This photo was taken in December of 1964; Norm Grabowski was 31 at the time with a lifetim
We lost a good one in Norman Grabowski (1933-2012). He went by any number of monikers such as Woo-Woo, Normie Poo, El Polacko, Father of the T-Bucket, the Rod God, and his closest of friends, of which these numbered in the hundreds, called him Uncle Norm.
For starters, to think that I can give him the credit he so richly deserves in an editorial is wishful thinking at best. Please look for the Summer ’13 issue of SRP (STREET RODDER Premium, on sale in June 2013) as we will dedicate a lengthy story to a man whom so many of us called “friend”. We are in the midst of gathering decades worth of photos and this story should prove to be informative, as any good magazine article should be, but we believe you will also find it absorbing and enriching, with decades of history on the man who gave us so much in the way of hot rods and humor.
My first face-to-face meeting with Normie Poo (this was the nickname that Tex Smith used when introducing him to me) took place back in the early ’70s at an L.A. Roadsters Father’s Day show. (He moved from SoCal to Arkansas around 1972.) My first “knowledge” of him was through the pages of magazines, car and social. Arguably the most famous was an article that appeared in Life magazine and the television series that occurred before titled 77 Sunset Strip, and then there was the cover of Car Craft—and that sealed the deal.
I was about 10 when the television show began in the late ’50s and I couldn’t wait to plop myself onto the floor (I was the remote so I had to continually get up and change the channel for my parents) on Friday evenings. There was no way my parents would watch a show about hot rods but my mom thought Efrem Zimalist Jr. was the “cat’s meow” and my dad liked the private detective genre, so I was onboard. Of course, I wanted to be “kool” like Kookie and with his vernacular of the day, “ginchy” and “piling up Zs”, I mean how kool was that to a 10-year-old back then? But the deal sealer was the ’22 Ford Model T cut-down roadster pickup. I had never seen anything like that and while I was beginning my lifelong love affair with cars (and, of course, Connie Stevens who sang vocals with Edd Byrnes “Kookie” on the title track, “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb”) I wanted to learn more. As history would show us the Fab-T was a hit and it would start an industry that is still with us today.
There was one magazine cover that actually made my parents stop and take note. We were big fans of Life back in the day. It brought the world to all of us, but especially me, in a way television or other forms of communication couldn’t at that time. It was the Apr. ’57 edition of the magazine and it had as a theme of all things—hot rodding. The article included a full-page (page 137) photo of Norm in his T-bucket at Bob’s Drive-in in Toluca Lake, California. I have a blow-up of the cover in my garage that Norm autographed to me, and it’s a prized possession.
As Norm tells the tale: “Life magazine shot the car when I was in Hollywood one night. They were following me around trying to get me to stop, and I didn’t know it. Finally I stopped at the drive-in. They took about 200 pictures that night ... just unbelievable!”
I guess it’s the early exposure to T-buckets that made a lifelong impression on me. Even when I started at STREET RODDER the first cars that I gravitated to were T-buckets. The first features I shot were at the Roadster Round-Up and it was the Ts. From there it was the maroon with black top and small-block Ford-powered T-bucket of Pete Chapouris of soon-to-be Pete & Jake’s fame that was one of my first color features in STREET RODDER .
Shortly I would get my opportunity to meet my first hot rod hero in Normie Poo at a rod run known then as Gatlinburg. Held in a tourist town in Tennessee it was a great event. Our paths crossed and it was here that I first saw his ’23 Hennway. (How much does a hen weigh?) He built a number of cars, trucks, and even motorcycles. He also had roles in probably three-dozen movies and television shows.
He and I rode around all weekend in the Hennway but it was nighttime that we really enjoyed the event. You see, Gatlinburg is built at the base of two mountains that run up to the sky on either side. The hotels were carved into the mountainside so the roads leading up to the hotels had a pretty good slope. Since all of us were bunking three and more to a room there were a lot of rollaway beds to be had. Norm and I decided we could beat others in their rollaways from the hotel down to the main drag and not end up in the river. Given enough “liquid encouragement” it’s amazing what several hundred hot rodders will try. Norm was well into weight lifting at the time, and I fancied myself one too, so we would take turns pushing and then jumping onboard with the other riding our rollaways down the hill and at the last minute applying whatever friction we could muster to stop before launching into the river. We were successful all night but there were a number of other rodders who weren’t. The hotel failed to see the humor in all this and properly chastised us. But we did have a good time.
I can only hope that Normie Poo enjoyed his years in Leadville, Arkansas, on Bass Loop Road. We sure did miss him on the West Coast but over the decades he still got around a lot. His carvings, he was an amazing woodworker, were always a big hit. Right now I am confident he’s working on something spectacular and the day will come when all of us will get a look.