The Kookie Kar
Norm Grabowski, The Kookie Kar, and Everything
From the February, 2009 issue of Street Rodder
By Jerry Wessner
Illustrators: Eric Geisert
He's been called many things by many people, but mostly by Himself: Woo-Woo, Normie Poo, El Polaco, Father of the T-Bucket, the Rod God (should be a lower case "g" but you know how it is with titles), etc., etc., but simply Norm will suffice, even though there is clearly nothing simple about Norm Grabowski. Everything in Norm's life is so intertwined, from car building to acting to woodworking artist; it's impossible to separate one from the other. Norm the car builder is daring and willing to take chances, even though over the years his creations have boiled down to a highly recognizable Grabowski-style, no matter the vehicle. Norm the actor is also immediately recognizable for his boisterously extroverted public persona, which in turn hides behind the colorful facade of an extremely talented woodworker whose forte for carving fibrous forest byproducts (first noticed, it may be added, in building his transportation from SoCal to Lead Hill, Arkansas, in the infamous "Henway" C-cab truck) is mostly directed towards (but not restricted to) carving giant, adult-sized rocking horses for the rich and famous (Burt Reynolds was one of his early customers) and one-off skull shifter knobs from exotic woods for rodders everywhere. As you may have noticed, it has become de rigeur to many in our hobby to have Norm add his personal touch to their latest project by topping the shifter with a custom carved skull that only Himself knows the significance of its expression and adornment. Most all, however, have one thing in common--a spent brass cartridge in the top of their cranium (unless, of course, the client wishes otherwise).
But how did all of this come about, you may wonder? Glad you asked! In 1952, after leaving the service on a medical discharge, Norm purchased a fenderless '31 A V-8 for $100. Not one to leave things alone, he then swapped the A body for the front half of a '22 T touring, with a shortened Model A pickup bed bringing up the rear--the major visual difference between T-buckets and T modifieds--a harbinger of things to come. To get stance and proportion "right" (remember, there were no actual guidelines, for this was the granddaddy of all T-buckets, and Norm was a pioneer), Norm and friends removed some 20 inches of rear framerails, starting six inches forward of the crossmember, then raised and reattached the crossmember and its attendant frame stubs with pieces of the removed rail sections, effectively kicking, or z'ing the frame. Still not completely satisfied, he then stretched the frame some five inches up front using yet more leftover rear frame sections, replacing the front crossmember with a "bulldog," or suicide spring mount, at the same time to lower it, accentuating the rake. A '37 Ford tubular axle equipped with '40 Ford hydraulic brakes was then hung on a reversed-eye spring, utilizing a homemade four-bar type setup from Ford tie-rods. A '52 Cad engine with 3-71 GMC blower was then set in place on fabricated mounts and bolted (through an adapter) to a Zephyr-cogged '39 Ford Top Loader, which fed power through a shortened '41 Ford torque tube enclosed driveshaft and 3.54:1 rearend attached to a Model A spring. At first, Norm had used a Model A rearend, but when he swapped in the stouter '41, mounting was switched from the spring being on top of the axle tubes to behind them, which shortened the car (Norm liked that), but lowered the rear as well. Not satisfied with the lower rear stance, Norm mounted the rear spring to the crossmember with a 6-inch steel spacer to set it back where it had been, to regain that "just right" stance. Steering was handled by a Ross box from a milk truck, mounting a Bell three-spoke wheel in nearly vertical position, yet another style item that sets T-buckets apart from T modifieds. Norm installed the Ross box at his home in Sunland, then discovered to his dismay that it steered backwards. What to do? For Norm, that was to drive over to Burbank and see his friends at Valley Custom for a fix, steering the reverse of normal for the entire trip.
It was over this foundation the aforementioned body was channeled some six inches. Norm then asked Neal Emory at Valley Custom to create a special raked-back and dramatically shortened windshield, which he did from channel, hammering out the unusual mounts by hand. For finishing touches they applied a black paint job, then Norm had Tony Nancy stitch up a red rolled and pleated interior. And the shift knob was (can we have the envelope please?) a large dice.
During the chassis reconfiguration process, the framerails had become so unsightly through the cut-and-try method, that Norm also called on his friends Neal Emory and Clayton Jenson at Valley Custom to have them make frame covers for it. So, those really neat, tapered front rails and neatly rolled rear kick-up sections are, in actuality, a false front, just as the old western buildings on movie sets. And speaking of movies, it was while the car was at Valley Custom that it was spotted by someone form the studios who passed the word to Norm (through Neal) that they would like to rent it. It was also in this finish that it appeared in a Hot Rod magazine feature (and on the cover too) in October of '55, dubbed "Lightnin' Bug." One of the T's first film gigs was Mr. Kagle and the Babysitter, staring Charles Coburn and Fay Holden in 1956. The T acquired its top (and taller windshield frame) when Norm became the stunt driver for his own car, renting it to the studios for $50 per day. It seems that during a film production, an actor had "got on it," running Norm's car into a post, causing substantial chassis damage, which the studio paid Valley Custom to repair. As there was no stunt double car (not usually the case today), Norm decided that if he were to continue lending the roadster to production companies, no one but Himself would drive. So, for the upcoming filming of Wire Service, Norm not only had Bill Colgan in Burbank make him a top, so nobody could see who was driving (this took a week and cost $200), but he was also required to join the Screen Actor's Guild as well--another $200 expenditure. Norm remembers being paid only $400 for his work in the movie--at least he broke even. It may be noted that Franco's replica of the Kookie T doesn't include a top.
Norm's creative efforts in the promotion of hot rodding did a service to rodders everywhere when his roadster came into our living rooms on Friday evenings as the car star of 77 Sunset Strip in the late '50s-early '60s. Possibly even more responsible for bringing Norm's car into even more living rooms than television, however (no doubt hip, L.A. detective shows weren't everyone's favorite entertainment venue, even if they did have a handsome young actor, Ed Byrnes, playing car hop Gerald Lloyd Kookson at Dino's Lodge on Hollywood's famed Sunset Strip) was most everyone's "must-read," Life magazine. For it was indeed the April 29th edition of Life that not only had hot rodding as its theme, with a cover featuring a flagman starting a drag race in Fort Worth, Texas, and nine pages on the subject, but a full-page shot of Norm at Bob's Drive-in in Toluca Lake as well (unlike folklore dictates, Norm's T was not on the cover, but appeared on page 137). 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!"
Norm's T had gone from a blown, Cad-powered roadster that he used for drag racing (103 mph in the quarter), cruisin', and an occasional half-case delivery vehicle for his family's egg ranch, to a '56 Dodge Royal Blue knockout (painted by Valley Custom) with Dean Jeffries-applied flames and pinstriping, the aforementioned red Tony Nancy-stitched interior, and a Horne intake sporting a quartet of Strombergs replacing that borrowed supercharger. It was in this guise that teenaged boys everywhere waited breathlessly to see a representation of their second favorite fantasy, Kookie's Car (which sometimes, unfortunately, was omitted from episodes completely), as Connie Stevens most certainly was first on their list! Teenage girls on the other hand didn't have long to wait for Ed "Kookie" Byrnes (as he was on every week); most likely wishing he'd "lend them his comb." All of this happened around the time when people like Tex Collins (Cal Automotive's founder) were testing the aftermarket waters with 'glass replicas of Model T roadster bodies to bolster up the diminishing supply of the real steel deal. Soon others jumped on the bandwagon, and almost overnight, it seemed most anyone could not only have access to the makings of an entry-level, hot-cum-street rod, but afford to build one as well. Thus the proliferation of Kookie klones, i.e., T-buckets, Fad Ts, Bellybutton Cars (everyone's got one), etc., etc. And, just as with flame styles, the T-bucket evolved even more with further refinement from builders like Dan Woods, whose horizontally coil-sprung frontends, sectioned '17 T bodies, and tons of "antique" brass goodies made the lowly T-bucket a contemporary (for the '70s, that is) horseless carriage going way beyond entry-level hot rod status.
The first near copy of Norm's T, however, happened (as the story goes) when Norm arrived home unexpectedly one day to find another fledgling young actor, Tommy Ivo, with tape measure in hand, measuring Norm's car so that he could build a similar hot rod of his own. The nailhead-powered Ivo T went on to be a car star too, appearing in several "B" movies such as The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow in 1959, The Choppers in 1961, and many others besides (see Milestones, SRM, Jun. '00).
So, what happened to the Kookie T anyway? Well, as most builders do, another project usually comes along and the current car is sold. In this case that would be another T Norm was already tooling around in--a full fendered '25 touring. Dayton, Ohio's Jim Skonzakis, aka Jim Street, was into showcars, and car shows (already owning the Barris-built "Golden Sahara"), purchased the car in 1959 for $3,000, taking it to Larry Watson for a cosmetic makeover. Larry repainted the car in a Rose Pearl with Candy Red flames with black tips and white pinstriping (in his signature seaweed-style as opposed to Jeffries' earlier "crab claw" or traditional Von Dutch-style). And it also got a more contemporary (for the times) white pearl button-tufted interior as well. And although not the little hot rod we all knew and loved from television anymore, it still looked pretty cool in its new precursor-to-the-'60s-style makeover. It may be noted that the top went with the car, but wasn't used afterwards. It toured the show circuit in this guise for awhile, then Jim once more updated it to its final form, with dual headlights, dual superchargers, and dual slicks, zoomie headers as tall as the windshield, and high-back seats as well. It was shown this way, then put in storage where it remains to this day, a stablemate to the aforementioned Golden Sahara. It's been said of Jim that he'd like to restore both cars someday (the Kookie T to the last version described), but as far as we know, there has been no movement in this direction. Jim has (as of this writing) so far denied viewing of these two famous "Milestones" of rodding and customizing to members of the automotive press, but one can always hope he'll change his mind. These cars should be seen again, even in unrestored condition, as they're a big part of our history, so we can only hope that Jim gets going on the dual projects soon, as the years are ticking by. And just as in writing books on the subject of rodding and customizing (which many are doing nowadays), with the passing of this generation, there will be few left who really care about the subject--the time is now!
As we've covered the Kookie T from inception to premature burial, let's talk a little about Norm (it's always about Norm--isn't it, big guy?), his other cars, and his woodworking hobby-turned-business (note that Norm also built a succession of bikes, including one that was Corvair-powered). As stated, Norm followed the Kookie T with a '25 T that also worked the show biz circuit, appearing with Mamie Van Doren in 1960's Sex Kittens Go To College, and also appeared on at least two Hot Rod magazine covers: Aug. '60 (which included a full feature) and Mar. '61, as a background prop for Marty Holmann's '15 T roadster. I used to see Norm cruisin' Hollywood Boulevard with his red, full-fendered tub filled with chicks (who says they only went for guys in customs?). Later Norm sold the touring to his friend Kaye Trapp for $2,700, who turned it into the "Porter" prop vehicle for NBC-TV's 1965-66 sitcom, My Mother the Car, staring Jerry Van Dyke (there's definitely a "Van" thing going on here), with Ann Sothern as the voice of the touring, which was supposed to be his reincarnated mother. Pretty strange stuff, but then again, the '60s were pretty strange times.
Norm also had an F-100 pickup that was a magazine feature vehicle, as well as his famous, handcarved Henway flatbed which facilitated his move from SoCal to Lead Hill, Arkansas, with all his earthly possessions, where he resides today whittlin' away on mostly wooden rocking horses and skulls. We mentioned in our July issue's Street Corner that Norm had been in an accident, damaging his carving hand, but we're happy to report that he's now recovered, back at his craft, and may be reached at (870) 436-5280, if you're in need of a skull to top that shifter in your latest street rod, or perhaps just to make a statement on your desk as an objet d'art.
Norm also built "Kookie II," which was covered in a full buildup in STREET RODDER a few years back (from an introduction in the Mar. '90 issue's Street Corner with Von Franco's color rendering, to a cover and full feature in the Jan. '94 issue) that he continues to update, show, and drive. I once rode in it with Norm at the wheel over some back roads in the Ozarks, and this thing would be a revenuer's worst nightmare! Norm always has several projects in the works, the current crop of which includes a Zipper Motors '27 T modified, soon to be DOHC banger-powered. Norm is also caretaker of the late Kaye Trapp's '76 Chevy pickup (built by Bill Hines, painted by Larry Watson, and possibly soon to be chopped), continues to refine his work-in-progress, the "Kookie Hauler," and still owns his beloved Henway (which is slated for an early restoration), as well as other projects. How about a '36 Ford truck body with loads of patina on a late-model Ford pickup chassis for one?
Our feature car is Von Franco's exact replica of the Kookie T, as the original (as stated) is not only unavailable for photography, but has been changed significantly as well. We wish to thank current owner John LeBelle, and the Petersen Automotive Museum (where the car was on loan) for their cooperation in allowing Eric Geisert the opportunity to shoot this, our Milestones feature for December.
Although the entire T-bucket...
Although the entire T-bucket craze (which continues to this day) was spawned by Norm Grabowski's T, there have been but a couple of clones, with Franco "Von Franco" Costanza's being not only the first, but as accurate as humanly possible. So then, for all practical purposes, and because the original has not only been greatly changed, but sequestered away from prying eyes as well, we'll consider this the Kookie Kar, for it is indeed its identical twin. After building the car to exacting dimensions and detail, Franco plied his considerable artistic skills in finishing the little roadster (actually the front half of a '22 touring with a radically shortened Model A pickup bed) in '56 Dodge Royal Blue, then replicated Dean Jeffries' flame job and pinstriping to a T.
Norm Grabowski the introspective,...
Norm Grabowski the introspective, woodworking artist, not Norm Grabowski the flamboyant, extroverted showman we've all come to know and love. Can both personalities share a home and shop in Lead Hill, AR? Here's photographic proof that they can, as Norm grinds away on a wooden skull shifter knob for some lucky rodder. (Photo by the author)
Norm and Franco in Franco's...
Norm and Franco in Franco's exact clone of the original Kookie T in August of 1989. I remember asking Norm if I could get a shot similar to the one in the Apr. '57 issue of Life magazine, and Norm said, "Sure, if you'll get me a cheeseburger, I haven't had breakfast yet!" Has anything really changed? Note the "For Sale" sign on the windshield. If you wonder who bought it, wonder no more, it was the collector of all things "Norm," John LaBelle. (Photo by the author)
Those weedburner-style exhaust...
Those weedburner-style exhaust pipes exit over, not the actual frame, but a sheetmetal cover, created to hide what on the original car were a very butchered pair of Model A rails. This is the third, and most recognizable, of four exhaust configurations the roadster sported, and the way it appeared as the car star of 77 Sunset Strip. You know, "The street that wears a fancy label, glorified in song and fable..."
The red Tony Nancy interior...
The red Tony Nancy interior was replicated right down to the last stitch by Kirby Kendall. The skull shift knob looks just like the plaster version Norm purchased from a shop in Disneyland and had Larry Watson paint with "blood" so many years ago. Norm Himself actually carved the wood strip across the top of the dash, just as he had in the original, then signed and gave it to Franco for that finishing touch. As a top wasn't used on the TV show (unlike Norm's stunt driver days, the actors had to be highly visible at all times), it wasn't deemed necessary to clone.
One of the cool things about...
One of the cool things about looking at a T-bucket is that you can see its plethora of parts from pretty much any angle, just as in viewing a motorcycle. And even though the engine is an integral part of the overall design, let's take a closer look. The original was motivated by a '52 Caddy, but our clone sports a '55 edition of the same basic powerplant. And, just as the original, it has all the goodies: Horne intake manifold with a quartet of Stromberg 97s, and a Jackson Roto-Faze ignition. You think of a Cad V-8 as being a really big motor, but in actuality, the 331-incher had to have a session with the boring bar to make it to current small-block Chevy dimensions of 350 cubes. The transmission is SOHRP (standard old hot rodding practice), a '39 Ford Top Loader, which (just as the original) puts power to the pavement through a shortened torque tube and early Ford rearend.
Now: Franco cloned the car...
Now: Franco cloned the car exactly as it appeared as "Kookie's T" in the late-'50s television hit, 77 Sunset Strip, as driven by actor Ed Byrnes in his portrayal of Dino's Lodge (long since torn down in the name of "progress") parking attendant Gerald Lloyd Kookson--those were the days, my friend. Note that unlike some later T-buckets, the Ford banjo rearend, as on the original, resides forward of the spring mounts.
Legendary page No. 137 from...
Legendary page No. 137 from the April 29, 1957 edition of Life, not the cover as popular folklore dictates. Life photographers had followed Norm around for quite some time, but he was blissfully unaware until he pulled into Bob's Drive-in in Toluca Lake for a snack. Boy, did he have a surprise coming. Note how the exhaust in this second version turns rearward, tucking under the bedrails.
To our knowledge, the Oct....
To our knowledge, the Oct. '55 issue of Hot Rod was Norm Grabowski's first magazine ink with his roadster, which the editors dubbed, "Lightnin' Bug." Note Tim Miller's Ardun-powered '25 T from Portland, OR, sharing the cover, which the editors christened "Frightenin' Freighter." There are similarities and differences between the two, but in the end, only Norm's style would go on to become the "T-bucket." Note, too, that for lack of a better description of open Model T's with truncated pickup beds, they were called "Tailgate Torpedoes."
Then; a jaunty chapeau is...
Then; a jaunty chapeau is all that protects a young, 22-year-old Norm from the elements as he wheels his "Lightnin' Bug," the granddaddy of all T-buckets, across the pages of Oct. '55's Hot Rod magazine.
Just three of the myriad of...
Just three of the myriad of publications where Norm's T appeared as the cover car. From left to right: Car Craft, Apr. '57, in pretty much Kookie T livery (note top); How To Hop-Up Your Engine, Jan. '62 (The cover shows the final Watson version, replete with motometer and button-tufted pearl white upholstery, along with a drop-in studio "glam shot" of Ed "Kookie" Byrnes. The feature in the book, however, was the car as it appeared on the TV show.); and Rods Illustrated, Aug. '59, with Ed Byrnes and actress Connie Stevens sharing the cockpit. I vividly remember a 77 Sunset Strip comic book (wish I had it now) where a girl tells Kookie something like, "Your car reminds me of a farm tractor!"
A studio promotional shot...
A studio promotional shot from television's seminal detective show, 77 Sunset Strip (as found in the Jan. '62 edition of How To Hop-Up Your Engine), depicts Ed Byrnes, aka Gerald Lloyd Kookson, leaping into the saddle of "his" T as if in a western movie. Our suspicion is that this is a "doctored" photo, for such an impact wouldn't have done Norm's roadster much good, and if Ed were off just a degree or so in hitting his mark...well, you know. Has this guy got "smog in his noggin" or what? And did you know that not only were Norm and Ed Byrnes friends (Ed loved to cruise "his" T around the studio grounds even when they weren't filming), but that Norm actually played a bad guy on one of the episodes? It's true!
Norm's next venture into the...
Norm's next venture into the world of Kookiedom was with Kookie II, as depicted here in a lovingly crafted studio shot by Eric Geisert (heck, he even painted the walls and floor). STREET RODDER covered the car from Franco Costanza's concept rendering in our Mar. '90 issue's Street Corner, in an ongoing series of construction updates, and finally a feature and cover (of which this photo is an outtake) for our Jan. '94 issue.
Since completion, Norm's Kookie...
Since completion, Norm's Kookie II has been pretty much everywhere, including the first Jerry Titus' Cruisin' Branson Lights event, held in Branson, MO, in 1996. It was there where I was fortunate to get this shot of that old Finkster, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, riding shotgun with Norm. These are no doubt the two craziest, best loved characters that have ever honored our hobby with their presence.
A studio shot supplied by...
A studio shot supplied by Jim Street of the final version of the Kookie Kar as it appeared in Pat Ganahl's article about the car in the Feb. '89 issue of R&C. The car still exists in this form, and from what we've heard, will remain so, even if and when eventually restored. We'd have a current "entombed" shot of both the roadster and its stablemate, the Barris "Golden Sahara," if Jim had allowed us do so. Rest assured, it wasn't for lack of trying over a period of several years by our friend, automotive artist and journalist Darrell Mayabb.