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Jay Leno and Peggy Shotwell meet face to face July 24 at Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen, Minn., where he performed a standup show. Jean Ruzicka / Park Rapids Enterprise

Park Rapids woman meets Jay Leno 12 years after husband's car donation

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

Twelve years after her husband donated a car to Jay Leno, a comedian and noted car buff, Peggy Shotwell got the chance to meet the star in person when he performed July 24 at the Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen.

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The star invited her to "take a ride sometime" in the car her husband built 60 years ago as a kid and that Leno has upgraded. And Shotwell's visit to the casino was an effort to make good on that invitation.

But this story started long before the recent July night when Shotwell and Leno met with a warm embrace at the casino. This is a story that began in the 1930s when getting a car was even more difficult for teenagers than it is today.

In 1997, 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 1997, Bob, a former Northwest pilot, headed into the house to dictate the car's history. He was 82 at the time.

"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, Leno writes 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."

The West Central Tribune and the Park Rapids Enterprise are both owned by Forum Communications Co.

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