The Ivo T-Bucket – Benchmark for a Classic Ride
The lowly Model T, Henry Ford’s gift to mass-produced transportation, launched millions of affordable automobiles, but it didn’t take long for hotted-up versions to appear. The early prewar days of motor racing were populated with all manner of modified Ts – lakes runners and dirt track racers, primarily.
Following the war, hot rodders mostly eschewed Ts for Model As, early-1940s Fords and, of course, the Flathead V8. So, while the Model T became a bit player, rodders’ infinite creativity turned the T on its head in the form of the T-bucket, a stubby, cartoonish embellishment that would have blown Henry’s mind.
Norm Grabowski, one of hot rodding’s most colorful figures, is credited with building the first true T-bucket roadster. It was built in the early 1950s, using the front half of a ’22 T touring and a shortened Model A pickup bed; power was a ’52 Caddy V8 topped with a 3-71 GMC blower. It is known as the “Kookie T” as it starred in the TV show “77 Sunset Strip,” driven by one Gerald Lloyd “Kookie” Kookson, a wise-cracking hipster.
The Kookie T directly inspired another famous T-bucket, that of drag racing luminary Tommy Ivo. Both were SoCal hot rodders. Both prowled the streets of the San Fernando Valley. Both hung out at Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank.
In 1956, Ivo spotted Grabowski’s T at Bob’s. The two struck up a conversation. Norm, who was as gregarious as he was protective, rebuffed Ivo’s overture to measure the car. Norm flatly refused. Undeterred, Tommy drove over to Norm’s house. Grabowski was gone, but the car was home, in the driveway. Tape measure in hand, Ivo crawled over and under the roadster. When Norm returned, he discovered Ivo’s two spindly legs jutting out from underneath.
Ivo sourced a ’25 T touring body out in Mohave desert. Before he could haul it home, he had to fell a Yucca that had grown up through it. Back in Burbank, he handled the entire frame and body construction – including grafting on the 18-inch Model A pickup bed. The original motor was a 322-inch Buick Nailhead (later bumped to 411), which he assembled with guidance from Nailhead honcho Max Balchowsky. (Years later, Ivo’s glory run as a hall-of-fame dragster pilot would be powered exclusively by Nailheads – one rail ran four at once!) Ivo sorted through a host of induction systems, eventually settling on Hilborn fuel injection. A ’37 LaSalle gearbox orchestrated the torque.
Aesthetically, the car featured a few unique touches. The brilliant white top sported a crescent-moon “outhouse” window and the radiator was topped by an early-style ornament cap. Most significantly, the pinstriping was applied by the storied Von Dutch himself.
“I only built it to have a cool rod to show off at Bob’s,” Ivo told the Goodguys Gazette recently. “It was never intended to be a race car.” Yet, that’s exactly what the car became – on the strip and on the street. He regularly took home Top Eliminator trophies from San Fernando and Lions raceways. Consistency was the bucket’s calling card, with 11-second E.T.s and a terminal velocity well over the century mark. As for street racing, its reputation was well known. Few were brave enough to take on the Ivo T-bucket.
For readers who remember our Tommy Ivo profile, you know that he carried out his racing clandestinely, for Ivo was a popular TV star, and Hollywood execs preferred to keep the dashingly handsome actor in one piece. Still, Ivo managed to slip the T into films, including the 1956 flick “Dragstrip Girl.” Both Ivo and the car starred, with the script having Tommy steal it!
All the buzz around car caught the attention of editors at Hot Rod magazine, which featured the Ivo T on the cover of the August 1957 issue, plus a two-page spread inside.
Eventually, Ivo sold the car to Bill Roland, who made a few changes before it was sold again to Hy Rosen in 1962. Rosen took the car to George Barris, who modified it greatly – more chrome, different color, glitzy interior – and put it on the show circuit, an ignominy few race cars suffered. Three decades later, Jack Rosen, Hy’s son, realized a correct restoration was in order. Ron Jones, using the Hot Rod feature as a guide, brought the bucket back to its former glory. After a long stay at the NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona, it now resides in Rosen’s garage.
When the Goodguys Gazette asked Ivo how the roadster affected the arc of his career, Ivo didn’t hesitate, “Well, it simply changed the trajectory of my life.”