Ron found a "sad, but complete" '22 T body on eBay and won the bid with $400. "After picking up the body in Nebraska, I proceeded to Oklahoma City, where I was greeted by Overbay and his crew: shop foreman Doug Burba, Chris Guterrez, Gordon Burba, and Bill Norris. I could see that this old-school shop could fulfill my lifelong desire to own the Kookie Car."
The Kookie Car grille is the upper portion of a '32 shell filled with a custom mesh screen
In the '50s, Grabowski's T was getting a lot of attention on the street. "I was blowing minds-people with their mouths open, running through red lights. Cruising Hollywood Boulevard at night, I would stop somewhere and come back out and the car would be surrounded with people 10 deep-all over it, looking under it, looking all around it. The reaction was just unbelievable."
The car mags were also paying attention, but it wasn't until a photo of the T appeared in a '57 Life magazine story on the hot rod lifestyle that society at large got its first look. It wasn't long before it got its second look. Grabowski was still connected to the studios when, in 1958, ABC premiered 77 Sunset Strip, a detective series featuring Edd Byrnes as a young parking lot attendant nicknamed Kookie, who spoke in hipster slang and drove a Model T hot rod, played by Grabowski's roadster.
The dash was built and painted based on early photos, and filled with Stewart Warner Wings
The popularity of the TV series and the teen idol status of Edd Byrnes' Kookie character made the car famous and gave it the nickname that it, and every replica, has worn since. Johnnie Overbay remarked on the impact. "Folks in California might have been used to hot rods, but for kids in the Midwest, seeing one on a TV show was something exciting, and might have been the thing that propelled them into hot rodding."
When Ron and Overbay and the Reno Rod & Custom team decided that if they were going to recreate the Kookie Car they were determined to do it as accurately as possible. "We talked to Grabowski a lot, picking his brain as much as we could," Doug Burba told us. "Other than that, we had to rely on photos from magazines, as well as stills and even some of the old home movies used in [the recent video documentary] The Car That Ate My Brain."
Grabowski and Ron both took their taillights from '54 Buicks.
"We became completely absorbed with this car," Overbay said. "We bought every publication we could find, including teen magazines of the day with articles on Edd Byrnes, just because they might include a photograph of the car that would reveal something."
The biggest challenge, according to Ron, "was finding enough clear and undistorted photos to build off of. It would have been much easier to stray from the original car, but we were determined to build an exact clone."
A bigger challenge came from the fact that the original car was a constant work in progress. What Ron and the crew at Reno found out from poring through hundreds of photos was that Grabowski never stopped modifying the car. "He told us that it changed weekly," explained Burba. "That car had its paint rubbed on so many times-we've got magazines where the pinstriping changes from photo to photo in the same article."
Choosing the Car Craft version of the car as the one to clone solved that problem, but ultimately caused others. Self-appointed experts, familiar with only one of the original's many looks, are quick to point out "mistakes" in the car. For example, one difference between Ron's car and Von Franco's famous replica is the tailpipes. On Von Franco's (and the TV) version, they rise straight up above the body. On Ron's, they turn rearward along the upper edge of the bed (as they do in the Car Craft and Life photos).