Billy B and the Fad Ts
Bill Burnham was one of hot rodding’s greatest gifts. A highboy guy through and through, Burnham had a string bitchin fenderless roadsters which spanned decades. He was a pied piper of sorts – a renaissance man who was as genuine as the day is long. He was a tireless promoter of the hot rod hobby. He didn’t trailer his cars. He drove them across thousands of miles of wide-open spaces and loved writing about those escapades.
Burnham was a brilliant writer. From 1980 until his death in August 1996, Burnham shared his unexpurgated views with fellow rodders in his “Street Rodding In Bill’s Eye” column for Street Rodder magazine.
Goodguys hired Bill Burnham in the early-’90s to spearhead the National Rodder’s Rep program, which still runs strong today. He was the best recruiter you could ever have. Along the way, Goodguys also hired Burnham’s son-in-law, Harry Daviess, who remains a key cog in the wheel of Goodguys as the vice president of event operations.
Bill passed away suddenly in 1996 during the weekend of the West Coast Nationals due to complications of a heart attack. After his services, it was decided we would pick a fenderless roadster each year in Pleasanton to honor his memory, preferably a ’29 Ford. The Bill Burnham Memorial Award features a bronzed version of his famous baby blue Ford FE-powered ’29 Ford highboy. The award is selected by the family and often presented by his grandchildren Daniel and Danae Daviess.
Bill would go on road trips to our events – he seldom took a plane. One of the hilarious things about Bill’s jaunts was how light he packed. He would literally bring a few pair of skivvies, a tank top, one pair of pants, some socks, and a toothbrush. That was it for a 10-day journey. It fit into a 24-square-inch attache. He was a legend.
To give you an idea of Bill Burnham’s wit and wisdom, we wanted to share one of his “Street Rodding in Bill’s Eye” columns. We are all aware of how hot rodding goes through fads. Here is Bill in a 1984 column talking about “fad” T-buckets and their alleged demise. We know you’ll enjoy it.
Street Rodding in Bill’s Eye: T-Buckets
Many of us have been a party to such comments as: “T-buckets are dead,” “just a starter car,” or “BB gun in the world of .357 Magnums.”
No way, Jose! T-buckets are here to stay! The fellows who poke fun at Ts are either people who have never owned or driven one, or they are converts to more conventional rods who took a lot of heat while they were bucketeers.
Back in 1955 “Normie Poo” Grabowski started the “T” craze, though “modifieds” had been on the street for many years. Later, “TV Tommy” Ivo built a beautiful bucket (seen above) that became the aesthetic standard. During the late-’60s, Andy Brizio put these cars all over the map with his “Instant T.”
If there is any one piece of machinery that is predominantly responsible for this hobby, it has to be the Juke Box on wheels, the fascinating glitter bug of rodding. The T roadster has probably enticed more people into our ranks than any other single type of hot rod. This is particularly true on the West Coast and in the sunbelt regions. Since most of our publications originate in California, the magazines were full of these fancy little critters. Look around you – there are still tons and tons of buckets and more being built every day. If this is a fad, it sure has lasted longer than designer jeans, disco, and resto-rods!
I guess you really can’t speak with authority on this subject unless you’ve owned one and if that’s an accepted criteria, then I must be an expert, because I’ve had several. My first choice for a rod was a bucket. I built it in four months for less than $500 – painted, upholstered, and running under its own power. When I strapped this 150-horsepower skateboard under my butt it was FUNNNNNNNN!! I drove it everywhere and looked for excuses to drive it even more.
Out on the highway I encountered the eerie feeling of wondering just what in the world I was doing there, cruising along with all of the two- and three-ton masses of Detroit steel. Those monsters could crush my fragile $90 fiberglass body and never be the wiser. Looking through the front suspension, the carb linkage, the shaking radiator, and the rotating wheels and tires gave me the feeling of complete control. I could hear the engine, watch the fan spin, and smell the VHT burning off my homemade headers. About the only things to worry about were flat tires, running out of gas, and the kookoo birds that would drive alongside me, creeping over into my lane for a better look at my toy. For the pure thrill and feel of driving, there’s nothing like a bucket. I remember it this way: My Ts were somewhat akin to driving dragsters, while my coupes, sedans and restos gave me the impression of making a warmup pass in a K/Stock Automatic.
Attention wise, my T-buckets and tub were like flypaper compared to the coupes, sedans, and highboys I’ve owned. No one ever asked me who did the restoration work on my T but there was always some dummy who wanted to know who restored my antique (highboy or sedan) car. A T-bucket is obviously some kind of hot rod. My Chevy resto sedan was simply just a fixed-up old car. The only adverse comments I can recall about the Ts were when little kids used to cry out, “Hey mister, like yer dune buggy!” Now that did hurt.
It would be fair of you to ask, if these puddle jumpers are so neat, why don’t you still own one? A couple of reasons immediately come to mind. First of all, they’re a very easy car for a family to grow out of. Two adults and a couple of little kids are just about all that can be crammed into a buck¬et. Under those circumstances, you may have to sacrifice some comfort on a round trip over 100 miles.
Of course, it goes without saying that a single guy or a couple with only one child can have a ton of fun for a long time. The other reason is also just as simple. Buckets can beat the hell out of you weather¬-wise, and I’ll be the first to admit it. While any open car can pretty well use you up, a bucket does it just a little bit faster. The older you get, the faster the cramps come and the longer it takes the old bod to recover from the rigors of a 1000-mile round trip.
You might read into this that T-buckets are just “starter cars,” i.e., first rods, but I still won’t believe it. Your first car could just as well have been a Deuce highboy that became too small for your family and too torturous for your body, leading you to choose a sedan for your next, or even backup street rod. I’ll bet there are some rodders out there that have started with coupes or sedans, graduating up to a T just to find out what open car rodding was all about. (That’s what happened to me.)
They’re still just a fad? Not on your life! Street rodding itself is just a fad com¬pared to the long-suffering T-bucket. Rodding has been an on-again, off-again sport since its inception in the late-’30s, but the T was one of the first signs of rodding and one that still remains with us. Even before the old black-and-white issues of Hot Rod Magazine hit the newsstands there were T modifieds running the dry lakes and cruising the streets of Southern California. The late-’40s car shows featured track Ts and their counterparts, the street-equipped modifieds.
Even during the rodding depression, circa 1958 to 1968, the T, along with the magazines and car shows that featured them, kept the embers of rodding alive. T-buckets, with a few Bantams thrown in, rekindled the fires of rodding via those terrible Altered Roadsters of drag racing — Wild Willy, Nanook, Pure Hell, and Speed Sport, right? Kellison, Bird, Tex, Ai and Archer supplied the body shells and Whammo! The rodding depression was over. The kit car swept the country. Suddenly, there were so many rods around that it dawned on some to start clubs and associations.
The next time you are tempted to belittle the bucket, just remember you are picking on the apple pie, motherhood, and American flag of rodding. Shape up, boy! We’re talking about a type of hot rod that was here before you got here and will be here long after you and your N.O.S steel luggage rack have gone and turned to dust. Shucks, they’re so much fun I’m going to build another one.