The Great 1950′s T-Bucket Hot Rod Rivalry | Kookie Kar vs. The “Outhouse on Wheels”

Norm Grabowski Tony Ivo T-Bucket

Tommyy Ivo (top) and Norm Grabowski in his famous Kookie Kar square-off at the National Hot Rod Associations drag racing meet held at the old Santa Ana Drag Strip.

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The T-Bucket Hot Rod craze started back in the 1950s, and is still alive and screamin’ today.  Norm Grabowski is the undisputed Granddaddy of the 4-wheeled art form, with his original Kookie Kar being an inspiration to the legion of copycat and followers that became a national craze.  It all started back in 1952, when Grabowski, newly discharged from the service and now a fledgling actor in California, got his hands on an old 1922 Model T Touring front half and dropped a shortened model A pickup bed on the rear.  It wasn’t nearly as simple as it sounds– Grabowski painstakingly cut and recut the frame, laboring long and hard to get just the right aesthetic and stance he was looking for.  The power was supplied by a ’52 Cadillac engine with a 3-71 GMC blower, and later evolved to a ’56 Dodge engine with a Horne intake sporting a quartet of Stromberg double-barrel carbs. The steering for the beast was supplied by a Ross box from an old milk truck.  Grabowski installed it at home, then discovered that the T-Bucket steered backwards.  He hopped in the dyslexic Hot Rod and nonchalantly drove her from Sunland, CA to Valley Custom in Burbank for a fix– having to steer in the opposite direction the entire way.  Why not?

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Norm Grabowski Kookie Kar

Norm Grabowski behind the “wheel” of his famous Kookie Kar– a signature feature being the Bell three-spoke steering wheel mounted on the column which was in near upright position.

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Norm Grabowski working under his Kookie Kar with a homemade hoist-- around '57 - '59 in Sunland, CA.

Norm Grabowski working under his Kookie Kar with a homemade hoist– around ’57 – ’59 in Sunland, CA.

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Grabowski working at home on the Kookie Kar-- with baby riding shotgun.

Norm Grabowski working at home on the Kookie Kar– with baby riding shotgun. Check out the bloodied plaster skull shifter.

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Norm Kookie Kar

Norm Grabowski and baby at home in Sunland working on the Kookie Kar.

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Kookie Kar

OK baby, try ‘er now… Norm Grabowski turning the wrench on his Kookie Kar for the LIFE photog’s Kamera.

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Norm Grabowsky-- what you'd call a hands-on kinda guy.

Norm Grabowski– what you’d call a hands-on kinda guy.

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Somebody's gotta get under there...

Somebody’s gotta get under there… Norm Grabowski under his Kookie Kar.

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Kookie Kar

Norm Brabowski ready for race day at the Santa Ana Drag Strip.

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The Legendary Norm Grabowski Kookie Kar.  Paint by Valley Custom with flame job and pinstriping by Dean Jeffries.  Tony Nancy stitched up the rolled and pleated red interior.

The Legendary Norm Grabowski Kookie Kar — Identical clone by Franco ‘Von Franco’ Costanza. Norm’s original was painted by Valley Custom with flame job and pinstriping by Dean Jeffries. Tony Nancy stitched up the rolled and pleated red interior.

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Grabowski’s T-Bucket was so hot on the scene, it soon spawned a movement.  Arriving home one day, he was more than a little surprised to find another actor/racer/builder, Tommy “TV” Ivo, in his garage measuring up the Kookie Kar so that he could make his own T-Bucket Hot Rod. Ivo later recounted– “I asked him (Grabowski) if he would let me take some measurements off of his car,” recalls Ivo, “but he wouldn’t let me.” So when that failed, Ivo took matters into his own hands and snuck into Grabowski’s garage one day when he wasn’t home and took all the critical measurements and visual data needed to go off and create his own.

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Tony Ivo Drag racing his "outhouse on wheels" with it's signature white ragtop down for speed.

Tommy Ivo Drag racing his “outhouse on wheels” with it’s signature white ragtop down for speed.

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With trusty T-Bucket measurements in hand, Tommy Ivo set out to on the first order of business — finding an old Model T body.  Scouring the dry California desert, Tommy finally found a suitable match– a 1925 Ford Phaeton front end.  Only problem was the desert had claimed the Phaeton for itself.  A Yucca tree had  grown straight straight through the middle of the cab, rooting the old ford in place.  Undeterred, Ivo claimed victory by chopping the Yucca down and hauling the old Ford back home.  With a little help from Randy Chaddock & Max Balchowsky, Ivo made short work of the project– equipping his new T-Bucket with a 322 Buick Nailhead bored out to 402 cubic inches, and setup 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.

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Tony Ivo's T-Bucket Hot Rod was unmatched in it's class back in the day.

Tommy Ivo’s T-Bucket Hot Rod was unmatched in it’s class back in the day.

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Despite its reputation at the strip, on the street, and 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.  –Street Rodder

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Tony Ivo's T'Bucket Hot Rod went on to be as big, if not a bigger star than actor/racer himself.

Tommy Ivo’s T’Bucket Hot Rod went on to be as big a star, if not a bigger, than the actor/racer himself.

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Tommy Ivo learned a lot about building hi-performance engines under Balchowsky. “He was my mentor in motors,” Ivo recalled. Ivo put his lethal motor skills into practice and started cleaning-up at the drag strip.  Most times 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.” His passion was purely for the car and the thrill, not the glory. He adds, “All I wanted to do was race. I didn’t care about trophies back then.”  Ivo’s hot T-Bucket and racing skill landed him several Top Eliminator awards at the San Fernando Drags and later at Lions when it opened in 1960. The car was a consistent for 11-second elapsed times and a top speed of 119 mph.

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Tony Ivo's dark red T-Bucket was accented with custom white pinstripes by none other than the legendary Kenneth Howard-- AKA Von Dutch.

Tommy Ivo’s dark red T-Bucket was accented with a custom white pinstripe job by none other than the legendary Kenneth Howard– AKA Von Dutch. His signature is visible at the far right end of the dash.

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Tommy Ivo relates an 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 stubborn gent said no way. Taking matter into his own hands, as he also did with spying 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.”

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Tony Ivo and the Road Kings crew at the Santa Ana Drag Strip--  sometime from '57 to '59.

Tommy Ivo and the Road Kings crew wait their turn to tear it up at the Santa Ana Drag Strip– sometime from ’57 to ’59.

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The Road Kings, with Tommy Ivo standing at far left, seem ready for another pass at the Santa Ana Drags. The car appears much as it does today, with Hilborn fuel injection, race slicks, Mercury hubcaps, and full top.

The Road Kings, with Tommy Ivo standing at far left, seem ready for another pass at the Santa Ana Drags. The car appears much as it does today, with Hilborn fuel injection, race slicks, Mercury hubcaps, and full top.

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Tony Ivo Road Kings Santa ana Drag Strip

The Road Kings take advantage of the view atop Tommy Ivo’s T-Bucket tires– Santa Ana Drag Strip.

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...As Tony Ivo explained, the Hot Rod, with top up looked "like an outhouse on wheels." And so came the crescent moon cut-out window came to be.

…As Tommy Ivo explained, the Hot Rod, with top up looked “like an outhouse on wheels.” And so came the crescent moon cut-out window came to be.

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Santa Ana Drag Strip Road Kings

There’s another clear benefit to no fenders.

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Tony Ivo and the Road Kings crew at the Santa Ana Drag Strip

Tommy Ivo and the Road Kings crew at the Santa Ana Drag Strip

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Tony Ivo victorious at Santa Ana in more ways than one.

To the victor go the spoils! After winning Top Eliminator at the San Fernando Drags, Tommy Ivo and the trophy queen make a victory pass.

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Tony Ivo and his T-Bucket were featured in the Hollywood production "Dragstrip Girl". Ironically, Ivo played the heavy in the movie, and the script called for him to steal his own car.

Tommy Ivo and his T-Bucket were featured in the Hollywood production “Dragstrip Girl”. Ironically, Ivo played the heavy in the movie, and the script called for him to steal his own car.

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16 thoughts on “The Great 1950′s T-Bucket Hot Rod Rivalry | Kookie Kar vs. The “Outhouse on Wheels”

  1. I have ran across both these cars photos at one time or another as I was gathering information to start my own creation of a T Bucket last year. I am nearly 75% complete at this time. I started with a ’23 Ford Phaeton and added a ’27 turtle deck instead of a pickup box. It is powered by a Ford Mustang 289 engine and C4 transmission. I have a ’49 flathead in the works to replace the 302 after the flatty is complete which may take a few years as I have many things planned for it. The history here is great! I am so glad I found this site. A “must have” for any Bucket builder or owner!

  2. Pingback: ED “BIG DADDY” ROTH | RAT FINK KING OF SOUTH CALI KUSTOM KAR KULTURE « The Selvedge Yard

  3. I worked at Coach and Carriage Auto Body in Natick, Ma. in the early 70′s and Kookies T Bucket was there for a refurbish. I wasn’t interested at the time and the job went to another employee. The car was in beat shape but the parts were all there. The car was owned by Tim Hannah, also of Framingham, Ma. (my home town) and he planned a full off restoration with one exception: all that was chrome was to be gold plated. I went on to other things and lost track of the car and wondered how (if ever) it turned out…. ? If you know the status of the T I would love to know. You could e mail me at the above adderess. Thanks!
    Big John 9-13-09

    • To Big John:
      Just for the record…………..the T Bucket that you are referring to was beautifully restored by the Coach and Carriage shop in Natick, MA.around 1995.The shop was owned by Steve McComisky.
      The T was NOT the Kookie T. It was originally built in the late 50′s and owned by George “Whitey” Gould from Waltham, MA. It was powered by a Buick nailhead with six duces. It appeared on the covers of Car Craft and Hot Rod magazines.
      Fred Hire 11-5-09

  4. Cool post! I’ll have to forward it around to all the folks I know here in Texas who are into hot rods. The Selvedge Yard is really nifty. I like checking back from time to time to see what else I can find that I’ve never seen before. Thanks!

  5. I saw Ivo’s T bucket on a recent TV show. The program reminded me how great that car was. I was wondering if that car is on display somewhere. If anyone knows would you please let me know. Thanks

    • Correction to my earlier reply: I saw the car at the NHRA museum in Pomona, Ca, . . . not the Petersen museum.

    • The Ivo T is in the NHRA Drag Racing Museum in Pomona CA

      His Twin Buick Dragster is in Don Garlits’ Museum in Ocala FL

      Lee…

  6. This car has been on my wish list for over 40 years. Besides Von Franco,who can build me a nice 95% copy of this wonderful rod? I’m 63 years old and still am eyes wide open when I see new photo’s of Norms T, as I sis when i was a teen.
    Let me know!
    5 STARS*****
    Lou Sevilla

  7. Norm Grabowski’s bucket is the one I saw in a tv drama called Wire Service a long time ago. I was probably 6 or 7 years old at the time it aired. What stuck in my mind was the front end of this machine. Mounted on top of the radiator was an actual wolf’s head snarling shark like teeth! Adding even more to the ferocity, the camera would focus closeups of the wolf whenever the engine was accelerated. It looked like it was going to lunge at you through the screen! Actor Larry Pennell played the sociopath behind the wheel. For his part and that of the rabid looking roadster they were evenly matched. Cool trivia from 1950s Hollywood.

  8. Pingback: RELIVE DRAG RACING’S TOP RIVALRY 11/10 ~ THE SNAKE VS. THE MONGOOSE « The Selvedge Yard

  9. Pingback: THE LEGENDARY STRIPER VON DUTCH | STILL ALIVE AND LIVING IN ARIZONA ’72 « The Selvedge Yard

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