Grabowski Kookie Kar T-Bucket Heads to Auction
Before Norm’s hot rod was named the Grabowski Kookie Kar, he coined it the “Lightning Bug”, which is generally acknowledged as the first T Bucket hot rod. But he was never one to be satisfied with his rides, constantly modifying it until it splashed on the national TV screen in the series, 77 Sunset Strip in 1958. There it earned the nickname of “Kookie’s Kar”; as it was the ride of car valet Gerald Kookson, aka Kookie. The car earned a following among young gearheads while Kookie, portrayed by Edd Brynes, was a heart throb for teenage girls.
After only the second season of the show, Grabowski sold the car to Jim “Street” Skonzakes in 1959 who modified it yet again before he hit the national car show circuit with his TV “star car”. Finally Skonzakes made an additional fourth set of modifications, to help prolong its life on the show circuit before he put it in storage, where it sat for years. Here’s the full background on this iconic car that is now being sold at an upcoming Mecum Auction.
Norm Grabowski was a novice shade tree mechanic when he started to build his ride. He started with the front half of a 1922 Model T, sitting on a 1931 Ford roadster chassis. He blended in the back end of a Model A pickup truck for his T Bucket. He shortened the bed and “Z’ed” the rear end of the chassis, which created the hiked up rear end, which he accented even more with spacers. He stretched the front end and flipped the 1937 Ford front axle suspension to lower it even more for that severe rake. He used a milk truck steering box, which resulted in the nearly vertical steering column, another trademark of a hot rod T Bucket.
He took it to a local Southern California shop that helped craft covers to hide all the cuts and welds on his frame rails. They also crafted a handmade windshield. Finally red leather rolled and pleated upholstery finished the look along with an oversized die for a gear shift knob. Grabowski used a 1952 Cadillac V-8 to power the bucket along with a GMC 3-71 supercharger for some wow factor. Of course he removed the hood to expose that power plant and cut down the front grill. All these mods took three years of work.
Grabowski had connections with the Hollywood studios where he played bit parts in movies and the T Bucket was often used in those productions. But one loan ended up with front end damage and so the next stage of modifications occurred. It was repainted from black to royal blue with striking flames and pin striping added by Dean Jeffries – the image most of us have in our heads when we think of Norm’s Kookie Kar. He swapped out the blower for a quad set of Stromberg 97 carburetors and replaced it with a hand carved skull, which became another Grabowski feature. In later years, he sold thousands of those hand-sculpted gear shift knobs out of his Lead Hill, Arkansas shop.
This was the version that ended up in use with the television detective series, 77 Sunset Strip. The car was driven sporadically in the show but that didn’t stop guys from watching the show for any chance to see the radical looking T Bucket. With the popularity of Grabwski’s rod, other variations started showing up but the Kookie’s Kar set the standard.
When Jim “Street” Skonzakes purchased the car in 1959, he rushed it over to Watson’s House of Style to put his own touches to the car. He re-painted it yet again to Rose Pearl and added red flames while swapping out the interior with a white tufted leather.
Skonzakes toured the country with the T Bucket and was a master promoter. Later he must have had double vision as he modded the car again, adding dual headlights, dual superchargers, and dual slicks for the rear wheels. He switched to high back bucket seats and tall “Zoomie” exhaust pipes that matched the height of the windshield.
The car hit the show circuit anew and wowed the crowds until Skonzakes put it in storage. There the Kookie Kar and others stayed away from the public’s eye. Even car journalists could not cajole Skonzakes into a glimpse of the icon.
Skonzakes passed away in 2017 and now his collection, including the Kookie Kar, will be sold May 15-20 at the Mecum Auction in Indianapolis. It will be interesting to see where the bidding will end at and whether the new buyer will keep it as Skonzakes’ vision or restore it back to Grabowski’s Kookie Kar. It might be in pretty rough shape but there isn’t a hot rod out there with more history than Kookie!