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Shotwell meets Leno after years of correspondence about car

"The car came from a time, a culture when working with your hands was considered honorable, ingenious work," Jay Leno said of Bob Shotwell's three-wheeled midget. "A lot of thought, a lot of math went into this." (Submitted photo)1 / 2
Although Jay Leno and Peggy Shotwell have remained in correspondence regarding her late husband Bob's car, the two had not met face to face - until Friday. Peggy Shotwell went back stage to meet the comedian - and custodian of the hand-built car. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)2 / 2

At last they meet, after more than a decade of friendship based on Philbert the Puddle Jumper.

Peggy Shotwell, arriving at Shooting Star Casino Friday, gave Jay Leno a warm welcome, reciprocated with his standing invitation, "Come for a ride sometime."

A dozen years ago, late Little Sand Lake resident Bob Shotwell decided to donate the car he'd built as a teen to the noted auto buff.

Shotwell was 17, fresh out of high school when he began assembling the car that would take him and his brother cross country, turning heads and making headlines along the way.

The year was 1933 when Bob asked the universal question: Can I have a car?

"You want a car? Build one," his father advised. So he took up residence in his father's Minneapolis radiator shop, hammering the steel for the body, each fender a 40-hour project.

"He was 17 when he built it but this was not amateur work," Leno said in an earlier interview.

At 44 inches in height, the car is streamlined for low air resistance. Turn signals sat on the roof, manually flashed by an interior switch. Powered by a four-cylinder 1931 Indian motorcycle in the rear, it traveled in excess of 80 mph, at 50 miles per gallon.

The roadster tipped the scale at 1,000 pounds.

The hubs on the car came from a 1932 Ford, the axle and brakes reclaimed from a Model A. The car's interior, which resembles an airplane cockpit, was built to fit its driver.

By 1935, "Philbert," named for the cartoon character who overcame all obstacles, was ready for its maiden voyage kick start.

The brothers Shotwell headed west, traveling through the Rockies at a time when they were building the original highway. At some points, bulldozers had to pull the car over the yet-to-be-tamed terrain.

Through the years, the car became an integral part of the family's existence, photographed in parades and other notable events.

Bob wanted the car preserved, initially considering museums. But Leno's unbridled enthusiasm of cars steered him toward the "Tonight Show" star.

When members of Leno's crew arrived to pick up the car in the fall of '97, Bob, a former Northwest pilot, headed into the house to dictate the car's history. He was 82 at the time of transfer.

"There have been no mechanical or structural failures at all," he wrote. The car, 60 years old, had accumulated 150,000 miles, including many cross-country jaunts.

"Small changes and improvements have been made through the years, none of which have changed the basic design concept," Shotwell wrote.

And that was a component Leno had pledged to maintain.

The comedian replaced and re-engineered much of the car's mechanics but maintained its basic integrity.

Leno now travels down the Hollywood freeway in the unique auto, turning heads along the way.

"No kid today could build" a car like this today, Leno observes on his Web site. "But back in the '30s, there was no TV, no video games - some people didn't even have a radio. So kids developed the skills to create their own neat stuff.

"Bob Shotwell was obviously a kid of that era."