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(Re)Kreating the Kookie Kar in OK

(Re)Kreating the Kookie Kar in OK


The “koolest” character in the old “77 Sunset Strip” TV show was Gerald Lloyd Kookson III (Edd Byrnes), a jive-talking parking lot attendant with dreams of being a private investigator who helped the series’ stars solve cases. “Kookie” worked at Dino’s, a nightclub near the detective agency and drove a Ford T-Bucket hot rod. Viewers lusted to borrow his car and his comb (“Kookie, Kookie, Lend me your comb!” was a record Byrnes released).

The “Kookie Kar” that made “77 Sunset Strip” a hit with car savvy fans started life as a $100 Model A Ford that hot rod god Norm Grabowski purchased in 1952 and later bolted a ’22 Model T body to. The car launched its film career in 1955, but the 1958-1963 TV show “77 Sunset Strip” made it famous and inspired LIFE magazine to do a hot-rod-themed issue that featured the Kookie Kar. Millions of people discovered how cool it was to drive a hot rod.

According to Johnnie Overbay, the owner of Reno Rods & Customs in Oklahoma City, OK, the original Kookie Kar still exists, but it’s been so extensively modified that it would be impossible to return it to its famous form. Overbay knows this because he and his crew—Doug Burba, Chuck Warman, Gordon Burba, Chris Gutierrez and Bill Norris—spent three years researching a nearly exact replica of the car that they constructed over a period of 13 months.

The original Polynesian head on the shifter has been replaced by a plastic skull.

The lanky Oklahoman described his classy clone as a copy of the Kookie Car as it looked in 1955, which is basically the way it looked in the “77 Sunset Strip” TV show. It’s the front half of a 1922 Ford Model T fore-door Touring Car powered by a 1952 Cadillac 331-cid V-8. Overbay was asked by a customer to recreate the car from the TV show to all the standards of the 1955-1957 period.

Overbay knew that the car had been cloned before, but he had the opportunity to confer with Norm Grabowski, the original owner of the car, who told him that his copy is the most accurate one. Overbay says it was relatively easy to research the car since it was very famous and had a lot of media coverage and a lot of magazine coverage. He has 11 or 12 vintage magazines that the car appeared in. “The car was also in the movies and the TV program,” he told us. “We were able to pick up details from those, but the car was always changing in detail, so we had to pick a time period that we wanted to copy back to. We copied back to Car Craft April 1957 and our car is correct to that time.”

 The only differences between Overbay’s clone and the TV car are the shifter, the exhaust and possibly the oil filter. The original car’s shifter was a Polynesian lady’s head, while Overbay used a Disneyland skull as a substitute. On the TV car, the exhaust came out on the left side instead of going down the pickup bed like it does on the clone. The oil filter was missing on the TV car. Overbay says that the blue paint and flames are the same as on the TV car.

Finned Offy valve covers dress up the old Caddy V-8.

One day a man from Detroit found Reno Rods & Customs on the Internet. He called and said that he wanted to build a T-bucket that was a clone of the Kookie Kar. Overbay agreed to the concept. The build took three years to research and collect parts for. The actual construction phase took about 13 months. Overbay says his crew and he loved every minute of it.

Re-popping the car wasn’t easy because there were many details. Trying to get it accurate was difficult. Overbay claims his clone is “accurate down to a quarter inch on everything we did.” He had a hard time figuring out the correct wheelbase. The exhaust system was also difficult. It took four weeks to fabricate the exhaust system alone since the exhaust setup on the TV car wasn’t really well documented. Nobody had ever shot photos of the bottom of the car.

The correct distributor was hard to find. It was one of 30 Jackson Roto-Faze dual-point distributors ever made. Overbay had searchers looking for one on the Internet. He finally tracked one down after three years of searching. It was down in New Zealand and the gentleman delivered it to Los Angeles. Then, the son of the original builder of the distributor rebuilt it and donated it to the build.

Jackson distributor was tracked down in New Zealand

Overbay met people who knew a lot about the Kookie Kar. He wanted to get it right. He says the paint job has imperfections because the original Kookie Kar didn’t have a per5fect paint job. The interior is not done to current standards but only to the standards you see in the old magazines from the ‘50s.

The car made its debut at the Detroit Autorama in March 2009. Overbay says he was just overwhelmed by men who knew about the car and women who remembered it from “77 Sunset Strip.”  Overbay said that Edd Byrnes was still around, but hadn’t seen the clone. Norm Grabowski saw it and helped with the research. Overbay stayed with him for three or four days. “Norm’s still a kid at heart,” he told Hotrod Hotline. “”It’s just great to see how he knows so many people in the industry and how the industry knows him — because he’s like us.”

Hot rod collector Bruce Meyer has seen the car. Chip Foose has been around it, too. Overbay has pictures of Chip Foose and Roy Brizio in the car. Gene Winfield, Darryl Starbird and Troy Trepenour came to see it.

Most T-buckets are 1923 models, but the Kookie Kar was actually the front half of a 1922 Model T Touring Car that’s different in the cowl area and in other details. It does have a wood frame in the body that the sheet metal mounts to, but the suicide front end and the radical rake and the flames were way ahead of their time in ’57. The exposed engine and all of the chrome were also ahead of the curve for the time. It still has the original style suspension–all Ford underneath–and a Cadillac motor hooked to a ’39 Lincoln gearbox.

The clone is a running car, but it sees limited use to avoid problems like the chrome on the exhausts getting ruined. Overbay said the car was never driven hard and that a possible sale of the vehicle was in the offing. He couldn’t discuss the details of that, since the negotiations were still going strong.

TThe original Kookie Kar.