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The Original Mister T: Norm Grabowski
Is this your first trip to England?
Yes, it is, and people have been just great. I’ve really enjoyed myself. I love the fish and chips and the way they wrap them in paper. I had them in a restaurant yesterday, and they weren’t so good – too dry. You know, I’d heard stories that the food in England is really bad, but I think it’s okay. Is that about it for the interview, then?
Can you tell us how the Kookie car came about?
Well, I was a young guy, back in the ‘50s, and I wanted a hot rod. I saw hot rods when we moved to California from New Jersey. As a result, I went to car shows and went nuts. I was in love with cars and told myself that, one of these days, I’d have to have a hot rod. I’d just come out of the Army after receiving a medical discharge due to my asthma, which is why we moved to California.
The first car I had was a Model A roadster, which I bought for $100 in running condition Unfortunately, I couldn’t get it registered, so I took the body off the frame and found a Model T body and put that on. Why, and what I was thinking, I don’t really know. I joined a car club, as I didn’t know anything about cars, and got talking with a few people. We discussed some suggestions and ideas, which resulted in fitting a short pickup bed onto the body. I took the car to a body shop and they did the work. It was all in primer when I went back to see it, and when I asked how much I owed them for the bodywork, the boss said, “I think you’d better sit down.” It turned out to be $350, which, of course, was a lot of money then, but when you think about now, it’s nothing.
Little did I dream what would happen to that car and where it would go. First, it was black with a supercharged Cadillac engine, which I got out of my folks’ car. I said, “Look, that engine is pretty much worn out in the ‘52 Caddy. Why don’t you let me have that engine and we’ll get you a new one?” And that’s what we did. The local Cadillac dealership took it out, although they thought I was nuts, putting an engine like that in a T bucket, and that I’d kill myself. In fact, it was the best thing I ever did.
The motor was tired, so I had it rebuilt, and then I decided to paint the car blue with flames. Dean Jeffries painted the flames and striped it. I moved the back wheels forward by turning the rear axle around so that the spring position changed from front to back. Unfortunately, as a result, the rear end wanted to hit the frame, so I had a 6-inch steel spacer made to fit between the frame and the spring. That raised the rear up and gave the car a beautiful rake. I then moved the front wheels forward, by putting the spring at the back of the axle and fitting radius rods, and that gave the car a slingshot look.
The original Kookie car of the 50s - photo courtesy of www.rumpsville.com
The car was really popular at the time, and I started getting calls from people at the studios, who wanted to use it on TV. The first studio to rent it put this big actor behind the wheel, and when I say big, I mean he was a large guy. This was when the car was supercharged, so it was kinda powerful. We were at Columbia Ranch making a kids’ show, and the plot called for bank robbers to steal the car from a kid and make their getaway. That was the story line.
We were in rehearsals and I was watching in the background. When the director yelled “Action!” the driver took off, but he was trying to be careful because he knew it had a powerful engine. Then the director told the guy, “Come on, spin the wheels a bit,” and he put his foot in it a little too much. The car spun, did a 180, and the front axle smacked into a big wooden post. The car bounced back and the steering wheel went into the driver’s chest, although it didn’t really hurt him as much as it hurt me. The windshield cracked, and the frame and radius rods were bent. All eyes were on me, and I was dazed. The director yelled out, “Don’t worry, kid! We’ll get you a new windscreen.” Later, I took the car to Valley Custom shop and the total repair bill was $230.
I lived about half an hour from Hollywood, so every Friday and Saturday night we would cruise up Hollywood Boulevard, park at Magoo’s Restaurant and Bar, and eat pizza, drink beer and generally have a great time. One night I came out, and there was a huge crowd of people around the car – and I mean all over the street. I was trying to make my way towards the car, and this guy says, “Hey, wait your turn!” I thought that was really funny. We had a ball then. It was so much fun. Hollywood was a lot nicer at that time, with normal people. If you go down there now, it’s like a zoo.
So how did the car become so famous?
Warner Bros called Valley Custom and said they were looking for an unusual hot rod – something “kookie” for a new programme,” which is where the name came from. The shop called me and said, “Hey, you’d better get your car down to Warner Bros quick, as it sounds like it’s perfect,” so that's what I did. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, as the car became a star overnight on the 77 Sunset Strip series. I got $50 a day when they used the car, but they didn’t use it enough in my opinion, as rodders would tune in every Friday night just to see it.
I rented the car for use on different shows and it was great – I made $400 from one rental. I always insisted on driving after the earlier incident, but on one occasion, we had to put a top on the car to disguise the fact I was standing in for the main actor.
One evening, I was cruising Hollywood and pulled into a drive-in. A group of people came rushing over, said they were from Life magazine and wanted to take some photos of the car. I agreed, and they clicked off about 200 shots. I told them I was going over the hill to the Toluca Lake Bob’s Drive-In and asked if they would like to come too, as there was even more hot rod activity there, so they did. That’s where they took the main shot that appeared in Life magazine. It’s also now been produced as a poster that I’m selling.
So where is that car now?
I sold the car after 77 Sunset Strip ended, as I thought hot rodding was at a low and I didn’t see the future. If I had, I’d have kept it. The car is in Ohio with the guy I originally sold it to – at least, we think so, but as he won’t show it, nobody really knows. He changed it a whole lot some years ago, and made it look really awful. The reason we know is that there were some pictures of it in a magazine.
Did you ever consider re-creating the Kookie T?
I didn’t want to do the same thing over again, so we did Kookie 2. It’s 40 years newer, with the same blue paintwork, the same interior and a Cadillac motor, and we got that done with the help of a lot of people. Street Rodder magazine did the build-up reports, which made it all possible. I still have that car.
Kookie 2, in 1998 with Norm at the wheel and the late Ed Roth - photo courtesy of www.rumpsville.com
What are you doing now?
I make custom skull gearshift knobs out of wood. Kookie 1 had a skull knob, so I thought I’d make my own for Kookie 2. I’m a woodworker, but I’d never done skulls before, so I worked really hard and made the first one out of blue cutlery wood, which is normally used for custom knife handles. When people saw it, the first reaction was, “Hey, I’ve got to have one of those,” and that put me in the skull business. I was making rocking horses at the time, but now it’s “Skulls R Us”.
Thanks for the interview, Norm
Brilliant! Isn’t it wonderful to know me? Just so you know, I have a web site called www.rumpsville.com and you can find all of my stuff on there. Thanks.
Story: Andy Kirk & Graham Jones
Photos: Andy Kirk