By John Gunnell
Hot rodder Norm Grabowski passed away on the morning of Oct. 12, 2012. Grabowski was a real “Renaissance Man” of the rodding sport who is credited with creating the Ford T-bucket roadster, popularizing the hot rodding through a 1957 Life magazine feature, building a famous T-bucket for actor Edd “Kookie” Byrnes, drag racing with TV Tommy Ivo, acting in over 45 films and TV shows and building cars for the SEMA Show right up through modern times. He was also a wood sculptor and among the first to carve voodoo-head shifter knobs.
Grabowski moved from New Jersey to the cradle of hot rodding—Southern California—after leaving the military with a medical discharge. In 1952, he first bought a fenderless Model A Ford that had been fitted with a V-8. Then he traded that for a cut-down 1922 Model T Ford touring car with a shortened Model A pickup body and dropped in an overhead valve Cadillac V-8 pirated from a sedan owned by his parents. After adding many typical period swaps and doing some fabrication of his own, Grabowski wound up with a T-bucket.
The car was named the Lightnin’ Bug and appeared on the cover of Hot Rod in October 1955 along with a feature story inside. Then the next year it was rented for use in filming “Mr. Kagle and the Babysitter,” starring Charles Coburn and Fay Holden. The car got damaged during filming and the studio fixed it, but Grabowski decided that he would insist on driving his cars in the future. This required membership in the Screen Actors Guild and led to his TV and film work.
Over the years Grabowski showed up in films like “High School Confidential,” “Darby’s Rangers,” “Hooper,” several Frankie Avalon “beach blanket” movies, “Roustabout,” “Girl Happy” and “Towering Inferno.” He got a lot of work at Disney Studios in films such as “Son of Flubber,” “The Misadventures of Merlin Jones,” “Monkey’s Uncle,” “The Happiest Millionaire” and “Black Beard’s Ghost.” His TV credits included “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” Grabowski played an important role in the movie “Hammerhead” and once appeared in the “Beverly Hillbillies” as a cat burglar who broke into the Clampett mansion.
When Grabowski and his car wound up in the April 29, 1957, issue of Life as part of a major article about hot rods, it gave him much wider exposure to the general public than his previous appearances in Hot Rod in the ’50s and early ’60s, as well as a concurrent exposure in the April 1957 issue of Car Craft.
The car became a really big star when Warner Brothers Studios began featuring it in “77 Sunset Strip,” a 1958-1964 TV show about private eyes Stu Bailey (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) and Jeff Spencer (Roger Smith). They had their office at 77 Sunset Strip, next to Dean Martin’s real-world Dino’s Lounge. Edd Byrne played Gerald Lloyd Kookson III (a.k.a. “Kookie”), a jive-talking Dino’s parking lot attendant with dreams of being a private investigator. Kookie drove Grabowski’s T-Bucket and it soon became a star known as The Kookie Car.
Sometime after appearing in “The Cannonball Run” movie, Grabowski retired from acting. Later he moved out of Southern California and relocated to Lead Hill, Ark., near Harrison and just south of Branson, Mo. There he continued his wood carving business making products such as skull gear shifter knobs and rocking horses. He and a friend created an act called “Norm and Norm” and did a summer gig around 1982-1983 on the Lake Queen excursion boat in downtown Branson and for cruises on Lake Taneycomo. In more recent years, Grabowski maintained a Website (www.normsnews.com) on which he talks about his carvings, the hot rod shows he attended and a DVD that was being made about his life.
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