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One day in 2002, David North took the phone from his wife, Pat, and heard someone identify himself as "Jay," but didn't catch the last name.

"A lot of people think I ruined your car, David," the man said.

"What are you talking about?" North asked, worried that someone had bashed into his car parked at his Billings home.

"The 1966 Toronado," the man said. "I've been getting hate mail because I changed it from front-wheel drive to rear-wheel drive."

The man then said that he was Jay Leno and asked if North knew who he was.

The name was only vaguely familiar to North.

"Do you watch 'The Tonight Show'?" Leno asked.

North said that his parents used to watch Johnny Carson all the time, but that he went to bed early.

Although North wasn't exactly a fan of Leno's television show, Leno had long been a fan of North and the cars that the Billings native designed during his 33 years as chief designer at General Motors. Along with the Buick Riviera and Cadillac Eldorado, North designed the Oldsmobile Toronado and the Pontiac GTO.

North didn't just design the GTO, he came up with its name from an abbreviation of a Ferrari showcar - the Gran Turismo Omologato.

After that phone call, Leno invited North and his wife, Pat, to visit California to see his collection of 3,000 cars plus hundreds of motorcycles, the first of several visits the Norths would make to see the late-night talk show host.

Those visits have included scary drives in that 1966 Toronado, Leno's favorite car.

Not only did Leno change the car to rear-wheel drive, he added an engine many times its original horsepower.

Leno was so delighted to have tracked down North down that the entertainer featured North in a couple of videos posted at his Web site, Jay's Garage. In one, North and Leno talk about the beloved gold Toronado.

When touring the hangars where Leno's cars are housed, North was surprised to find on the walls photos of himself taken when he worked for GM.

After the 1966 Toronado was picked Motor Trend car of the year, North received national publicity for his work.

Leno said that he had cherished the Toronado since he was a young man in Massachusetts and a neighbor bought one in the 1960s.

Leno is just one of many celebrities whom North met through his job with GM.

Pictures of famous people he's known cover the walls leading into his downstairs office. Frank Sinatra Jr. is there along with the Beach Boys, Paul Newman, James Garner, Evel Knievel and Shirley Jones and her husband, Marty Ingels.

Even with friends like that, the Norths share a better story.

When David was growing up in Billings, he loved drawing animals. When he became a teenager, he realized that sketching animals - and later cars - attracted girls.

"It was a babe magnet," he said.

It was cars, though, that brought David North and Pat Craighill together. They met as teenagers "burning the point," cruising through downtown Billings.

After Pat graduated from Billings Central Catholic High School and David from Billings Senior, they married in August 1955 and set off for the Art Center School in California, where David studied automotive design.

One summer night after they'd celebrated their third anniversary, they were driving home in David's new 1958 Impala along Wilshire Boulevard when a car smashed into their vehicle, then ricocheted into a nearby car. That vehicle was carrying Hollywood royalty headed home from dinner at actor Peter Lawford's home.

The third car was driven by Tony Curtis, who was with his wife, Janet Leigh, then pregnant with their daughter Jamie Lee. Dean Martin, songwriter Sammy Cahn and their wives also were passengers.

Frank Sinatra, who was following Curtis, saw what happened and called for help on his mobile telephone - then an unusual device in a private car. In Sinatra's car were comedian Ernie Kovacs and his wife, Edie Adams.

Pat wasn't hurt, but she went with Janet Leigh in an ambulance to the hospital, where the actress later was released.

They learned that the man who caused the accident mistakenly thought that Pat was his wife, who was out with another man.

The Norths later become close friends of Frank Sinatra Jr., who, like his father, is crazy about cars.

The Norths recently were invited to Sinatra's concerts in Wyoming and Colorado. Pat was even invited on stage for a pre-concert sound check and rehearsal.

The couple settled in Billings after David retired from GM in 1991. They have three sons and nine grandchildren.

As their visits to Leno attest, they continue to make friends with well-known personalities.

A few years ago, the couple hosted at their home actor Hugh O'Brian, who portrayed Wyatt Earp on a 1950s television series. O'Brian was in Billings to speak at Rocky Mountain College.

They got along so well that O'Brian invited them to his 2006 wedding in California.

When Cliff Robertson, the actor best known for his role as John F. Kennedy in the movie "PT-109," came to Rocky, North met him, too. Robertson had portrayed North in a film made by GM that was shown to dealers to launch a line of new Oldsmobiles in 1988.

But North's biggest fan may be Leno.

For the record, North was not mad about Leno's changes to the 1966 Toronado. Because his work at GM was designing the outside of the car and not its mechanical guts, North told Leno that he didn't care how Leno had customized it.

Contact Mary Pickett at mpickett@billingsgazette.com or 657-1262.

Click on the video below to view David North on "Jay Leno's Garage" webcast.

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