In 1959, the most popular detective show on television in the world featured a jive-talking parking lot attendant who made up his own vocabulary and drove a flamed Model T hot rod. Gerald Lloyd "Kookie" Kookson III (played by actor Edd Byrnes) was more popular than the two "big name" stars of "77 Sunset Strip," particularly with young people.
The character used cool phrases like "antsville" (a place packed with people) and "long green" (money), and he was constantly combing his hair, leading to a hit record by Connie Stevens called "Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb)." Adults didn't get it, but the kids sure did.
A character this eccentric had to have appropriate wheels, and Warner Bros. chose a scrumptious Model T hot rod built by a true-life hot rodder (and sometimes actor) named Norm Grabowski. Although it was also seen in dozens of other movies and TV shows (plus a full-page photo in the April 29, 1957, issue of LIFE magazine), that particular rod would become known as the Kookie T, but, more importantly, it also signaled a sea of change for hot rods in general.
Previously portrayed as chariots for thugs and juvenile delinquents, the rod had now become stylish transport for the terminally cool! And ever since, the Model T hot rod has become an icon on par with Harley-Davidson and Duesenberg in the history of transportation. How it attained those heights is a fascinating story.
Henry Ford introduced the Model T in 1908 and it quickly became the best-selling car in the world. Although Ford is erroneously credited with inventing mass production (more accurately, he is responsible for utilizing mass production as a method of building cars), many of Ford's early competitors also featured interchangeable parts, simplified design, and an orderly floor plan. The real breakthrough was when Ford introduced the moving production line in 1913. Model T production jumped to 300,000 cars per year in 1914, while all the other American car companies combined only built 200,000! Ford soon used Model T running gear in a line of commercial vehicles and trucks. Introduced in 1908 at $850, the Model T's price kept dropping as volume increased until the 1925 model hit $290. No wonder the T was the hottest thing since cold beer! Early Model Ts were also raced with great success, but it was no longer considered a hot performer by the end of production in 1927. In fact, Ford stubbornly clung to the Model T long after competitors had moved on to superior models. The Model A that followed was a much better car than the T, but no improvement over more stylish models from archrival Chevrolet. As buyers began to move up to new models, there was a glut of hand-me-down Model Ts available to the used-car market (over 18 million had been sold). Tired and damaged models got so cheap they began to fall into the hands of speed-crazed teenagers, which led to coining a new term for these hopped-up jalopies: hot rods.
Dawn Of The First Donor Car
The basic Model T body was in a state of constant change from 1908 to 1927. There were numerous body styles, including roadsters, coupes, delivery trucks, touring cars, runabouts, and many others. But many buyers soon yearned for something more exotic and distinctive than the ever-present Model T. Soon, custom bodies, grilles, and trim parts were introduced by a fledgling aftermarket industry.
Some of these early "kit cars" appeared in the early 1920s, with aftermarket Speedster sports car bodies intended for the Model T chassis. Many companies built these, but some of the best known were sold by Mercury and Ames. The Hine-Watt Company in Chicago sold the Happy Sport body for $97 in the 1920s and it featured mohair upholstery. Automotive magazines of the era also published plan sets for handmade bodywork to fit the Model T. Alongside these custom bodies were thousands of speed parts that grew into a $60 million industry during the 1920s and 1930s. Ironically, Louis and Arthur Chevrolet built the best racing versions of the Model T four-banger and sold them under the Frontenac name. Young, cash-challenged hot rodders began with whatever Model T they could buy or trade their horse for, and experimented with ways to make it go faster. Discarding every body panel that wasn't absolutely necessary was the easiest (and cheapest) way to improve the power-to-weight ratio. First went the fenders, then the hood and the bumpers. The definitive T-bucket was starting to develop. Although there were plenty of go-fast parts for the Model T and Model A four-cylinder engines, the biggest news for performance fans was the 1932 Ford with its Flathead V-8. Soon, these cheap and tunable mills began to find their way from junkyards to waiting Model Ts, and it was relatively simple to swap major components around since the cars were so basic in design.
Model T bodies were soon attached to other chassis, and grilles from other Ford models were grafted on front. Ed "Isky" Iskenderian bought his T roadster for $4 in the late '30s, outfitted it with a Ford V-8 with Maxi heads, and then ran 120 mph in 1942 out at the dry lakes of Southern California. Isky went on to start a widely successful cam-grinding business, and he still owns the car more than 60 years later-it is in unrestored condition, just as it appeared on the cover of Hot Rod in April 1948.
Others soon joined Isky, and the burgeoning speed equipment industry flooded the market with high-compression heads, multiple carburetor manifolds, radical bumpsticks, and high-voltage ignitions systems. Others shoehorned GMC sixes and the early Cadillac, Oldsmobile, and Chrysler OHV V-8s into the narrow framerails of the Model T. But where to race 'em?
Norm Grabowski built and owned the car acknowledged by many as being the first Fad T (a cu
In a photo that is sometimes (and incorrectly) referred to as the cover of LIFE, Norm Grab
Paul Cantarano's Cragar-powered four-banger, with Chuck Leighton behind the wheel, was typ
The KooKie Kar from Speedway Motors used a direct connection to the "77 Sunset Strip" that
Besides selling Kellison coupes and roadsters under the Astra brand in the '60s, Allied Fi