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
Racing The Hot Rod
The earliest places to race hot rods were SoCal's dry lakebed dirt ovals. Although Model A and '32 Ford rods (as well as a small number of rods built from other cars) soon joined the Model T on the tracks, T-buckets were the backbone of early speed events. Dry lakes cars emphasized streamlining and power, so stroker cranks, supercharging, and nitro took precedence over other considerations. In order to cut wind resistance, bodies were sometimes narrowed by taking a cut lengthwise down the middle of the body, or "channeled" by dropping the body down over the framerails. The Model T was also active on circle tracks, where a new class was invented for them. Called roadster racing, the bodies were mostly topless Model Ts, although other framerails (like the stronger Essex) were allowed. Roadster racing was extremely popular in the immediate postwar years. These racers were frequently fitted with noses and grilles borrowed from the classic front-engined Champ cars that dominated the Indy 500 at the time. This body style came to be known as a track roadster. Racing on dirt ovals was different back then-way different. But from these dangerous dirt ovals was born a racing sport to which today's organizers, with their super speedways and $7 hot dogs, owe everything. Not a lot of the original race cars still exist (they had been hammered on for years), but a few have luckily managed to survive, some still with their original owners!
You can't go forward without first understanding your past, and the names of the drivers associated with dirt oval racing reads like a who's who of the automotive aftermarket. Many racers, because they had to figure it out themselves, went on to supply the burgeoning racing industry with engine and suspension parts they'd developed at the track.
When drag racing kicked off in the early 1950s, Model T rods were once again the backbone of the sport, displaying every possible engine combination-from near-stock Flatheads to blown Chrysler Hemis under (and through) the hoods.
The most significant event in the history of the hot rod took place in January 1948, when the movement got its own magazine. The first issue of Hot Rod showed that homebrewed performance had arrived big time. Needless to say, the cover car was a Model T-a track roadster driven by Eddie Hulse. Hop Up magazine followed three years later, and a Model T rod once again graced the cover of the premier issue. Model T bodies were soon a popular starting point for show cars, racers, and street machines. Through the late 1950s, there were still plenty of derelict Model Ts lounging in fields and barns across America, just itching for a second life as a rod. But by the early 1960s, the sheetmetal used in these Ts was approaching 40 years old, and a savable chassis was getting harder to find. The first fiberglass T-bucket bodies soon appeared, built by companies like Ford Duplicators, Kellison, La Dawri, and Cal-Automotive.
And though the aforementioned Grabowski/Kookie T was at the forefront of the Model T's popularity, there were others who helped define the style that would become known as a Fad T. "TV" Tommy Ivo was another star of both the small and big screens, but his street 'n' strip-driven T-bucket, with its injected 322 Nailhead up front and famed crescent-shaped rear window, was another vehicle that had a huge impact on those who saw it. The car appeared roughly a year after Norm's Kookie T, but with drag racing in his blood, Ivo took the car another direction (1,320 feet down an asphalt strip) and became a world-famous drag racer in the process.
Another major influence in the world of T-buckets was the discovery of a rat or, more accurately, a Rat Fink. Ed "Big Daddy" Roth became a fixture in the hot rod world with his anti-establishment point of view on everything from artwork and clothing to his style of custom car building. His famous Rat Fink character (an exact opposite to Mickey Mouse's squeaky clean image) adorned T-shirts, posters, and stickers, but the scratch-built cars Roth created (many of which were T based) would not only garner a worldwide audience due to coverage in hot rod magazines, but turn on an even wider audience that was into building scale models of his famous cars. Both kids and adults could recognize cars such as the Outlaw and Tweedy Pie, even though they may have never seen them in person-a testament to the reach of Roth's creativity.
Model car building was very popular in the early '60s, and companies like AMT and Monogram supplied the need. Usually the scale car companies would copy in miniature whatever was being debuted that year (such as with Roth's cars) on the car show circuit, but Monogram reversed that way of thinking when they contacted customizer Darryl Starbird in early 1963 to build a fullsize version of one of their models: the Big T. The finished car was featured on the cover of Car Craft in October 1963.
In 1964, the Dragmaster Company, which had previously built chassis for dragsters, introduced their Streetster T roadster, a kit hot rod with a fiberglass body and a race-derived chassis intended for street use. Eelco, a California speed parts company, later offered this kit as the T Streetster. The chassis was made from round tubes arranged as a perimeter ladder frame mounting 1932-48 Ford suspension at both ends with 1956-57 Ford steering. Engine mounts could be ordered for Ford or Chevy engines. Bird Automotive built another early T-bucket kit, which, in 1966, sold a body, interior pod, and chassis kit for $399.95. In 1967, Speedway Motors paid homage to Grabowski with the KooKie Kar T-bucket kit, a body and chassis combo that sold for an amazing $139. Prolific kit car manufacturer Astra (builder of Kellison-derived coupes) also had a Model T hot rod kit called the Astra Tee that they introduced in the mid-'60s. There were also a number of dune buggies with Model T grilles and noses, including the Barris buggies and the Berry Mini T.
Andy Brizio, whose involvement with T-based rods began in the '60s, discovered folks wanted a single place to go where they could not only find the parts they needed to assemble a T-bucket for themselves, but also a place that would sell an entire car in kit form so they could build one at home in an instant. Soon, Andy's Instant Ts were selling like hotcakes, and Brizio's cross-country drives to street rod events only reinforced the car's reliability while helping spread the Fad T look.
In the ensuing years, dozens of other companies introduced T-bucket kits that were much more sophisticated than the primitive efforts. Speedway Motors still sells a variety of Model T kits, including traditional roadsters and a track roadster called the Track T. Total Performance in Wallingford, Connecticut, launched their Model T rod kits in 1971, offering 1923-27 roadster and roadster pickup truck bodies. They even came out with a Pro Street T kit featuring a 1927 Model T body with Model A fenders and a serious performance-minded chassis. California Custom Roadsters, run by the Keifer family since opening in 1969, is still turning out new T-bucket kits today in Chino, California. Newer companies, such as the Arkansas-based Spirit Industries, offer T-buckets as well as Track Ts and even a C-cab T body.
"I wonder how far out in front I am?" Troy Ruttman, #20, probably had a pretty good idea w
"TV" Tommy Ivo would be among the first to slip through the door opened by Norm Grabowski.
Often taking a different point of view from anyone else, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth not only gave
In the early '60s, model car companies such as Monogram and AMT would create scale models
California Custom Roadsters in Chino, CA, (909-393-4005) has been in the T-body business s
Simplicity is the backbone of any T chassis. Just a frame, motor, and wheels-what else do
Total Performance teamed with STREET RODDER a few years ago when the magazine built the Cy
The National T-Bucket Alliance is a club made up of T-bucket enthusiasts from all over the
But while those companies were busy cranking out T-buckets in the '70s, the National Street Rod Association was being formed and national automotive events had begun to pop up throughout the Midwest. STREET RODDER covered those events in Memphis, St. Paul, and Oklahoma City, and when the prerequisite photo of a parking lot filled with a sea of street rods was taken, a quarter of those vehicles captured on film were Fad Ts (and it seemed half of them were outfitted with 6:71 blowers!).
More often than not, the large turnout by T owners at these events was due to club participants, as T owners still make up a large contingent of any local car club (with some club membership being strictly T only). Though T-based clubs have been around for some time, it was only fairly recent a national club devoted to the T-based hot rods was formed. The National T-Bucket Alliance is a family-oriented club that is dedicated to T-bucket fanatics, and not only does the NTBA have their own Web site (www.nationaltbucketalliance.com), but has held a national meet devoted to customized Model Ts for the past eight years. The site for the national event changes every year, and in June 2007, the ninth annual T-Bucket Nationals will be held in Sierra Vista, Arizona. If you like big engines, big rear tires, and lots of fancy paint and chrome, then you owe it to yourself to attend.
For About Five Bucks A Pound
While the T-bucket has been acknowledged as being the iconic cornerstone of the street rod world, it is still sometimes looked down upon by owners of other types of hot rods, as the cars still don't garner the recognition they deserve. Total Performance's Mickey Lauria looks at it this way: The T-bucket continues its reign because it's the cheapest, simplest, most free and visually exciting conveyance still open to the hot rodder. "We've seen the T-bucket with or without miniscule beds," Lauria said, "or even turtle decks channeled over any type of framerail, fitted with any number of different powerplants, supported by a 'gaggle' of suspension assemblies, and painted any and all colors." The sky is the limit when it comes to wheels and tire combinations, and with a host of bolt-on doodads, it's the lowest of low-dollar forms (all for about five bucks a pound!).
The cost in the constructing of a T-bucket is generally conceded to be the main reason for its continued popularity. It's almost impossible to build any other rod for less than $10,000 and get the performance, appearance, or experience that is afforded in a bucket.
Generally, a rodder can pick up a self-build package for around $4,000. One can add a spare V-8, brakes, rearend parts, steel wheels with used tires, a bench seat, carpeting, a radiator, fiberglass grille shell, headlights, used gauges, a steering wheel, and a set of headers with an initial investment of well less than 10 grand.
However, for every action there is a like reaction, so says the law of nature. Consequently, for every low-buck bucket, there is a tire-frying, candy-coated, frame-twisting, chrome-plated, full-boogie hot rod. Those who have both the desire and the financial capabilities can indulge themselves in a bucket enterprise of the first magnitude, which makes building a T-bucket so attractive. No way can the potential builder be limited in his thinking.
The bucket isn't just a rod; it's a four-wheeled form of free expression. Some buckets are armed with enough horsepower to qualify them for a fuel-altered show. They've also been seen running anything from a Riley-equipped four-barrel to a Weber carb'd late Hemi. Chassis construction runs the gamut too. You'll find a chrome-plated chassis, simple square tube 'rails, and even shortened Model A chassis. Suspension also offers the innovative T-bucket owner everything from a self-fabricated, fully independent system to the traditionalist-type I-beam and quick-change rear.
Yet nothing, but nothing, can equal the T-bucket when it comes to bolt-ons. Like it or not, bolt for bolt, the bucket provides add-on artists with more opportunities for doing it themselves than any other rod form. There are no fenders to hide the polish, no hood to cover the glitter, and no rearend overhang to interfere with the chromatic display of a fully plated independent rear. Only the T-bucket offers the builder such a "canvas" to show off his talents. The very fact that it has no fenders, no hood, no windows, minor muffling, a vibrating exterior, and few (if any) of the creature comforts a Detroit dandy possesses makes the T-bucket just about the most visually exciting car known to man or beast.
Cost, creativity, and ego are merely part of the bucket trip. What sets this apart from all the others is the pleasure of knowing it is uniquely your own. It's a hot rod where no holds are barred, with no virginal metal to deflower, and no new old stock syndrome to get in the way of pure, unadulterated, "right-on" fabricating and creativity. Anything goes as long as it meets all the equipment requirements and safety inspections your state requires.
So, the next time someone is tempted to belittle a T-bucket, gently remind them that they are picking on the apple pie, motherhood, and the American flag of street rodding. Today, the Model T hot rod-both the early '23/25 model as well as the '26/27-is as popular as ever. Although it shares the rodding hobby with the Model A, the Deuce, and many other street rods, to many enthusiasts, the first is still the best!