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Part 1: A Significant Emotional Event February 2009

Part 1: A Significant Emotional Event February 2009
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A Significant Emotional Event
by
Ronald Kregoski

 

 

 It was an unusually warm day for a Michigan April that Saturday in1957. Saturday meant collection day. I had just made my regular midday stop at Well's Drug store in Allen Park. The drugstore marked the two-thirds point of my Detroit Free Press paper route and held the promise of salvaging what remained of a sunny Saturday afternoon. But Wells Drugs was also an oasis of sorts. Planted in the middle of a sea of post war ranches it was the only watering hole for 10 blocks in any direction. A place where I could get a cherry coke, escape the torturous noonday sun and lose myself in the latest hotrod magazine.

That was where I spied that Car Craft on the magazine rack. The adrenalin began to flow when I realized that it was a new edition.  When I removed it to check out whether it held anything worth separating me from the required 25 cents, I experienced a significant emotional event. Grinning back at me from the cover was the coolest car I had ever seen!

It was a roadster that personified everything that had come to mean 'Hot Rod' to me. There was a special, street mean attitude about it. Perched on a chromed wishbone spring it was severely kicked up in the back, giving it a rakish 'leaning-into-the-attack' stance. It sort of reminded me of one of those cartoon bulls readying for the charge; head down, butt in the air with its legs about to flay the ground for traction. Up front, the radically chopped deuce grille captured your eyes and led them back to the red caddy engine sporting finned valve covers and topped by four gleaming Strombergs. Their red-throated frog stacks were like flared nostrils eager to feed the hungry beast.

Everything about the little car was unique and smacked of contradictions. On one hand it looked street mean, while at the same time the pair of chromed struts supporting the windshield suggested a certain fragility. And who could imagine a luxury Cadillac engine in a modest Model T? The yin and yang of that juxtaposition alone set it apart from the rest of the flathead fare of the day. And it wasn't really a car. It had a pickup truck bed, which was severely shortened. Wow!

Red & orange flames fading to yellow, found their way back from the stainless firewall licking along the dark blue body to the doors outlined in pin striping.  Inside it sported a milk wagon style steering column. And looming high out of the lipstick red interior, perched atop the ridiculously tall shift lever; an oversized skull leered out at the world; SO COOOOL! The chromed pipes were capped and ran along side of the body and then mysteriously wound out of sight under the rails only to reappear as high tailpipes that arched over the rear wheels. COOL, COOL, COOOOL! I was transfixed!

The whole package shouted, ‘I'm Bad, Don't Mess With Me!’; a message easily resonating with any rebelling 15 year old of the day. For the better part of an hour I read and reread the article held captive by the few available photos and searching in the hopes that there were more photos buried in the back of the magazine. I couldn't put it down, the magazine's hypnotic grip on me only being broken by the druggist’s query, “You gonna buy that? We’re not running a library here!”

I willingly gave up the quarter, remounted my now hopelessly-less-than-adequate bicycle and finished my rounds, stopping periodically to pull out the magazine for another rush of adrenalin. I was in a fog. It completely occupied my mind the rest of the afternoon and I’m sure some customer along the way didn’t get his correct change. It was the birth of an obsession.

 
 

Norm Grabowski at a Car Show

 

Sometime later that same year I came across the car again in Life magazine. Anyone around at the time will remember the full-page picture of Norm Grabowski and friend gnawing on a Bob's Big Boy, the skull shift knob grinning with approval. I remember begging my folks to allow me to cut out and preserve this work of art. It hung in a place of honor in my bedroom, only taking on an even greater reverence as it yellowed with age.

From time to time the car that spurred my passion appeared in other car magazines. And then one day it came to life. I was watching 77 Sunset Strip on TV and all of a sudden there it was in the hands of Ed 'Kookie' Burns, the hip parking lot attendant who was the only reason I watched the show in the first place. I was torn between taking in the brief scene and trying to explain the significance of the car to the adults in the room. Didn't they realize they were witnessing the Holy Grail of cars? Like others in my age group, I tuned in to that show week after week in the hopes of getting another glimpse of the object of my obsession

The years passed and I grew up with a focus on college, graduate school and a career substituting for my car passion and the less practical things in life. It wasn't until I was 52 that my passion for street rods was rekindled. But by this time rods had become more sophisticated. Now, rod shops churn out mass quantities of exotic parts; the parts, which were once wrenched from junkyards or fabbed in the garages of America. Today the cars appearing at the Detroit Autorama and Oakland Roadster Show are smooth works of art with chassis’s more detailed than the ones coming off Detroit assembly lines.

But, no matter how exotic the design or detailed the builds you can see today, nothing interrupts my breathing and dilates my pupils the way Norm's car did to that teenager over 50 years ago. To me it will always loom as the quintessential street rod; an archetype and icon of what a hot rod ought to be.

So, after waiting fifty years, I decided to act on my obsession and clone the Grabrowski 'Kookie’s Car'.  I tracked down Norm Grabowski and have been consulting with him on the project. And it has taken over three years to locate some of the hard-to-find parts, but we are there.

While there have been a couple of Kookie’s clones built in past years, they have been lacking in accuracy in some way. I am committed to making mine the closest possible to that little timeless classic that first grinned back at me on that hot April afternoon and have it ready for Autorama March, 2009. I will share the trials and tribulations of that journey over the next few weeks.

Think a good thought and don't forget to put off puttin' off.

I’d like to say that after 50 years one day I sat down and decided to fulfill my childhood car obsession. But it didn’t happen just that way. When I got back into rodding I got a topless, T-bucket and modified it, but it wasn’t anything near the object of my yearnings. So, after blowing the engine because of too much supercharger boost, I went on to something a little more practical… my ’34 Ford sedan.

What brought me to the Kookie Kar project was a rat-rodded, T-pickup running a 4-banger I saw offered on eBay. It wasn’t anything like the Kookie Kar, but it was cool.  It had a low reserve, wasn’t bringing many offers and was pretty cheap. However, by the time I decided to move on it, it was gone. So, I contacted the shop that listed it and talked with owner Johnnie Overbay who along with partner, Doug Burba operated Reno Rods and Customs in Oklahoma City.
 
 Johnnie explained that ever so often they rummage through their back lot of car parts and piece together something to sell.  I inquired whether they could build another at the same price and in the discussion mentioned, “What I’d really like to do is replicate Norm Grabowski’s Kookie Kar.” Now whenever I mention the Kookie Kar to someone, there is a pause.  Then I have to explain what it is and the era it’s from and the TV program because most folks weren’t old enough then. But no, not Johnnie, who said with gusto, “I’ve always dreamed of building that car myself and we already have most of the parts including a V-60 front axle that I’ve been saving for something special”!

THAT’S ALL IT TOOK! At that point our conversation took a left turn from my original reason for calling to what would be involved in such a project. It seems that in addition to the V-60 front axle, Reno Rods had the, ’29 frame, the rims, ’41 rear axle and other assorted parts. Plus, they knew where they could probably get a ‘53 Caddy engine (yes I know Norm used a ’52 but they’re the same). A fire had been ignited and I was being seriously tempted. But, what really put me over the top was Johnny’s enthusiasm. Here was a guy who shared my same passion for the car. And after we negotiated a shop rate for the project, I gave him a tentative “I’m interested, let me think on it!”

Picking Up The Body

The T body was located someplace in Grand Prairie, Nebraska.  I had a car to drop off in Iowa and the plan was to keep on going to Nebraska, pick up the car then swing down to Oklahoma City and check out Reno Rods. If I liked what I saw and we could finalize an arrangement, I would leave the body.  If not I’d take it home and tackle it myself. But, I was already working on a couple of projects and really didn’t want it languishing in my garage for a couple of years. Also, I really wasn’t sure how the front end was constructed and in any case I had planned to have a pro shop iron out the chassis anyway.

Little did I know that my commitment to the project was about to be tested.

Winter was just beginning to set in but the weather had been nice so far and I had a problem free delivery to Iowa. However, when I headed out I-80 in the morning the weather had taken a turn. There had been freezing rain during the night and I-80 was a sheet of black ice.

I started out cautiously but after an hour the roads worsened. I began seeing cars off the road. Every time I was passed by a semi my empty trailer danced like a hooked marlin. My hands were white knuckled and I griped the wheel so hard I was convinced I was leaving marks. My angst wasn’t eased when passing a large semi off the road. on its side! This was getting serious and I debated getting off the highway.  But I feared that I wouldn’t be able to stop exiting the off ramp. I had visions of my enclosed trailer doing a sideways slide, slamming into a gas station wiping out the pumps in an orange blaze and having it all ending up on U-tube. So I soldiered on.

 
  The car sat rusting away in a yard in
a Grand Prairie Nebraska prairie
 
  I had other projects to finish
 
  My 1915 'T' ratrod project had barely begun

After a couple of hours the highway improved. And after some driving around I found the location. Now, over the years I have learned that cars on the Internet or in photographs generally look much better than the car that produced them. The human eye catches imperfections that the camera misses. This T bucket was no exception.

On the surface it looked reasonably solid. However, a closer inspection revealed problems. And when we tried to move it into the trailer it just about came apart. I thought to myself, “I came all the way out here to ‘next door to nowhere’ for this piece of crap?” It was so ragged I didn’t even bother strapping it down; we just dragged it into the trailer. I figured how much more damage could I inflict on this thing?  Next stop, Reno Rods and Customs

Reno Rods & Customs

As I said, my reason for considering having Reno Rods to this car, or at least the chassis, was that I was unclear how the front end, exhaust and a number of other fabrications were done on the car. Also, there weren’t enough revealing magazine photographs from that era. And I was involved with doing other cars and didn’t have the time. Plus, Reno Rods was an old school shop and knew how things were done in the ‘way back’.

Arriving at Reno Rods, I was met by Johnny Overbay and his crew. A tour of his facilities convinced me that here was a traditional rod shop. It had that eclectic blend of nostalgic trash decorating the walls, car parts hanging from the ceiling and scattered projects. The yard behind the shop was littered with enough Model A & T car bodies, frames and other whatnots to put together several cars. It felt right.

 
The Reno Rods & Custom shop was
festooned with ‘old school’ stuff and
just plain old stuff.
 
 
All hands were on deck to haul in
the future Kookie Kar.
 

Johnny and I went to lunch and discussed the project.

We were in agreement that the car should be built without the convenience of an automatic transmission and that we’d make it as close the original car as possible including adding the top, which had never been done on other Kookie clones.

Yes, a couple of others had cloned Norm’s iconic little bucket but something was always lacking. One was a done in Northern California by a guy who used a big block caddy, automatic trans and a quick-change rear axle. Nice, but not the 1957 Car Craft Magazine car that got into my head.

A guy with the handle of von Franco did the most famous clone in the late 80’s.  He was also obsessed with the little pickup and did a beautiful job. His clone has been seen in many magazines recently including the prestigious Rodders Journal. But his clone had vertical tail pipes like when the original appeared in the TV show 77 Sunset Strip and no top. Later, we were to learn that there were other features, which deviated from the original.

Norm added the top when an actor crashed the car, which was being rented by the movie studios.  Norm vowed from then on no one would drive the car except himself. The studio agreed but required him to get a SAG card and add a top that would hide his face. This is what launched Norm into the acting business.

So, we were going to build the model that appeared on the April ‘57 cover of Car Craft magazine. It had exhaust pipes running horizontally along the pickup bed and a top. I spoke with von Franco on several occasions and he was helpful plus we now had a lot of magazine photos, a Utube piece and a DVD, ‘The Car That Ate My Brain’, von Franco made on the history of building his car. We used them to get specs at the beginning.

So an agreement was forged. Reno Rods would do, or at least begin, the build in their shop with me researching, consulting with Grabowski and von Franco, securing hard to find parts and working on some sub components. Johnnie & Doug would be involved but Chris Gutierrez and master fabricator, Gordon Burba would be using up most of the shop’s the hand cleaner.

The parts used in the build were to be either recycled originals or something we fabbed ourselves. And only if it absolutely must be bought, to get parts made in the USA.

So, here I was, doing another from-scratch car being built at another out-of-state shop…something I swore I’d never do again.  But, I felt good about Reno Rods and that Johnnie and his team shared my passion for the car. More on the successes and set backs next time. Until then, think a good thought and don’t forget to put off putt’n off.

Now the problem with cloning a street rod from the middle part of the last century .... Geeees that makes me feel old to say that…. is you spend half your time trying to determine how it was done and the other half finding the parts. So it was to be with the cloning of the Kookie Kar.

Thus far, I had settled on Reno Rod & Custom in Oklahoma City to do at least a rolling chassis if not the complete build and had located the forward half of a ’22 Model T Touring sedan like the original.

Next, I tracked down Norm Grabowski who built the original car.  Norm no longer lived in Sundland, California, and now resided in Lead, Arkansas. I could hardly believe I was going to be talking with the guy who is considered to be the father of the T-Bucket if not the builder of my obsession.

He answered the phone with a matter-of-fact, “Hi, this is Norm”.  And it wasn’t long before it was just one Polack talking to another. The next hour or so was filled with what I was doing, why I was doing it and could I call him from time to time for information. Norm answered, “anytime”, and I promised to send him some polish kielbasa and pierogies to him. Hey, what do they know of such delicacies in Arkansas?

Next, I linked up with von Franco, the Northern California striper who cloned Norm’s car in the 1980’s. Franko was as obsessed as myself and did a great job on his clone. It has been seen in many magazines including most recently, Rodder’s Journal. He was a help with some specs and in pointing me in the right direction for other stuff.

Franko had also, with the help of some of Norm’s photos, produced a DVD called The Car That Ate My Brain. It depicted the history of Norm’s car with moving footage from the ‘50s.  The DVD went on to chronicle how Franko built his Kookie clone as well as Norm’s earlier version which was coined ‘Lightning Bug’ and first graced the cover Hot Rod magazine, October 1955.

This is a great DVD and will be appreciated by any t-bucket lover and rodder, old school or not. It can be had for the modest sum of $22.95. Google the title and it will lead you to several sites that offer a trailer of the DVD’s highlights. This is well worth looking at whether or not you buy the DVD from www.madfabricators.com.

The Body

 
  First the tub was dismembered.

The guys at Reno jumped on the body and had it torn apart in no time. The first pics they sent me made me think why I risked my life getting this tub in the first place. However, seems it was in better shape than I originally thought and would only need one panel replaced. Besides, I was committed to the use of original Henry’s metal like Norm did.

In an attempt to determine the correct specs, Johnnie and his gang had accumulated every magazine where the car appeared and built an image board. They then took comparison measures. You know, if you know a door is such and such a dimension, you use that in determining the height of the grille shell or set backs etc. It works, but is very time consuming and Gordon spent a lot of it time them. I was told he went to bed at night dreaming of the Kookie Kar and how it went together. Now that’s passion..

The Engine

Norm originally used the ’52 Cadillac engine out of the family car. He convinced his dad that the engine was worn out and needed to be replaced and that his dad should get a new one and give the old one to him.  I picturing me asking my dad for the family car’s engine at that age……it wasn’t pretty!

Reno had located a ’53 Caddy and we struck a deal to buy it for $800. The engine was pulled and the body sold off and the engine sent out to be rebuilt with a mild cam added.

My Job

While Reno was cast as the ‘first chair’ builder of the Kookie Kar, I was anxious to get my hands on some part of the build and thought about going down to Oklahoma for a couple weeks. Timing turned my role into a parts chaser for the hard-to-find parts, negotiator for donated parts/devices and builder of some subcomponents that it made sense for me to do and ship there.

A few things which were going to be difficult to locate included a Horne 4x2 manifold for an early Caddy, a Jackson Roto-faze Dualpoint distributor and, as it turned out, the large skull shift knob.

 
Horne Manifold

As I said earlier, I wanted to use original ford metal in the build to the extent we could and was pleased to locate an original ’32 Ford grille shell.  I sent it along to Johnnie after knocking out the major dents. It needed some more work but I wasn’t sure if they were going to use lead or putty and most of the serious damage was on the bottom. In as much as the original grille was chopped, the lower, damaged area would be cut away anyhow. It made for considerably less money than an original, good ’32 grille usually demands.

 

 
The Horne 4x2 was difficult to find  

Next, I began putting out feelers for the Horne manifold. But, it wasn’t long before Johnnie called me all excited to exclaim he had located one. I was delighted because I hadn’t been very successful.

It seems that there were very few Horne 4x2’s made before the company was sold to Cragar and recast with their name. The hook was that the guy who owned it wanted to make a mold so that he could now cast them under his company’s name. The price was a bargain, however it took a year of persistence and follow-up before we finally wrenched it from his claws. I am grateful to him for letting us have it let alone for the $400 price. After I took the big scratche4s out, It was sent to Patmai for polishing and then to All Metal Finishing for powder clear coating

 
The Pickup Bed

I located an original pickup bed in Ohio. It needed some work, but was cheap. I had it bead blasted and knocked out the dents. I thought about repairing the damage in the lower front and then remembered that Norm covered the outside of his bed with sheet metal so, again it wouldn’t be seen anyway. I chopped it a little shorter and sent it on its way with a batch of parts I had painted.

 
  My attempt at reproducing a Disney Skull
 
  An original Randotti skull on modifies shift rod.

Skull Shift Knob

Next in my sites was the skull shift knob. This was a signature feature of the car. However, obtaining one was to prove to be challenging.

It seems Norm purchased his at Disneyland when he took the little pickup to a car show there. After spending a full two days on the phone talking to everyone at Disneyland save for Walt himself I finally found someone who knew what I was talking about and learned a few things.

First, the skulls were made of industrial plaster by the Randotti company. The owners, Randy and Dotti, were long deceased and the skulls haven’t been available for over 22 years. Great!!! After much searching and eBaying to no avail, I decided to make one. As things happen, after going through the trouble of forming a pretty good copy of a Randotti, I came across a Randotti relative.  She had the remaining original stock and was willing to sell me an original 1960’s skull of the right size and model.. After, lengthening the shift rod 4” and chroming it, then adding the proper blood streaks and an acorn cap, it was sent to Reno.

Johnnie had found some NOS valve covers, I located the finned regulator cover and oil filter canister. After, polishing them and painting the lands the proper shade of red and clear coating everything they joined my locker at Reno Rod & Custom. By now I had earned my own parts locker…..I was becoming a player.
 
The Bucket

By this time Johnnie’s team had torn down the bucket and replaced the backrest sheetmetal . After reassembling it and adding a fresh wood kit they reinforced the backrest with steel tubing. It was starting to resemble Norm’s little bucket.

 
 6 A Jackson Rotofaze Dualpoint distributor;
the Holy Grail of Old School gofast equipment.
 

Jackson Roto-faze Dual Point Distributor

An item I knew would be difficult to locate was the Jackson Roto-faze Dual Point Distributor. They were made in Southern California in the late 50’s and at that time were the state of the art. I contacted the company, which still exists, and talked with Joe Panek, the son of the originalator. It seems they still made high quality racing distributors but nothing like the original Roto-faze, which had a large cast base with dual coils and 4-wire caps feeding each bank.

Joe said he hadn’t seen one in years and didn’t even have enough parts to build one. However if I found one in any condition he could repair it. The quest began. Little did I know that quest would stretch to 2   years and take me to New Zealand.

After, putting out feelers to every old school rodder and every rodder who was old that I knew, including Squeak Bell in California, I began to be concerned. It seems these units were built to order for the racing community and it was possible that only 36 or so were ever made. The few I tracked down were in early build street rods and considered sacred. I even found one guy who had one in a glass case in his trophy room. He refused to even let it out just so we could get the specs.  I was considering ways we could fabricate something to resemble one, but without specs or even good photos which showed the whole unit, we were groping in the dark. Then it happened!

After placing a $200 reward on H.A.M.B. for anyone who could lead me to one or enough parts to fabricate one, I received an email. It was from Craig Cote of Traditional Speed Supply and the Kiwi Connection in New Zealand.

“Do you still need one of these original twin cap Rotofaze dissys? I have a customer with one, which he will sell if it is going to a good cause. It has apparently been fitted but not used.”

Craig was great. Not only did he help negotiate a reasonable price from the owner who thought he was selling a body part but, he offered to bring it with him to the US.  He further offered to drop it off at Joe Panek’s shop to be refitted for our Caddy when he was here for Speed Week. I am grateful and very indebted to Craig for all his kind assistance.  I am also appreciative of Joe Panek who weaved his magic in converting it to a user friendly companion for our early Caddy engine.

So, things were starting to come together. Next time you’ll learn about the chassis and some special fabrication. Until then, think a good thought and don’t forget to put off puttin’ off.

Well, the car was really coming together now. Based on what I saw coming out of Reno Rods & Customs, our time commitment, and the fact that I was half crippled up because I needed a knee replacement I had long since decided to have them complete the car.

We now had a chassis that was skillfully built to Norm’s original specs. Norm admits that at the time he was building the Kookie Kar he didn’t really know what he was doing and much of the work was done by Valley Custom. For that reason and the fact his car was now appearing in the movies and on television, it was constantly evolving through a continuous series of upgrades.

One example was the top. Originally it didn’t have one until an actor lost control of the car one day and crashed it. The studio paid for the damage, which gave Norm the opportunity for some new changes.  It was at this time that the car acquired the top and took on its distinctive rake and paint scheme.

After the crash, Norm vowed that from then on he would be the only one to drive the car on screen. The studio agreed but said he would have to be hidden from the camera. This hailed the arrival of the distinctive top. It also required Norm to get his SAG card, which launched his entry into the movies.

Getting Out The Torch

With the impossible-to-find parts secured, we were now getting into items that had to be fabricated. The big difference between simply building a T-bucket and cloning a 50’s T is that you just can’t pull most parts of the shelf. Back then there weren’t as many things offered commercially and many items had to be fabricated or salvaged. So, you have to do the same. We lit the torch and cranked up the brake. This challenge was compounded by the need to use specs garnered from 55 year old magazine photos.

Windshield

 
  The windshield frame took a lot of work to get it right.

Reno’s Johnnie Overbay began the difficult task of duplicating the windshield. He hammered out the large bowl-like, dress-up covers that graced the lower posts out of 1/8” flat stock and then mocked up the windshield from square rod. Fortunate for me, Johnnie came across an old Hop Up magazine, which illustrated where the original windshield met the lower covers. Yet another blind spot where relying on the Franco clone would have led us to do it incorrectly.

Instrument Panel

Meanwhile, there was work for me to do. I lucked out in that the winged S-W gauges like the original were still available from Speedway Motors who also supplied other misc. parts.

Next, after taking careful measures of the original instrument panel from magazine photos, I plotted the gauge and switch openings. But, because I didn’t have access to our body, I had to use my 1915 T as a model for fit-to-body dimensions. While I

hoped it would be accurate, these two bodies were seven years apart and T’s were hand made with no two exactly alike in the first place, so one could never be sure. After several plasma cutting attempts I finally had an accurate one and hoped it would fit.

I was also fortunate that So Cal still offered the old art deco switches like the original. And after some searching, we finally located the correct 3-spoke, track steering wheel and matching column tube from Limeworks. I was relieved that nostalgic parts like these were still available from these fine suppliers. 

 
Gordon checks the frame rails for accuracy and fit.  

A Rolling Chassis

After a lot of trial and error work by Gordon and other, the chassis was just about together. One thing we had to deal with though, was frame covers. In the process of building the original car, Norm hacked the frame up pretty badly. The front of the frame had been cut off then welded to the rear and ‘pretty’ was not at the top of Norm’s priorities. To cover the ‘ugly’, Norm had a set of frame covers made. These added to the distinctive look of the little pickup and Reno Rods was able to faithfully duplicate them.

Johnnie next tackled reversing Buick rims and adding the Ford centers; something he used to do a lot in the ‘old days’. To complete the authentic look we looked to Coker Tires for the hubcaps and rubber that would meet the road. You can’t beat Coker Tires for quality whether you’re building a rod or restoring a classic. They look great while improving ride and handling.

 
  The exhaust turned out to have more twists
and turns than a badly written novel.
 
  One of the only times where a model was used
to spec out a full sized car.

Danbury Mint To The Rescue

The exhaust was proving to be more than a challenge. Norm’s car had each of the four exhaust tubes capped and in turn had a pipe running from each to a manifold under the car, which snaked around to a pair of mufflers. Then the pipe reappeared at the back wheels and jutted up to the edge of the bed making a 90 degree bend to the rear. The problem was that none of the photos we had showed all this detail and talking with Norm and Franco only provided hints and not dimensions. Franco had spent a lot of time with Norm when he did his clone and pretty much got the exhaust right. However, now the car was out of reach somewhere in Northern California.

Then, we got a big break. I learned that Danbury Mint was going to be offering the Kookie Kar as it’s 2009 Annual Limited Edition model. Danbury’s Limited Edition offerings represent a special model of a milestone rod or custom and limited to only one year of production. I knew Danbury was fastidious in making their models to original specs. Through a call to Rick Hauman of their marketing department I learned that they had taken careful measurements of von Franco’s clone including the underside. After sharing my passion for getting it right, Danbury agreed to send me a preproduction model. We will be forever grateful to them. Then it was up to Reno’s Chris Gutierrez to fabricate a working set checking back with the model from time to time. He did a masterful job.

I was personally aware of Danbury Mint detail from the models of the California Kid and the Little Deuce Coupe models I already owned. However, that didn’t prepare me for when the Kookie’s Kar arrived. It was spot on and the detailed underside cleared away the mystery of the exhaust system. So, other than Reveille having Darryl Starbird build the ‘Big T’, from their kit of the same, this marked one of the few times that a full size clone was specked from a desktop model.

Trying To Keep It Real

I had planned to use all original Ford steel in this build and the frame, body, bed and grille cowl were all Henry original’s. However the tailgate I had proved to be too far gone to resurrect. The folks at Gaslight Auto Parts were generous enough to supply an accurate replacement. Gaslight has just about any Ford part you’d need for a restoration. I sent it along with the chopped the bed to be mounted long with the rear frame covers, as were on the original.

When I first began my talks with Reno Rods, I had a set of ’50 Buick taillight assemblies but couldn’t locate good lens. Johnnie, in turn, had a set of good Buick lens but not the assemblies. It was Kismet.

So, along with a copy of the same 1957 California license plate provided by LICENSEPLATES.TV of Fort Lauderdale, Fl and a license frame from Speedway, the backside was coming alive.

 
The chromed 97s looked gorgeous.  

Carbs

Next was what to do about the centerpiece of Norms ’52 Caddy engine; the Stromberg 97s.

Reno Rods and Customs had a few and I had a couple.  Good enough to rebuild, but not in any condition to chrome. We considered a couple of options; none suitable.  Finally a call to Stromberg Carburetor in the UK brought an answer. 

Clive Prew, the new owner of Stromberg agreed to supply a set of the new jugs. The current line Stromberg 97s are built on new improved molds and look exactly like the originals.  Even original parts will fit. However the new 97s also come with a host of improvements, which make for improved performance with none of the historic gas leaks. We had to wait a short time for the new owners to gear up a new production facility, but once they were up to full potential, they came up with the goods for us.

After some back and forth emailing to England, it was decided that Clive would send the carb tops to Advanced Plating in Nashville via their warehouse in the US, and then put a rush on the bodies and all the stainless and brass parts – screws, linkage & bolts - and send it all to Advanced in Tennessee for polishing and chroming. After chroming (Advanced did a awesome job), everything was sent back to England so they could chase out all the treads and assemble the new parts onto newly painted bases. They even had to remachine the bases because the chromed venturis were now bigger where they slip in from the top. Then they shipped the four carbs back to the US and Reno Rods' shop.  A lot of work, and a big thanks goes out to Clive and Stromberg for all their help. The 97's are spectacular and Stromberg is now aiming to offer similar beauties through local distributors.  Check out their website, www.stromberg-97.com.

Chroming

Next, was to locate someone to help out with the chroming. I took a chance and went to the best, Advanced Plating in Nashville, Tennessee. Why send our parts so far? Well, whenever you see a Ridler contender or any other world class car, the chroming has generally been done by Advanced Plating. Their work can be found on the finest rods in America.

After listening to my explanation of the project Tom Sullivan of their Sales & Marketing agreed to help out. Though there wasn’t a great deal of chrome work on the original, what was there was very visible so it had to be done right. Reno crated up the front end components and sent them off for some Advanced magic.

Unfortunately, we had some setbacks; a common occurrence in projects such this one. It resulted in some unfinished parts being left behind; namely the exhaust, the custom windshield and other bric a brak. We were told that Advanced needed four weeks for a turn around, but by the time we crated the remaining parts it would be too late. I sheepishly called Tom and on a bended knee explained our predicament. He listened and then said, “Don’t worry, crate them up today and we’ll take care of it”. This is the kind of professionalism that separates Advanced from other plating firms.

 
It was starting to take on the Kookie Kar’s distinctive rake.  

Well, that about sums up where we are at now. The body and frame covers will be coming out of paint this week and Reno’s rascals will begin final assembly. Meanwhile, I am working on the display.

Everyone is burning the midnight oil and as long as the good Lord is willing and the river doesn’t rise we’ll see you at Autorama.  Be sure and stop by say ‘hello’, meet Norm Grabowski and get a signed poster of his milestone car.

Until then, think a good thought and don’t forget to put off putt’n off.

Well, it’s been a long road; 52 years to be exact, that car in the 1957 Car Craft Magazine bored into my psyche. It surfaced from time to time until, by chance, the embers were fanned to life by Johnnie Overbay of Reno Rod and Custom in Oklahoma City. If it weren’t for that chance encounter with Johnnie, my obsession would still be something sloshing around in my head.

It was now about 4 ½ weeks until Autorama: the venue where I first planned to field the car and there was still plenty of work to be done.

Problems Crop Up

When Norm first built his car in ‘52, it was ahead of its time. It was one of the first to have a suicide front end, to use four-bar link and the first chopped model T roadster pickup. But this was 1952 and even cars that were in top car shows were crude compared to the standards of today. You’d think that would make it easier; but no!

To wit, we weren’t sure exactly how Norm did the linkage for the 4x2’s. We heard it was an ‘H’ pattern, but the only available photos were less than revealing. Also, we came across an early interior photo where, instead of the spoon pedal like we saw in the Franco clone, it appeared as if Norm used a chrome bolt and nut. Keep in mind, this was the 50’s. Problem was Norm didn’t recall doing that. Do we follow Norm or our photographs?

Paint

Originally, I planned to do the painting and interior here in Michigan. I had already spoken with Randy of Randy Church Restorations and he was prepared to do the body finishing and paint. I then would be in a position to do the flame job myself. But, because of the logistics and timing for Autorama, it was finally decided to do them both there in Oklahoma.

Reno’s would paint the frame, engine, wheels and candy apple on the rear axle, but the body paint was to be the responsibility of Jason Voth of Resurrection Paint & Body Works just down the street. Resurrection was a relatively new shop but did beautiful work and they were keen for the project.

Also, since were going for the best, we wanted to use PPG paint. Now Norm squirted the original with a ’56 Dodge Royal Blue but PPG assured us they could match it using their new water based paint. Because of the new Federal emissions relation and the fact that water based paint does not emit harmful vapors, it will be the paint of the future and PPG is in the front row with making it look as good as our past fare. However, as it turned out, it would not get here from Germany in time, so they provided a traditional single step.

When we received the first painted frame pieces from Resurrection they were spot on beautiful and heralded even better things to come. Then, Reno used Rick Knight, a local striper to lay down the lines. Doug Burba held a handful of old photos while hovering and directing every stroke. The original look slowly came alive.

Interior

Midwest Automotive & Trim was selected to stitch up an interior. Headman, Cory Bennett has a local reputation for quality work and he was eager to be part of the project.

But then another problem developed. Because of other work commitments, Resurrection Body was two weeks behind in finishing painting our parts thus shredding our schedule. We were sent some of the smaller parts, but the lack of a bucket was holding up the final assembly.  Also, now the local one-shot slinger, Rick Knight was out recovering from surgery.

Before we resorted to pulling out what little hair we all have left, Midwest Automotive & Trim’s Cory Bennett saved time if not the day by going to Resurrection’s shop to take measurements and make patterns. Thanks Cory.

Crunch Time

We were down to two weeks and a handful of days now before we had to set up at Autorama. But we were swinging into high gear.  We had received the first batch of chrome from Advanced to assemble the front end and the guys at Reno were literally blown away. Johnnie said it was the finest chrome work he’s seen in his over 50 years of rod building.

Finally, the body arrived from the painter and assembly moved ahead at a frantic pace. Before the interior went in, Hushmat insulation was installed. Hushmat is the easiest automotive insulator to use. But my primary reason for using it in the Kookie’s Kar was as a sound deadener and to give the door some heft when swinging shut. My hat’s off to the Reno shop for the dedication and long hours they put in to complete the car in time.

Finally, Autorama

The car was completed just 2 days prior to our Autorama set up time. Just enough time for it to leave the shop in Oklahoma and make the journey. I was anxious to see the car. I watched for Johnnie and the trailer all morning. I felt like a kid waiting for the mailman to deliver his Ovaltine secret decoder ring. When it arrived, Johnnie insisted that I restrain myself a while longer and wait until they unloaded it at Autorama so I could see the complete car and get the full effect.

Now the experience of seeing your hot rod for the first time, a car you obsessed over for over 50 years, is not the same as when you’re the one doing the building. When building my ’31 Ford pickup, I could see the finished product coming together little by little each week so the little “uus’ and ‘ahs’ were spread over time. However, there is nothing that can replace the thrill of seeing yo9ur dream fresh, all at once.  Couple that with the car being a 52-year obsession and you have an absolute mind blowing, heart-stopping event perhaps only rivaled by the first time I saw it on T.V.  It was better than picking up any new car I ever had.

We completed the set up of the car and display and the show opened as usual at noon. The display was fabulous and we received many compliments on it. We had a DVD on the car’s history and build running under a simulated canopy of 77 Sunset Strip. Kevin Rocheleau of Sign-A-Rama in Brighton produces the very creative and colorful show signs and I was asked many times where I got them. Also, American Fleet and Retail Graphics of Ontario, CA reproduced a 4’x6’ banner of the ’57 Car Craft cover that inspired the build and together they classed up our display.

The car was an instant people magnate and continuously drew a crowd. Autorama’s Dick Forton gave us a great spot in the 2nd row right around the corner from the Barris booth.

Then it was time for me to head to the airport and pickup Norm Grabowski. He doesn’t do very many shows and even fewer in cold climes. It had been five or six years since he had last been to Autorama, so this was a real achievement and a big thanks goes to Forton & Larivee for picking up the cost of his air fair and room.

After checking Norm and his friend Kerry Peterson into the Pontchartrain, it was time for him to see the car for the first time. I held m y breath as Norm circled the car a few times; poked around inside and scrutinized the rear axle area before announcing it to be the closest anyone has come to reproducing his original Kookie car.

Later in the show when a fan asked him if it was like his original car, Norm said, “ it’s better than my car”. And with that comment, my day was made even though I was suffering with a cold & cough. By Saturday I had developed laryngitis. I apologize to those of you who tried to hold a conversation with me sounding like Mickey Mouse after had been kicked in the genitals.


 
 
Norm always had a crowd around him and generously posed with people and signed anything thrust in front of him along with the posters he brought.   
 
Later, Chip Foose and Roy Brizio came along and had to try out our little milestone redux.  

Norm Grabowski was, well, Norm! Laughing, joking and hamming it up with folks, Norm never mentally left the 50’s. He always had a crowd around him and generously posed with people and signed anything thrust in front of him along with the posters he brought.

I learned I wasn’t alone with my obsession. Many a car person told him how he and his car were the inspiration for them getting into hot rodding when they were a kid. Later, Chip Foose and Roy Brizio came along and had to try out our little milestone redux. I was also pleased at the number of folks who told me they had been following our build on Hotrodhotline. It’s always gratifying to learn someone reads the words you lay down.

Then it was award time. Though the car didn’t take first place, a 2nd place didn’t dampen the experience for me. I had the opportunity to spend time with my childhood hero Norm Grabowski and meet a lot of nice people. All in all it was a great time. The car now heads south for a series of NSRA shows with PPG paont, Daryl Starbird’s annual event and Louisville.

 

 

 

 

Think a good thought and don’t forget to put off puttin’ off.

I am grateful to these fine people & suppliers, whose assistance and donations made this clone of the Grabowski T possible.


 
All Metal Finishing, Marine City, Ken Hancock– Providing the polishing & special clear powder coating

American Fleet & Retail, Brian Stewart – providing Car Craft banner

Danbury Mint, Rick Hauman, - Pre-production model used to spec out exhaust

Gas Light – Providing the tailgate
Hushmat, Tim McCarthy  - Providing sound deadener

LICENSEPLATESTV – ’56 California License plate

Limeworks Speed Shop, Steve Dennish - Providing steering Wheel & Column

Midwest Automotive & Trim, Cory Bennett, – Interior

Patmai Polishing, Sam, Brett & Jim – Providing engine trim polishing

Resurrection Body & Paint Works, Jason Voth – Paint Job

Roto-faze, Joe Panek, – For Refitting the Roto-faze Distributor

Sign-A-Rama, Brighton, MI – Providing all professional show signs

SoCal – Providing switches & headlamps

Speedway Motors – Providing Gauges & misc parts

Stromberg, Ltd., Clive Prew – Stromberg ’97 carburetors

Traditional Speed Supply & Kiwi Connection, Craig Cote – Help in obtaining the Jackson Roto-faze Distributor

Wilcap & Sharp Speed Equipment, Pat McQuire, – Horne manifold

Joe Bolek & John Murray – Building Sunset Strip Canopy