1922 Ford T-Bucket - Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Clone
A Tip Of The Hat To The Original "Kookie Car" T-Bucket
From the May, 2010 issue of Street Rodder
By Tim Bernsau
Photography by Chuck Vranas, Greg Sharp Collection, Josh Mishler
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.
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...
The Kookie Car grille is the upper portion of a '32 shell filled with a custom mesh screen. The radiator is a '56 Austin-Healy unit with a five-row core. It took pinstriper Rick Knight several days to accurately reproduce this specific version of Dean Jeffries pinstriping.
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...
The dash was built and painted based on early photos, and filled with Stewart Warner Wings gauges. Photos of the original car show a spoon throttle pedal, except the photos from Car Craft, which show the arm-and-ball pedal like the one you see here.
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...
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).
In addition to building the...
In addition to building the Kookie Car and essentially inventing the T-bucket, Grabowski is famous for his hand-carved wooden skull shift knobs. But the original Kookie Car didn't have one, and this one doesn't either. It's an old plaster cast version like the one he bought at Disneyland. Ron found his on eBay and applied the blood paint (Larry Watson did the original) himself.
In addition to keeping all the components and details true to the original, there was the challenge of keeping the quality true to the original. The original Kookie Car was remarkable and ahead of it's time-but it was also a street car built 50-plus years ago by a young guy with a budget, who "drove it like a Ferarri," as Grabowski recently told us. "I took it to the drags. I drove it over Angeles Crest Highway, taking it around corners sideways, and into slides. It was a fun car!" Few of today's top shelf trophy winners are that kind of "fun," and to keep it an accurate clone, Overbay and his guys had to be careful not to build Ron's T better than Grabowski's.
"It's got all the defects that were in the real car," Overbay said. "The interior is very crude by today's standards, but that's how the interior looked. And the painter wasn't happy because we wouldn't let him color sand and buff the paint. We wanted a little bit of orange peel, like you'd find on a teenager's street-driven car."
Another cheerful skull smiles...
Another cheerful skull smiles from between the '41 Ford banjo rearend and the Model A springs. Overbay says he wanted to ask Grabowski how many '50s fathers let their princesses go out on dates in a carriage like this!
Those intentional imperfections made Overbay a little nervous as Ron's Kookie clone was displayed among the flawless high-end show cars at its '09 Detroit Autorama debut. He had nothing to worry about.
"It seemed to be an instant success," Ron recalled. "Everyone, from all of my good buddies to small children to pretty girls and all of the old gearheads, just adored this piece of hot rod history. And to top things off there was Grabowski signing autographs and entertaining everyone."
"Rolling into Cobo Hall, we were wondering if they were going to laugh us out of the place-but everybody got it," Overbay said. "In fact, even against all the super-slick, super-nice cars, this was the one with the crowd of people around it."
Blowing minds, as Grabowski would put it.
Grabowski explained to Overbay...
Grabowski explained to Overbay that Neil Emory hammered the original windshield stanchions from a piece of 1/8-inch plate. "So the following Saturday when no one was around, I took a ball peen hammer and a block and drew out some patterns. It was almost like Neil Emory was above me. It was like 1,000 hammer blows and it just worked and worked, and they turned out just right. We didn't know how they mounted on the dash side, until the day we were getting ready to do that, when we got a magazine with a close-up photo of the corner where the stanchion wraps around. Sometimes it felt like everything was just supposed to work."
It took Chris Gutierrez at...
It took Chris Gutierrez at Reno Rod & Custom a couple of weeks to figure out and copy Grabowski's exhaust system. With no known photos of the original to work from, he copied a Danbury Mint non-production prototype. It's been suggested that the convoluted setup was designed to hide the transmission and center crossmember. Those framehorn covers were first built by Valley Custom to cover up some unattractive 'rails, which is not the case with Ron's car.
Jason Voth at Resurrection...
Jason Voth at Resurrection Paint & Body Works did an excellent job reproducing the period-less-than-perfect original paint, and an equally excellent job on the crab flames, which look just like the ones Dean Jeffries painted on the original.
The finned Offy valve covers...
The finned Offy valve covers on Grabowski's car sometimes were and sometimes weren't painted red. The Horne intake is a rare part. According to Ron, Horne was working for Bell Auto Parts while building these manifolds. He produced them for less than a year before Bell bought the pattern. When Bell acquired the Cragar name, they used that brand name on these manifolds.
All plumbing and wiring was...
All plumbing and wiring was done with hard-to-find vintage materials, including the rubber front brake hoses and plastic headlight wiring. Ron got the radiator and fuel lines from Gates Belts old inventory. These, and the vintage thumb-screw clamps, match the original photos. Grabowski originally created this four-bar setup using '40 Ford tie rods.
Young Norm Grabowski's T-bucket...
Young Norm Grabowski's T-bucket in slightly different forms at '50s car shows. Grabowski sold the Kookie Car in 1959. It stayed on the show circuit for several years before disappearing from public view. By that time, it bore no resemblance to the hot rod that continues to inspire so many people.
When no Jackson Roto-Faze...
When no Jackson Roto-Faze distributors could be found, Ron went to the Internet, offering a reward for one on the HAMB message board. This one turned up in New Zealand. Joe Panek, the current owner of Roto-Faze, made it work using parts he just happened to have in stock. Panek informed Ron that possibly less than 50 of these dual coil/dual points distributors were made for 331 Cadillacs. The wires are 7mm N.O.S. with Rajah terminals.
One component of Ron's clone...
One component of Ron's clone actually comes from the original Kookie Car: the nut behind the wheel. Norm Grabowski himself joined Ron, Overbay, and the Reno Rod & Custom crew at the Detroit Autorama last winter.
This cloth top was finished...
This cloth top was finished just before Ron's roadster went to L.A. for the Grand National Roadster Show in January. Johnnie Overbay believes this is the only Kookie Car clone built with a top.
|F A C T S & F I G U R E S
|1922 Ford T-bucket
|Frame / Manufacturer
||handmade to Model A and original car specifications, Reno Rod & Custom Supply (Oklahoma City, OK)
||2x4-inch steel tubing, Z'd stock Model A rear crossmember, custom round tube suicide front crossmember, bulldog perch, spacer for rake
|Rearend / Ratio
||'41 Ford / 3.54:1
||'41 Ford ladder bars cut to length of '41 torque tubes, Model A springs with full leaf pack, tubular "airplane" shocks
||'37 Ford V-8 tube axle, '40 Ford tie rods used as four-bar, custom leaf springs on reversed '42 Ford radius rod/spring hanger, '40 Ford spindles, tubular hydraulic shocks, '50 Ford F-100 shock mounts, custom lower mounts
||'40 Ford, 12"
||'40 Chevrolet pickup
|Front wheel make, size
|Rear wheel make, size
||Buick reversed rims with Ford centers, 15x6.5
|Front tire make, size
||Coker/ U.S. Royal, 5.60x15
|Rear tire make, size
||Coker/ U.S. Royal, 8.20x15
||10 gallons, Reno Rod & Custom
|Machining / Assembly
||L&L Automotive (Moore, OK)
|Pistons / Bearings / Rings
||stock / Clevite / Speed-Pro
||'56 Austin-Healy rebuilt with five-row core
||Cadillac 12-volt generator
||Offenhauser new chrome
|Valves / Springs
||Stromberg Carburetor Genuine 97s (England), chrome prototypes
||vintage frog mouth with wire screen
||N.O.S. 7mm, Rajah boots
||handbuilt, Reno Rod & Custom
|Other engine facts
||beehive oil filter, handmade carb linkage, custom voltage regulator cover
||'39 Ford top loader three-speed, Reno Rod & Custom
|Flywheel / Clutch disc
||Wilcap (Pismo Beach, CA) / 10" Ford
||Owner modified to original car appearance
||Ford torque tube and driveshaft
|Body style / Material
||'22 Ford touring front half, with '28 Ford pickup bed / steel
||removed touring body rear, channeled 6", welded seams, new wood, added bed, custom covers for bed sides, custom rear framehorn covers, custom frame covers
||'32 Ford, chopped with chromed woven wire insert
||Resurrection Paint & Body Works (Noble, OK)
|Paint type / Color
||PPG / '56 Dodge Royal Lancer Blue Metallic
||Jason Voth, Resurrection Paint & Body Works
||Jason Voth, Resurrection Paint & Body Works
||Rick Knight (Oklahoma City, OK)
||Advanced Plating & Powder Coating (Nashville, TN)
|Headlights / Taillights
||Arrow 12 volt / '54 Buick with N.O.S. lenses
|Other body items
||handbuilt lower windshield stanchions, beadrolled belly pan, chrome firewall
||Stewart Warner Wings
||handmade loom by Doug Burba, Reno Rod & Custom
||'40 Chevy pickup, shortened
||'40 Ford, modified
||handbuilt, Reno Rod & Custom Supply
||Midwest Automotive & Auto Trim (Midwest City, OK)
|Material / Color
||vinyl / lipstick red
||cut pile, red bound with white vinyl
|Other interior items
||door panels match seat material