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Perhaps the world’s most famous hot rod, Norm Grabowski’s Kookie T started the T-bucket craze

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Photos courtesy Mecum Auctions, except where noted.

Dual superchargers. Dual headlamps. Dual slicks. The car that Jim Street showed for a few years and then hid away for decades seemed to have dual everything, including dual lives as a show car that toured the country and, prior to that, as the so-called Kookie T, the car that made Norm Grabowski famous and that kickstarted the T-bucket movement.

The first much of the world saw of the Kookie T took place in April 1957 when it took up a full page of an edition of LIFE magazine dedicated to hot rodding, shot under the lights at the Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake, near Hollywood, with Grabowski at the wheel stuffing a burger in his mouth. Until that point, hot rodding had been a rather serious affair, with cars built for either speed or style – rarely for fun – but here was a cartoonishly proportioned amalgam of parts with a guy who seemed to take nothing at all seriously behind the wheel.

Actual work on the hot rod began about five years earlier when Grabowski, not yet 20, scored somebody else’s hot rod, a V-8-powered 1931 Model A roadster, for $100 and part of a 1922 Model T touring for $5. Over the next three years, he set about blending the two cars. He started by shortening the touring body and appending a shortened Model A pickup bed to the back, removing the hood altogether, and cutting down a 1932 Ford grille shell.

The chassis took even more work to match the radical nose-down, tail-up stance Grabowski had in mind. He cut the rear frame rails 6 inches ahead of the rear axle to Z the frame and then used spare sections of frame rail to lengthen the frame ahead of the cowl by about 5 inches. To get the nose way down, he swapped in a 1937 Ford tubular front axle mounted suicide style ahead of the front crossmember; to get the tail way up, he used a six-inch spacer between the rear spring and spring mount. Power came from a GMC 3-71 supercharged Cadillac V-8, backed by a 1939 Ford toploader and a 1941 Ford rear axle.

Grabowski then had Valley Custom in Burbank finish the hot rod with a leaned-back windshield and black paint with red leather interior stitched by Tony Nancy.

Not long after Grabowski finished the car in 1955 and dubbed it the “Lightnin’ Bug,” it got its first moments in the limelight. That year it appeared on the cover of Hot Rod as part of a feature on “tiny pickups with super engines,” and the car’s time at Valley Custom led to a role for the hot rod in “Mr. Kagle and the Babysitter,” an episode of The Ford Television Theatre anthology series.

Studio promotional stills for “77 Sunset Strip.”

That appearance in turn led to more film and television credits for both Grabowski’s car and for Grabowski himself, usually as a stunt driver at the wheel of the car. Sometime just after its first appearance, Grabowski had the car repainted Dodge Royal Blue with Dean Jeffries-applied pinstripes and flames, and he replaced the blower atop the Cadillac engine with a four-carburetor Horne intake manifold and a quartet of Stromberg 97s. It was in this configuration that the car appeared in LIFE magazine and in a series of LIFE photos showing Grabowski working on the engine with his infant daughter in the car and later flogging the car to a 103 mph top speed at the dragstrip.

It was also in this configuration that the Lightnin’ Bug became most popular, serving as the ride for Gerald Lloyd “Kookie” Kookson III in the detective show “77 Sunset Strip” and as the inspiration for a number of copies, imitations, and other T-bodied street rods commonly known as T-buckets. While 77 Sunset Strip ran from 1958 through 1964, the Lightnin’ Bug only appeared in the first couple seasons; sometime in 1959, Grabowski sold the hot rod to Street for $3,000, about what a new Buick LeSabre sold for.

By that time, Street had already revised his Golden Sahara custom and was two years into touring with it around the country. To double up on appearance fees, he added the Lightnin’ Bug to the show ticket, billing it as the Kookie T.

Not without first sending it to Larry Watson to have it repainted Rose Pearl with Candy Red flames and switching out the interior for white leather, however. And then, likely in a bid to continue impressing crowds years after its last on-screen appearance, sometime in the mid-Sixties Street further modified it with the dual slicks, dual headlamps, dual superchargers, dual steps, high-backed bucket seats, and windshield-height zoomies currently seen on the car.

Then, just as he did with the Golden Sahara, Street pulled it into his Dayton, Ohio, shop about 50 years ago to sit and gather dust. With Street’s death last December, the Lightnin’ Bug/Kookie T will now head to auction at no reserve along with the rest of Street’s collection, which includes a pair of NSU Kettenfraftrad German military vehicles, a 1949 Cadillac, a 1968 Oldsmobile, a dozen racing boats, and nearly as many wooden-hulled boats.

The collection, including the Kookie T, will cross the block during the Mecum Indianapolis auction, which will take place May 15-19. For more information, visit