(Black and white photos courtesy of THE Tommy Ivo Collection)Like every other hot rod enthusiast on this planet, you probably don't know exactly when or where the first hot rod was built. Nor can you pinpoint when the first custom car, its sculpted body resplendent with generous amounts of chrome that identify it as something truly unique and special, first rolled into the light of day. Don't feel slighted or embarrassed by your incognizant response, though, because those moments are lost to everybody.
But if someone were to ask you to trace the lineage of the T-bucket, you probably could respond with a more definitive answer. "The first T-bucket?" you repeat, as if confirming the question. "Why, it was Norm Grabowski's infamous Kookie Kar, of course," you pipe up confidently.
And, based on the genealogy trail that many of us have come to accept regarding T-buckets then and now, you would be correct in proclaiming Norm's car as the Grand Pooh-Bah of the clan--the Big Bucket, if you will. No matter that some folks consider early lakes modified roadsters as the ancestors of today's street-going T-bucket. It was Grabowski's stubby little car that truly fathered this part of rodding's gene pool.
But, if all T-buckets are to be considered descendants of the Kookie Kar, then certainly Tommy Ivo's Buick-powered T-bucket warrants its place at the front of the line. It was in 1956 (about one year after Grawbowki's car hit the road) when a young Tommy Ivo built his first hot rod in his Burbank home garage. Moreover, the 19-year-old Ivo based his car's design on Grabowski's T. As Ivo tells us today, he used the Kookie Kar as a blueprint.
Von Dutch's classic signature at the far right of the dashboard was the last time he inscr
"I asked him (Grabowski) if he would let me take some measurements off of his car," recalls Ivo, "but he wouldn't let me." Not to be denied, Ivo got creative. He snuck into Grabowski's garage one day when he wasn't home. Once inside, Ivo proceeded to examine the nether regions of Grabowski's T. He visually devoured every last morsel and crumb on the Kookie Kar and then set about cooking up his own project, making a car that might be described as the same only different.
First, Ivo needed a body. He struck out for the vast wasteland of the desert where, it was told, abandoned Model T bodies abounded. Sure enough, one popped up, the front half of a '25 Ford Phaeton body. Only one problem stood between Ivo and this coveted T body. During the previous couple of decades, a Yucca tree (a rare source of shade in the desert that blocks about as much sunlight as a telephone pole) had popped up in the middle of the cab, in effect anchoring the aging body to the ground. Again, the industrious young lad didn't halt there. He felled the Yucca so he could liberate the old Ford body for the good of all rodkind.
Ivo hand crafted the two rear nerf bars. Look closely and you'll see vertical taillights i
After retrieving the half-tub body, Ivo embarked on his project of building a car from scratch. He got a little help from his friend Randy Chadock, but for the most part Ivo was responsible for the car's construction. He even built the early 322-cubic-inch Buick nailhead V-8 engine, thanks to inside tips from the late Max Balchowsky, a man known for building some of the most potent Buick V-8 engines in the world. Among Balchowsky's stable of Buick-powered cars were the infamous Ol' Yaller road racers. Ivo had heard about Balchowsky and visited his shop in nearby Hollywood seeking advice. Eventually, Balchowsky showed Ivo how to set the bored-and-stroked engine (it eventually stretched its eight holes to 402 cubic inches) to use one of three induction systems: a dual-quad manifold, the quintessential six-pack of Stromberg 97s, and the Hilborn fuel injection that has become the car's trademark over the years.
Ivo was a quick study, following Balchowsky's advice to a T (pun intended). "He was my mentor in motors," Ivo recalls fondly. Obviously, Ivo paid close attention, because whenever he took his T-Buick to the drag strip, he drove home with a trophy. Or at least bragging rights to a trophy. "Sometimes I used to sell my trophies back to the track promoter," recalls Ivo. "I'd take the money and buy more tires." As with most young hot rodders, Ivo's priorities rested with the car, not in the glory. He adds, "All I wanted to do was race. I didn't care about trophies back then."
When Jack Rosen set out to restore the Ivo T-bucket, he searched high and low for the Hilb
Ivo's desire to race netted him and his T-bucket several Top Eliminator awards at the San Fernando Drags and later at Lions when it opened in 1960. The car was dependable for 11-second elapsed times and a top speed of 119 mph. Not bad for a street car, but then, when you really get to the bare bones of the matter, a T-bucket is nothing more than an engine stand on wheels anyway. You know, a dragster.
Despite its reputation at the drag strip, in those days Ivo's T-bucket had an equally mean reputation on the street and on the screen. Being a prodigy child actor, Ivo had numerous contacts in the film industry, and when hot rod movies became popular during the 1950s, it was only a matter of time before Ivo's T served as a movie prop. In this case the hot rod served as the hero's car in the 1956 movie, Dragstrip Girl. Ironically, Ivo played one of the heavies in the movie, and the script called for him to steal his own car!
The all-white Naugahyde interior offers little room for the driver to move about. Ivo expl
The little roadster also passed audition for the Disney-made television mini-serial Spin and Marty. Actor Tim Considine, himself a car enthusiast, portrayed the character Spin, who was scripted to drive the hot rod in one particular episode. Ivo recalls the time on the movie set when he offered advice to Considine about the car's handling and power peculiarities. Proud and bold, Considine effectively said no thanks, that he could handle it. He did, barely, and years later when, as middle-aged men, when the two celebrities met at a car function, Considine admitted that the little roadster with the big Buick engine and the vertical steering column scared him to death.
Back on the street, Ivo and his T often could be found lurking about at Bob's Big Boy drive-in restaurant near Burbank. This was the local hot rod hangout during those days, and typically guys with fast cars who were trolling for a drag race would head to Bob's. Once a street duel was organized between two cars, everybody would head out to River Road (now called Forest Lawn Drive--irony of ironies) to race. Again, Ivo claims that his little bucket of speed was never beaten there.
The classic crescent-shaped rear window was Ivo's idea, inspired by the car's lines...
Ivo recalls another rather interesting incident on the street. While cruising with a buddy one night, an elderly gentleman in another hot rod pulled up to the traffic light. While waiting for the light to turn green, Ivo glanced over but didn't recognize the older guy wearing horn-rimmed glasses. In any case, both drivers revved their engines, and a race was born. The light turned green, and both cars peeled off in a cloud of blue smoke. Ivo won again, and the older driver eventually turned onto another street. A few months later, Ivo saw the same guy at Bob's, and learned who he was: William "Racer" Brown who, no doubt, was out "testing" cams that fateful night.
Despite its reputation at the strip, on the street, and on the silver screen, Ivo's T-bucket is most remembered by enthusiasts as, simply, one of the top hot rods to evolve from the Southern California area. Perhaps its first claim to national fame was prompted by its appearance on the August 1957 cover of Hot Rod magazine. The Buick motor was shown wearing its Hilborn livery, and the car was featured inside the magazine on a two-page black-and-white photo spread by Bob D'Olivo.
Indeed, when current owner Jack Rosen had the little hot rod restored about 12 years ago, he used the HRM photos as a guide for authenticity. Actually, Ron Jones, the man who performed the restoration, used the photos. Turns out that Rosen had decided to restore the car nearly 30 years after he and his father, Hy Rosen, purchased it from Bill Roland, and he wanted to get everything correct. Forty years ago, Roland made several changes to the car, and when Hy and Jack acquired it in '62, the senior Rosen elected to give the car a whole new look. So he took it to Barris Kustoms where it received a Tangerine Pearl paint job, chromed framerails, and a host of other custom goodies popular at the time. In the end, Hy Rosen christened the car Hy's T, at which time the refurbished roadster set out on the show circuit with a bevy of other George Barris creations. Eventually, the T-bucket was retired to the Rosen garage, where it sat until Jack decided to give it its proper restoration.
"I always felt it should have been restored (as the Ivo T) in the first place," said Jack.
One thing that sets the Ivo T from most others is the body is that Ivo used a front sectio
As such, Jones did all that he could to make the retro-facelift complete. The Model A frame was stripped and repainted black, the crossmembers, along with the body and 18-inch Model A pickup bed, painted 1955 Buick Titian Red. Fortunately, Jack had a Vertex magneto handy, but he had to scrounge the swap meets for the Hilborn fuel injection and pump to mount to the Buick V-8, now a 364-cubic-inch nailhead. The rest of the drivetrain is based on Ivo's original specs, too, using a '37 LaSalle converted to a closed-drive system, and the '41 Ford rearend. The front tube axle is '36 vintage, and fortunately the Model T radiator shell is the same one that Ivo hand crafted back in 1955. The shell is deeper than stock to accept a wider radiator for improved cooling. Most of all, the radiator retains its early-style ornament cap.
Ivo relates another interesting story about the radiator ornament. He had spotted it in his neighborhood on a decommissioned car that was owned by an older gentleman. Ivo asked if he'd sell the cap, but the elderly gent said no way. Taking matter into his own hands, as he did with Grabowski's T, Ivo paid the old car a visit late one night. "I took it," confesses Ivo 45 years later, "but I left a $50 bill stuffed in its place." (Kids, don't try this at home; it would take at least $200 based on today's inflated prices!)
Tommy Ivo and members of the Road Kings wait their turn at the Santa Ana Drags. This photo
Rosen and Jones also had to replace the top to achieve the signature crescent moon rear window. By the way, Ivo's decision back in 1956 to use that peculiar-shaped window was for a reason. When the tall, squarish car was finished, Ivo's first impression was that it looked "like an outhouse on wheels." Thus was born the crescent moon rear window, depicting the universally accepted feature commonly associated with outhouse doors.
Perhaps the crowning glory for the reconstruction project was its white pinstripes. As he did with the original car back in 1955 for Tommy Ivo, Von Dutch also striped the restored car for Jack Rosen. It is a typical Von Dutch original, too; according to Ivo, the re-stripe isn't entirely accurate, although it would take a close inspection to realize that. But had Von Dutch even wanted to duplicate the stripe job right down to the last swirl of the horsehair brush, he probably couldn't have. As Jack explained, "Getting Von Dutch to stripe it was tough. You had to get there early," he said, in reference to the old striper's habit of sampling--well before closing hours, we might add--the cheap wine he kept stashed on the premises. Regardless of how close the new stripe job is or isn't, according to Jack, this was Von Dutch's final stripe job. He passed away a short time later, giving the Ivo T-bucket yet another handle on some of rodding's colorful past.
Today, the Tommy Ivo T-bucket takes its place in the NHRA Motorsport Museum at the Pomona Fairplex in California, alongside many other luminaries of hot rodding lore. Jack takes the '25 out on occasion to shake out the cobwebs, and the Buick's Hilborn injectors breathed new life a couple years ago when Tommy Ivo drove it at the NHRA Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield to help celebrate his induction into the Hall of Fame. A fitting tribute to the car and to its builder.
To the victor go the spoils! After winning Top Eliminator at the San Fernando Drags, Ivo a
Ivo and his car were featured in the Hollywood production Dragstrip Girl, too. Ironically,
The Road Kings, with Tommy Ivo standing at far left, seem ready for another pass at the Sa
TV Tom has a little fun with his Burbank friends. The car still wears its trademark whitew