If you were at the Detroit Autorama in Cobo Hall a year ago, you may have been part of the crowd mobbed around this month's STREET RODDER cover car. Ours is not the first magazine with an image of the famous Kookie Car, or a remarkable replica, popping off the cover. In its day, that flamed roadster pickup was one of the most groundbreaking hot rods around, and since then has become one of the most famous and influential hot rods ever. Virtually every T bucket built in the last 50 years can tip its hat to Norm Grabowski's original T-from spittin' image replicas like this one, to similar-but-not-identical tribute cars, to countless other roadsters built by guys who might not even realize that their hot rods reflect design ideas that Grabowski thought of first.
Tony Nancy finished the interior...
Tony Nancy finished the interior for Grabowski. Ron's replica cockpit features a handbuilt bench from Reno Rod & Custom with a plywood riser and sheetmetal back conforming to the body. Midwest Automotive & Auto Trim added the red vinyl to the seat and panels. A Bell three-spoke wheel rotates on a shortened '40 Chevy truck column. Note the dash plaque from the '55 Grand National Roadster Show.
The first magazine to feature a cover photo of Grabowski's flamed blue roadster was Car Craft. Ron Kregoski was 14 years old when he picked up that Apr. '57 issue and vowed that someday he would own a roadster just like the one on the cover. "The little roadster was so crazy looking for the time," he remembers. "I was used to cool red or black roadsters or coupes in other magazines-but here is this wild, open-wheeled car, with a crazy 10-degree rake, a wild exhaust system and, new for the day, bright yellow and red flames. It had a monster Caddy engine with four 97s, a beehive filter, a severely chopped Deuce grille, a shortened Model A pickup bed and, on top of all things, a tall shift lever with a bloody skull knob." Grabowski's car left a lasting impression on Ron, but it would be 50 years before he would fulfill his teenage vow.
Grabowski was a young teenager himself when he got interested in hot rods. "When I was going to high school, there was a guy there with a '27 T roadster-no fenders and real low," he told us. "Then I got my dad to take me to a car show and after that I was hooked."
Grabowski was in his early twenties when he swapped the body of his '31 Model A for a cut-down T touring with an equally cut-down Model A pickup bed. He shortened the rear 'rails by 20 inches, and Z'd the frame to lower the stance. He stretched the front 'rails by 5 inches and relocated the front axle out in front of the crossmember. A 3-71 blown '52 Cadillac engine sat on the 'rails for all to see. Tony Nancy stitched a red tuck 'n' roll interior to contrast the black paint. That's what it looked like at the '55 Grand National Roadster Show and when it appeared on the cover of Hot Rod's Aug. '55 issue as the Lighnin' Bug.
L&L Automotive did the machining...
L&L Automotive did the machining and assembly on the '52 Cadillac 331, bored 0.030-over to 354 ci. The rare Horne manifold is topped with four of the new Stromberg Genuine 97s made in England. They were shipped to Advanced Plating to be chromed, and then back to England for reassembly. The finned Offenhauser valve covers, beehive oil filter, and chromed 12-volt Cadillac generator are some of the car's well-known dress-up items. The transmission is a rebuilt '39 Ford top loader three-speed.
Hot rod movies were popular at that time, and when the Hollywood studios found out about the local kid with the radical car, they started using the roadster in movies. "The first thing they did when I took it to the studio-ran it into a big post," Grabowski recalls. "I had to get the frame straightened, get new radius rods, and replace the windshield. That was my first connection with Neil Emory and Valley Custom. Emory was a genius with metal and so creative with ideas." Not long after that, the T underwent a transformation that included a more pronounced rake, four Strombergs sprouting out of a Horne intake manifold, '56 Dodge Royal Lancer Blue lacquer paint, and flames and pinstripes by Dean Jeffries.
A few years ago, Ron, still in love with the 1922 Ford T-Bucket, was searching eBay when he came across a '27 roadster pickup, with a hopped-up four-banger and mechanical brakes. The car was sold before he could place a bid, so Ron called the seller to see if other projects were available. It was Johnnie Overbay at Reno Rod & Custom Supply in Oklahoma City. During their conversation, Ron expressed his determination to someday build a clone of the Kookie car. Overbay asked, "Why don't we build that for you?" Overbay already had his hands on a '37 V-8/60 front axle, a rebuilt '39 top loader, and a '41 rearend-and had a lead on a 331 Cadillac engine.