Wednesday, February 15, 2012

T Bucket, It had Kids Dreaming...

Let's rewind life a little. Do you remember walking or riding your bike home from school in 7th or 8th grade? Stop for a minute and reminisce about that feeling of freedom on a Friday afternoon, a warm breeze on your face, the thought of knowing you had two days with your buddies, watching TV at night, or building model cars,  before returning to the classroom.

One clearly etched memory from that time walking home was the anticipation of watching "77 Sunset Strip", a private eye series running Friday night on the ol' black and white. With it, one of my young idols, "Kookie", the car hop at Deno's Lodge. Kookie delivered the bitchin' rides to the customers as they left the restaurant. Only one word summed him up...Cool! But, what made him the coolest of all, was his own personal badass "T Bucket" that he drove on the series for all of America to see. Hot rodding had somewhat now been legitimatized by making it on 'prime time'. How did it happen?

Norm Grabowski poised with his creation, the T Bucket, "Kookie Kar."

Norm Grabowski is the undisputed Granddaddy of the four-wheel art form that became a national craze. It all started in 1952, when Norm, a fledgling actor in L.A. and a member of the Torques Car Club, got his hands on an old '22 Model T front half that he purchased for $5, and dropped a shortened Model A pickup bed on the rear, all put on a '30 Model A roadster frame. Grabowski cut and recut the frame, laboring long and hard to get the right aesthetic and stance he was looking for. This was accomplished by stretching the frame up front some five inches using leftover rear frame sections, replacing the front crossmember with a suicide spring mount, which lowered the front more, accentuating the rake. This included putting a '32 radiator shell behind the front axle. In the rear Norm first used a unit from a Model A, but when he swapped in a stouter '41 rear, it lowered the rear as well. Not happy with the lower rear stance, he mounted the rear spring to the crossmember with a six-inch steel spacer to set it back where it had been, to regain that "just right" stance.

For the finishing touches Norm painted it black and asked Neil Emory at Valley Custom to build a shortened windshield along with Tony Nancy to stitch up a red tuck n' roll pleated interior. The shift knob was first a dice then a hand carved as an ever so cool, plaster skull! While at Valley Custom the car was spotted by someone from the Warner Bros. TV studios and Neal Emory passed the word to Norm that they would like to rent it. It was also in this finish that it appeared in "Hot Rod" magazine and on the cover in October, '55.

Norm became the stunt driver for his own car, renting to the studios for $50 a day. However, another actor got a chance to drive the car and did some damage to it by hitting a pole. The car then went back to Valley Customs for repairs to the frame and then got it's new paint job, a '56 Dodge Royal Blue color with Dean Jeffries applied flames and pinstripes. At this point the car was sporting a '52 Caddy engine that he had gotten from his parents old car, with a Horne intake and a quartet of Strombergs. That's how the car appeared on "77 Sunset Strip."

Looking back, Norm's creative efforts in the promotion of hot rodding did a positive service to rodders everywhere when his roadster came into our living rooms on a weekly basis as the car star of "77 Sunset Strip" running from 1958 to 1964. However, even more responsible for bringing Norm's "Kookie Kar" into living rooms than television, was the Life magazine "Hot Rod Lifestyle" feature, April, 1957.

Norm at Bob's Drive-in in Toluca Lake. As Norm tells it, "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!" Image Life archives.
                              Just a typical night at Bob's back in the day. Image Life archives.

Life magazine was out cruising looking for kids with cars and they found Norm and Franco Castanza cruising, and followed them to Bob's. The Life magazine article on Hot Rods exposed the world to Norm. and his ride. Image Life archives.

Norm Grabowski at home with his baby supervising. Image Life archives.

What a ride for his baby. Image Life archives.

Notice the hand carved skull shifter. Image Life archives.

Norm built a home hoist to work on the car. Image Life archives.

Here's a good look at the rear. Image Life archives.

Time to head to Santa Ana Drag Strip. Image Life archives.

Norm's roadster could run 103 mph in the quarter mile. Image Life archives.
You can read more info on Norm, here.

To share a comment, click here.



  2. Keith Nelson emailed: Hey, a 356 in the background of picture #2. Yes, I also wanted one.

  3. Glad I caught your story, John. As a lifelong T-Bucket fan, my infatuation with Norm's goes back to seeing it in Life magazine and then on TV. It's influence is legendary.

  4. The original Kookie car in its rebuilt "crazy '60's show car guise" is stored in secrecy about 1 mile from my home. I was lucky enough to get a quick look at it about 25 years ago. Its parked next to the Golden Sahara Barris Kustom.

  5. You should have told about "Normy poo" & the chicken ranch where he lived!
    At some bar adventures he could whistle with his mouth closed!
    Norm was in the L.A.Roadsters club with card #10--Just after the club was formed in 1957---Dick Scritchfield was the President then.