This is the car that started a cult - the very first T-bucket hot-rod. Picture: Mecum

Indianapolis, Indiana - Wood-carver, car customiser and actor Norm Grabowski has a lot to answer for. Almost 70 years ago, he built the very first T-bucket hot rod, defining both a style and an era, and starting a cult that endures to this day.

And this is it: the legendary, long-lost Kookie Kar, which went missing in the middle 1960s and was thought no longer to exist, until it turned up unexpectedly when the show-car collection of the late Jim Skonzakis, of Dayton Ohio - better known as Jim Street - was recently put up for auction.

Grabowski was invalided out of military service in 1952 at the age of 19, and the first thing he wanted was what any teenager has always wanted - a fast car. But, like most teenagers, he was also flat broke, so what he got was a $100 clunker, a 1931 Ford Model A pickup that had already been fitted with a 3.6-litre V8 from the later Model 18.

The first thing he did was to throw away the entire body, and shorten and  lower the rear chassis; then he dropped the front half of a scrap 1922 Model T Touring body onto the frame rails and shortened the original Model A load bed until it (just) cleared the 1941 Ford rear axle and wheels, for roadworthy purposes.

'Lightning Bug' as it was in 1958, with Dodge Red Ram Hemi V8 and four Stromberg carburettors. Picture: Mecum

The steering came from a scrap milk truck (hence the upright steering column which became one of the defining characteristics of the breed). The Flathead V8, good for all of 48kW, was ditched in favour of a 1952 Cadillac 5.4-litre overhead valve V8, rated at 119kW (‘borrowed’, legend has it, from the family sedan!) topped off with a GMC 3-71 supercharger from a Detroit Diesel truck engine and driving through a 1939 three-speed Ford top-loader bakkie gearbox.

Nobody knows how much power the tiny (by the American  standards of the time) mini-pickup, which Grabowski christened ‘Lightning Bug’ was putting out, but it could hit a genuine 160km/h in less than 400 metres from a standing start, quicker than any US-built production car of the early 1950s.

But that wasn’t enough for Grabowski, who later fitted a 1956 Dodge 4.4-litre Red Ram Hemi V8 with a Horne intake and no less than four Stromberg double-barrel carburettors.

The 'Kookie Kar' with the original Mr Cool, Gerald Lloyd 'Kookie' Kookson III, played by Ed Byrnes. Picture: Mecum

It was in this form that the car became one of the stars of television’s first ‘detective’ show, 77 Sunset Strip, where it was driven by ultra-cool teenage hipster Gerald Lloyd Kookson III (played by Ed Byrnes), the progenitor of every cool teenager in TV history from the Fonz to Tony Manero.

The show was a massive hit and ‘Kookie’, constantly combing his pompadour hairstyle, become a cult figure, as did the ‘Kookie Kar’, spawning hundreds, if not thousands, of look-alike ‘T-bucket’ hot rods, including one painstakingly exact replica, built by Von Franco from magazine photos and articles long after the original had vanished.

Grabowski wouldn’t let anybody else drive his car, and he soon moved from stunt driving to acting, appearing in more than 40 films between 1958 and 1981 (his final film appearance was as Petoski in The Cannonball Run) - but he was better known as a wood-carver, creating his signature skull gear knobs for custom car-builders all over the United States.

As it is now, with twin superchargers and dual rear slicks. Picture: Mecum

Like most custom cars, the Kookie Kar was eventually sold to finance the next project, for just $3000 dollars (then about R2800) in the early 1960s, to Skonzakis, who cleaned it up and resprayed it but kept it otherwise as it was in its final ‘Lightning Bug’ form, with twin superchargers and dual rear slicks.

And it stayed in his private museum, where very, very few people even knew it still existed (a 2005 retrospective on Hot Rod Network.com of the car that started the T-bucket movement was written around photos of the Franco replica) until Skonzakis died and his heirs decided to put the entire collection up for auction. Amazingly, in the 66 years if its life, the car has had just two owners. 

Back after more than half a century, the very first T-bucket will go under the hammer, with no reserve, at the Mecum Original Spring Classic sale, at the Indiana State Fairground in Indianapolis from 15-19 May.

IOL Motoring