Nov. 12 2010 12:00 AM

The Tonight Show host helped a shelved book see the light of day


(Steve Lehto will be reading and signing books at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 18 at Schuler Books & Music, 1982 Grand River Ave. in Okemos.)

A little pluck and a lot of luck go a long way, especially for Grand Blanc author Steve Lehto.

Lehto, the author of two Michigan Notable Award books, has been on his own personal “dream” cruise the past of couple years.

It all started in 2007, when Jay Leno made fun of the title of one of his books, “Death’s Door,” during his ongoing funny-headline segment on “The Tonight Show.”

“Death’s Door” is a pretty grim book about the mass murder of 73 people on Christmas Eve 1913 in Calumet. But when the Finnish American Reporter ran an ad proclaiming that “Death’s Door” “makes a great Christmas gift,” Leno couldn’t resist poking fun.

“I hadn’t seen it, but the next day people were calling me from around the country,” Lehto said.

Here’s where the pluck comes in. Lehto was unfazed by Leno’s mention and immediately wrapped his own Christmas present for Leno.

He found some over-the-top Christmas paper and wrapped up a copy of “Death’s Door” to send to Leno. He also included an old manuscript he had written about the history of the Chrysler Turbine Car with a note: “I know you are a car guy … .”

“I had originally written the book five years ago, but I had given up on finding a publisher,” Lehto said. “It was a car book.”

A few days passed. Then Lehto’s secretary told him there was someone on the phone who said he’s Jay Leno.

“I knew it had to be him since I hadn’t told anyone about sending the package,” Lehto said. “I get on the phone and it was the funniest thing — he asks, ‘You aren’t mad, are you?’”

Long story short: They had a friendly conversation and then, in early summer 2009, Leno called again, wanting to know how to get in touch with Bill Kerry, the head mechanic for the Chrysler Turbine project.

Lehto then put on his attorney hat, piecing together some disparate facts: Leno was in town for three shows at the Palace in April 2009; the Chrysler Museum was selling off surplus cars at the same time, including one of the rare 1960s Turbine Cars; Leno is friends with former Chrysler CEO Bob Lutz, and the Turbine would be a great addition to Leno’s car collection.

Lehto came to the conclusion that Leno bought one of the Turbines, and asked Leno, “You were in town. Did you buy one?” Leno answered, “I can’t tell you.” In the proceeding cross-examination, Leno fessed up to buying a Turbine, but told Lehto he couldn’t tell anyone.

Time passed, and Lehto got another call from Leno to thank him for putting him in touch with Kerry. Leno had flown Kerry to California to make sure the car was in tiptop shape. Lehto also got an invite to visit Leno at his personal car museum, if he was ever in California.

Lehto immediately made plans to visit the first available weekend he has free. Leno gave him a tour of his “garage,” which houses 105 cars and 95 motorcycles. Leno even flipped him the keys to the Turbine and let him drive it on the Sunset Strip.

Nobody is saying what the car costs, but since it is one of the only Turbines, a safe bet would be around $5 million and change.

“Every car is plated and insured.

These are daily drivers,” Lehto said.

While in California Lehto and Leno talked about the turbine book, and Lehto said Leno told him, “You really got to get this book published.”

“He offered to write a forward for it, and that was without question the last part of the puzzle,” Lehto said.

What makes the book, “Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroits Coolest Creation,” so fascinating is that the Turbine Car was the ultimate muscle car of an era defined by muscle cars. Only 55 of the cars (which were propelled by jet engines) were produced, and when the time came for its demise all but nine were destroyed.

Although the car could easily settle in at 100 miles per hour for a cruise, it was the ultimate car for fuel efficiency, even though it only got 10 to 15 miles per gallon: As Lehto says in the book, it would run on anything flammable, including perfume.

Unveiled at the 1964 World’s Fair, the car seemed to represent the headiness of the era perfectly: It was sleek, using the highest technology possible, coupled with Italian design. It was ready to blow the doors off the puny Mustang — also unveiled at the 1964 Fair — when the oil embargo and Environmental Protection Agency regulations killed it. But back to the future.

With the forward in hand, Lehto secured an agent and a contract. The book is now in print, and features — as you’d probably guess — a shot of Leno and Lehto with the car. But the cover is even more compelling: Leaning against the car in full-tilt 1960s dress is Kerry, munching on a donut.

Lehto’s dream cruise hasn’t ended yet.

Lehto and Leno will do a joint book-signing in Burbank, Calif., this winter, and Lehto’s agent recently secured him a contract to cowrite a book about a Colorado man named Tim Masters who spent 10 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.

“It never would’ve happened without Leno,” Lehto said.

Steve Lehto

6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 30 Capital Area District Library 401 South Capitol Ave., Lansing Free (517) 367-6363