was 11 hours roundtrip for a visit that lasted less than 10 minutes, “but it was worth every minute of it,” Corman said, “no question about it.”

When they arrived, Leno was turning wrenches on a motorcycle. “I mean,” Corman said, “this man is serious about these vehicles.”

He said Leno was “a very nice and gracious individual” during their visit. Although they weren’t allowed to drive the Turbine or sit in it, Leno did crank it for them.

“I was thrilled about that,” Corman said. “It was that Turbine sound, literally a jet engine.”

And those memories of his father and that car came zooming back.

“I was really over the top to see it,” Corman said. “It was an emotional experience, without a doubt.”