In 1959, the most popular detective show on the planet featured a jive-talking parking lot attendant who made up his own vocabulary and drove a flamed Model T hot rod. Gerald Lloyd "Kookie" Kookson (played by actor Edd Byrnes) was more popular than the two "name" stars of 77 Sunset Strip, particularly with young people.
He invented cool phrases like antsville (a place packed with people) and long green (money), and he constantly combed his hair, leading to a hit record by Connie Stevens called "Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb)." Adults didn't get it, but kids sure did.
A character this eccentric had to have appropriate wheels, and Warner Brothers chose a scrumptious Model T hot rod built by Norm Grabowski. Although it was also seen in dozens of other movies and TV shows, that rod would become known as the "Kookie Kar." More importantly, it signaled a sea change for hot rods in general. Previously portrayed as chariots for thugs and juvenile delinquents, the rod had now become stylish transport for the terminally cool! And ever since, the Model T hot rod has been an icon on par with Harley-Davidson and Duesenberg in the history of transportation. How it attained those heights is a fascinating story.
EvolutionHenry Ford introduced the Model T in '08, and it quickly became the best-selling car in the world. While Ford is erroneously credited with inventing mass production, many of Ford's early competitors also featured interchangeable parts, simplified design, and an orderly floor plan. The real breakthrough was when Ford introduced the moving production line in '13. Model T production jumped to 300,000 cars per year in '14, while all the other American car companies combined only built 200,000! Ford soon used Model T running gear in a line of commercial vehicles and trucks.
Introduced at $850, the Model T's price kept dropping as volume increased until the '25 model hit $290. No wonder they were the hottest thing since cold beer! Early Model Ts were also raced with great success, but by the end of production in '27, it was no longer considered a hot performer. In fact, Ford stubbornly clung to the Model T long after competitors had moved on to superior models. The Model A that followed was a much better car than a Model T, but no improvement over more stylish models from archrival Chevrolet.
As buyers began to move up to new models, there was a glut of hand-me-down Model Ts available to the used car market (more than 18 million had been sold). Tired and damaged models got so cheap they began to fall into the hands of speed-crazed teenagers, which lead to coining a new term for the hopped-up jalopies: hot rods.
The basic Model T body was in a state of constant change from '08 to '27. There were numerous body styles, including roadsters, coupes, delivery trucks, touring cars, and runabouts. But many buyers soon yearned for something more exotic and distinctive than the ever-present Model T. Sound familiar? Soon custom bodies, grilles, and trim parts were introduced by the fledgling aftermarket industry.
The first kit cars appeared in the early '20s, with aftermarket Speedster sports car bodies intended for the Model T chassis. These were built by many companies, but some of the best known were sold by Mercury and Ames. The Hine-Watt Company in Chicago sold the Happy Sport body for $97 in the '20s. It was a classy roadster with mohair upholstery. Automotive magazines of the era also published plan sets for handmade bodywork to fit the Model T.
Alongside these custom bodies were thousands of speed parts that grew into a $60 million industry during the '20s and '30s. Ironically, the best racing versions of the Model T four-banger were built by Louis and Arthur Chevrolet, who sold them under the Frontenac name.
Young, cash-challenged hot rodders began with whatever Model T they could buy or trade their horse for, and experimented with ways to make it go faster. The easiest (and cheapest) way to improve the power-to-weight ratio was to discard every body panel that wasn't absolutely necessary. First went the fenders, then the hood and bumpers. The definitive T-bucket was starting to develop.
Although there were plenty of go-fast parts for the Model T and Model A four-cylinder engines, the biggest news for performance fans was the '32 Ford with its flathead V-8. Soon these cheap and tunable mills began to find their way from junkyards to waiting Model Ts and, since the cars were so basic in design, it was relatively simple to swap major components around.
Soon Model T bodies were attached to other chassis, and grilles from other Ford models were added. Overnight the speed equipment industry discovered the flathead V-8 and the market was flooded with high-compression heads, multiple carburetor manifolds, radical bumpsticks, and high-voltage ignition systems. Others shoehorned GMC sixes and the early Cadillac, Oldsmobile, and Chrysler OHV V-8s into the Model T's narrow framerails. But where to race 'em?
Racing The Hot RodThe earliest places to race hot rods were the dry lake beds of Southern California and dirt ovals. Although Model A and '32 Ford rods (as well as a small number of rods built from other cars) soon joined the Model T on the tracks, T-buckets were the backbone of early speed events. Dry lakes cars emphasized streamlining and power, so stroker cranks, supercharging, and nitro took precedence over other considerations. In order to cut wind resistance, bodies were sometimes narrowed by taking a cut lengthwise down the middle of the body, or channeled (dropped down over the framerails).
The Model T was also active on circle tracks, where a new class was invented for them. Called Roadster Racing, the bodies were mostly topless Model Ts, although other frame-rails (like the stronger Essex) were allowed. Roadster racing was extremely popular in the immediate postwar years. Frequently, these racers were fitted with noses and grilles borrowed from the classic front-engined Champ cars that dominated the Indy 500 at the time. This body style came to be known as a Track Roadster.
When drag racing kicked off in the early '50s, Model T rods were once again the backbone of the sport, sporting every possible engine combination from near-stock flatheads to blown Chrysler Hemis under (and through) the hoods.
AcceptanceThe most significant event in the history of the hot rod took place in January '48, when the movement got its own magazine. The first issue of Hot Rod showed that home-brewed performance had arrived big time. Needless to say, the cover car was a Model T, a track roadster driven by Eddie Hulse. Hop Up magazine followed three years later, and once again a Model T rod graced the cover of the premier issue.
Soon Model T bodies were a popular starting point for show cars, racers, and street machines. Through the late '50s there were still plenty of derelict Model Ts lounging in fields and barns across America, just itching for a second life as a rod. But by the early '60s the sheetmetal used in these Ts was approaching 40 years old, and a saveable chassis was getting harder to find. The first fiberglass T-Bucket bodies soon appeared, built by companies like Ford Duplicators, Kellison, La Dawri, and Cal-Automotive.
In '64, Dragmaster, which had previously built chassis for dragsters, introduced their Streetster T Roadster, a kit hot rod with a fiberglass body and a race-derived chassis intended for street use. This kit was later offered by Eelco, a California speed parts company, as the T Streetster. The chassis was made from round tubes arranged as a perimeter ladder-frame mounting '32-48 Ford suspension at both ends with '56-57 Ford steering. Engine mounts could be ordered for Ford or Chevy engines.
Another early T-bucket kit was built by Bird Automotive, which sold a body, interior pod, and chassis kit for $399.95 in '66. In '67, Speedway Motors paid homage to Grabowski with the KooKie Kar T-bucket kit, a body and chassis combo that sold for an amazing $139. Prolific kit car manufacturer Astra (builder of Kellison-derived coupes) also had a Model T hot rod kit called the Astra Tee which they introduced in the mid-'60s. There were also a number of dune buggies with Model T grilles and noses, including the Barris buggies and the Berry Mini-T.
Over the years, dozens of companies introduced T-bucket kits that were much more sophisticated than the primitive early efforts. Speedway Motors still sells a variety of Model T kits, including traditional roadsters and a track roadster called the Track-T. Total Performance in Connecticut launched their Model T rod kits in '71, offering '23-27 roadster and roadster pickup truck bodies. They even came out with a Pro-Street T kit featuring a '27 Model T body with Model A fenders and a serious performance chassis. California Custom Roadsters, run by the Keifer family in Southern California, opened in '69 and is still turning out new T-buckets today in Chino.
Today the Model T hot rod, both the early '23-25 model and the '26-27, is as popular as ever. Although it shares the rod hobby with the Model A, the Deuce, and other prewar rods, to many enthusiasts the first is still the best!
Spotter's GuideAlthough there are many Model T body variations, the only ones offered in kit form are the '23-25 Ford roadster (with its short-cowl) and pickup, and the long-cowl '26-27 version. Some are currently being built by kit manufacturers, while others have been ignored for one reason or another. Some of the Ford body styles from the Model T era include:
Roadster (Also Runabout): An open two-seater with no doors (although fake door lines were molded in the body).The Deluxe option added one working door.
Touring: An open four-seater with a ragtop. The front seat on early models had door cutouts but no doors, while the back seat had a door on each side. Later models had removable front doors.
Coupe: A two-seat, fully enclosed coupe resembling a Model T with a phone booth tacked on top.
Town Car: A four-seat coupe with a fully enclosed rear seat section and a front seat with no doors or side glass. There was a glass divider between the seat sections.
Tourabout: A Touring with two separate roadster-style seat sections and no doors.
Landaulet: Similar to a Town Car but with an open-top driver compartment.
Torpedo Runabout: An open roadster with a longer hood, lower seating, and a pointed grille. One door on each side.
Open Runabout: Same as the Torpedo Runabout but with no doors.
Sedan: A four-seat coupe with two or four doors.
Coupelet: A drop-top convertible.
Roadster Pickup: A roadster body with a small pickup bed behind the cockpit.