The Nuts and Bolts of Motorman Leon Kaplan
(from Don Barrett's website / laradio.com)
While the high school kids in Durham, North Carolina were racing around chasing girls, Leon Kaplan was racing around in anything motorized. “I was just this little country boy from a little town and all I wanted to do was race,” remembered Leon while sitting in his 3rd Street offices of Lancer Automotive Service. His floor is checkerboard, resembling the winning race flag, a reminder to his lifelong dream.
Leon Kaplan has the longest running uninterrupted show at Talk Radio KABC. It would be easy to dismiss this Sunday morning staple as just another one of those “car” shows, but one quick listen and, not only do you sense a master Motorman in charge of the three hours, but a down-home folksy character who is about as real as they come. He’s not sure where the obsession with motors came from but his inspiration to be the best came from his Grandmother Lance. “My grandparents lived next door while I was growing up. My grandmother was a retired principal and my grandfather was a retired minister from Duke University. When I was in high school, motors and racing were my sports. That was my competitive edge. I had the fastest car. I had the fastest motorcycle. It’s still somewhat that way today.” Leon’s goal was to be a NASCAR race driver. “My grandmother was old and wise. She told me that whatever I decided to do, it needed to be the best.” His grandmother would frequently say to Leon: “You take after granddaddy Lance. You can fix anything. It just stuck with me.”
About this time in 1953, Leon befriended someone who had access to a local NASCAR track. Leon went to the races all the time and met racecar driver Curtis Turner who gave young Leon some life-changing advice. “I told Curtis that I wanted to be a great driver, just like him. Curtis pointed to the group of people working on his car and said, ‘I know more than all those people put together about that car. You’ve got to know everything about your car.’ I never forgot that.”
Leon went to the Nashville Auto Diesel College in Tennessee. “Automatic transmissions in the 50s is where computerization on cars are today. Nobody understood the new transmissions, but I knew them like the back of my hand. They always fascinated me,” said Leon. After graduation he returned to Durham, but couldn’t raise money for racing.
His brother moved to California after military service and encouraged Leon to join him. There was an opportunity for a three-month assignment that was paying $300 a week. “I took it because I could have money for a race car,” said Leon. “And I’m still here.”
All the racing has taken a physical toll on Leon. He broke an arm five times from racing motorcycles and a bad boating accident hurt his back.
Leon’s involvement in radio was almost by accident. In the late 1970s he lived in Lake Arrowhead. George Green, general manager at KABC, also had a home there. Their kids were friends and raced boats on the lake. Back on LaCienega, Elmer Dills hosted the Sunday morning KABC show. “It wasn’t a cooking show,” said Leon, “it was generic. Elmer would rotate me with a doctor, lawyer and real estate expert. When I came in we’d talk about new cars. He’d have me on every four to five weeks. It just evolved into my own show.” Leon is indebted to Elmer. “I owe a lot to Elmer for being so persistent with me when I was scared to be on the radio.”
“His deep south ‘good old boy’ way of speaking somehow struck the right chord with our listeners,” remembered Elmer Dills, who now broadcasts on KRLA. “People trusted him. He had no prior radio experience and wasn’t a smooth talker but when people called for advice he was seldom stumped. George Green gets the credit for discovering Leon and putting him on my show but in the last analysis it was Leon who made it work. That was many years ago and I still count Leon as one of my best friends and I rejoice in his success.”
By the time Leon was offered the Sunday morning slot full-time, Bill Handel was hosting “Handel on the Law.” George originally turned down Leon's show. “George was concerned that he would lose the female audience and feared the show was too male oriented. He is not really a car person.” A while later, Wally Sherwin, the program director, asked Leon to do the show one Sunday morning and he is still there. “We make the station money and we’ve had a good long run. It’s fun talking about the things I enjoy. I’m probably the only guy in the country that is crazy as I am. Motors are my life.” Leon has heard Handel say, “Some mechanic took my place at KABC. But it was the best damn thing that ever happened to him.”
Leon brings a folksy quality to his motorized show. It took Leon a while to get used to radio because he was frightened, but once he saw the phones light up, he knew he had something to say and people were interested. “I never talk down to people,” said the Motorman. “Radio and tv people are unwanted guests. You come across abusive or rough, they’ll turn you off. I learned from others to just be myself. I’m the same in person and I don’t run with the Hollywood crowd. I’m with family, which gives me plenty of time to fly and be a big hot rod fan.”
He pulled out some ratings showing that at one time he had more female listeners than anyone else on the station. When Leon started his radio career he learned everything he could about radio, just like motors. He listened to tapes from automotive radio guys from all over the country. He learned that those who ultimately failed spent too much time on one subject. Doing a “How To” show is easy for Leon. “I’ve been twisting wrenches all my life, but talking about it was boring,” said Leon.” “You have to have entertainment. You can have a lot of information, but can’t be boring.”
At one time in the mid-1980s, Leon was on KABC seven days a week. “I did 7 p.m. – 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, the Saturday morning Ken & Bob Show and then the Sunday morning show. I like the one day a week just fine.” In the early 1980s when the Japanese cars were having a profound effect on sales in the US, Leon hatched an idea to create a hybrid car made up of parts from a Chevy, Ford and Chrysler and drive it across the ocean. “Detroit was on its butt with imports and Detroit needed a shot in the arm.” Leon got Mattel to make a model and a number of promotional partners but the ambitious project eventually got bogged down in politics and ownership of the vehicle. Why has the industry chewed up and spit out so many automotive radio shows, and yet Leon keeps on motoring? “They try to be bigger than they are,” offered Leon. “I love a caller who disagrees with me. I’m open to learn something. But it’s all nuts and bolts. You take the engine out of a Mercedes the same way you take it out of a Pinto. It’s not a mystery. It’s not brain surgery. That’s why the show has to be entertaining.”
How has the radio show, and for a while a regular appearance on KABC/Channel 7, bolstered his business? “In a lot of ways, the exposure has hurt business. I’ve been in the same location on 3rd Street for 43 years. I have a good clientele. I was successful long before I went on the air. It’s just not fair to my regular customers to have all these new customers.”
Leon has had opportunities to open new locations and even franchise his operation, but has resisted the temptation. “I’m just a simple guy. I’m happy. There’s a price to pay for being a multi-, multi-, multi-millionaire. I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do,” said a contented Kaplan. If he gets too big, he fears he would become a glorified office manager. His manager has been with him 32 years. His automotive manager before him was there for 35 years before he passed away. “Maybe I pay too good,” mused Leon.
The biggest downfall from his notoriety is that everyone comes up and asks a question. Which car is better, etc.? “It’s just part of the game,” Leon said philosophically. “My hobby is my business. It can’t get any better than that. I’m not a wealthy man, but I’m comfortable.” His biggest problem at KABC is to keep out the “snake oils,” as Leon describes the additives that promise additional mileage if poured into the gas tank. “Most automotive shows around the country give good advice then it comes time for a commercial and they sell their souls.”
From 1989-93, Leon was a spokesman for Quaker State Oil and traveled to all the NASCAR tracks participating in seminars with NASCAR drivers. “The drivers talked about skills and I would talk about mechanics.” In 1989 he was elected to the Diesel Hall of Fame and two years later was inducted into the National Association of Trade & Technical Schools Hall of Fame in Washington, DC.
About five years ago, Leon published Keep This Book in Your Glove Compartment, an easy-to-follow handbook that deals with such car problems of overheating, jump-starting your car properly, changing a tire, cutting down on mechanics' bills and figuring out what's causing knocks and pings.
Leon’s honesty got him into hot water at KABC. When the Cadillac STS came out Leon told his audience that it wasn’t a very good car. “I said that Cadillac should have waited one more year to perfect some problems.” Leon was called into the general manager’s office after Cadillac canceled its $350,000 account. “George was real upset, but I told him if he needed me to lie, he didn’t need me on the air. I tell the truth. I don’t have snake oils on the air. George called Cadillac and said that my man don’t lie, he tells the truth. We got Cadillac back on the air and Cadillac has improved since then. George is a real true guy. He backed me up 100%.”
The relationship between Leon and George continues today. George is Leon’s manager. “Working with Leon is a manager’s dream come true. He is a truly nice human being, extremely sensitive to other people’s needs and a good family man. He has friendships all over the world and he’s one of the most knowledgeable talents in today’s broadcasting arena. I have worked with Leon for more than 25 years and have never seen or been with him when he didn’t have a smile on his face or a good thing to say about the people in his world. I have the good fortune of being his friend,” said Green.
"Leon is one of our longest-standing hosts – his professionalism both on and off the air and his immense popularity among his core listening audience make him one of the station's favorites,” offered KABC pd Erik Braverman. “He's an important part of our past AND our future."
Linda Tang, PR maven for KABC, enthused about Leon: “I can't tell you how many Leon-events I've worked where our booth is jam-packed with Leon fans waiting for an autograph and to shake his hand. Surprisingly, there are a lot of women who seek him out, not only for his Southern charm and charisma but because he makes complicated car language easy to understand. A lot of women have told me that they can finally understand and operate the mechanics of their car better and thus feel safer driving on the road because Leon's explanations are easy to understand and they have learned how to maintain/operate their car properly. When you're in a city like L.A. with heavy traffic and long distances to travel, safety and security are key. So Leon has built a large and loyal group of female listeners,” said Linda.
No surprise about the Motorman attracting women fans. On the air between all the motor talk, Leon talks about Dixiebelle, his wife of 43 years. He likes the relaxing environment of radio. “TV is very regimented. So much is about smiling and good visuals.” He loves making word pictures. His daughter lives in Phoenix and he and Dixiebelle will fly there and he will describe the trip on his KABC Sunday morning show. “I get sentimental. Flying across the desert and the sun’ll go down and I just think. It gets dark and then the lights of Palm Springs appear. Millions of people down there and I’m just one of the lucky ones who can do all this. When I’m dancing with the clouds, I feel natural with talking about it. I’m just this Southern guy who’s been there all this time. I can’t tell you why.”
But we know why and why it is so comfortable inviting Leon into our homes or into our cars every Sunday morning.