NORM GRABOWSKI THE MAN & HIS KARS

TS3X65MPH

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NORM GRABOWSKI THE MAN & HIS KARS
« on: January 05, 2016, 12:33:56 PM »
The Kookie Kar
Written by Jerry Wessner
Norm Grabowski, The Kookie Kar, and Everything

He's been called many things by many people, but mostly by Himself: Woo-Woo, Normie Poo, El Polaco, Father of the T-Bucket, the Rod God (should be a lower case "g" but you know how it is with titles), etc., etc., but simply Norm will suffice, even though there is clearly nothing simple about Norm Grabowski. Everything in Norm's life is so intertwined, from car building to acting to woodworking artist; it's impossible to separate one from the other. Norm the car builder is daring and willing to take chances, even though over the years his creations have boiled down to a highly recognizable Grabowski-style, no matter the vehicle. Norm the actor is also immediately recognizable for his boisterously extroverted public persona, which in turn hides behind the colorful facade of an extremely talented woodworker whose forte for carving fibrous forest byproducts (first noticed, it may be added, in building his transportation from SoCal to Lead Hill, Arkansas, in the infamous "Henway" C-cab truck) is mostly directed towards (but not restricted to) carving giant, adult-sized rocking horses for the rich and famous (Burt Reynolds was one of his early customers) and one-off skull shifter knobs from exotic woods for rodders everywhere. As you may have noticed, it has become de rigeur to many in our hobby to have Norm add his personal touch to their latest project by topping the shifter with a custom carved skull that only Himself knows the significance of its expression and adornment. Most all, however, have one thing in common--a spent brass cartridge in the top of their cranium (unless, of course, the client wishes otherwise).

But how did all of this come about, you may wonder? Glad you asked! In 1952, after leaving the service on a medical discharge, Norm purchased a fenderless '31 A V-8 for $100. Not one to leave things alone, he then swapped the A body for the front half of a '22 T touring, with a shortened Model A pickup bed bringing up the rear--the major visual difference between T-buckets and T modifieds--a harbinger of things to come. To get stance and proportion "right" (remember, there were no actual guidelines, for this was the granddaddy of all T-buckets, and Norm was a pioneer), Norm and friends removed some 20 inches of rear framerails, starting six inches forward of the crossmember, then raised and reattached the crossmember and its attendant frame stubs with pieces of the removed rail sections, effectively kicking, or z'ing the frame. Still not completely satisfied, he then stretched the frame some five inches up front using yet more leftover rear frame sections, replacing the front crossmember with a "bulldog," or suicide spring mount, at the same time to lower it, accentuating the rake. A '37 Ford tubular axle equipped with '40 Ford hydraulic brakes was then hung on a reversed-eye spring, utilizing a homemade four-bar type setup from Ford tie-rods. A '52 Cad engine with 3-71 GMC blower was then set in place on fabricated mounts and bolted (through an adapter) to a Zephyr-cogged '39 Ford Top Loader, which fed power through a shortened '41 Ford torque tube enclosed driveshaft and 3.54:1 rearend attached to a Model A spring. At first, Norm had used a Model A rearend, but when he swapped in the stouter '41, mounting was switched from the spring being on top of the axle tubes to behind them, which shortened the car (Norm liked that), but lowered the rear as well. Not satisfied with the lower rear stance, Norm mounted the rear spring to the crossmember with a 6-inch steel spacer to set it back where it had been, to regain that "just right" stance. Steering was handled by a Ross box from a milk truck, mounting a Bell three-spoke wheel in nearly vertical position, yet another style item that sets T-buckets apart from T modifieds. Norm installed the Ross box at his home in Sunland, then discovered to his dismay that it steered backwards. What to do? For Norm, that was to drive over to Burbank and see his friends at Valley Custom for a fix, steering the reverse of normal for the entire trip.

It was over this foundation the aforementioned body was channeled some six inches. Norm then asked Neal Emory at Valley Custom to create a special raked-back and dramatically shortened windshield, which he did from channel, hammering out the unusual mounts by hand. For finishing touches they applied a black paint job, then Norm had Tony Nancy stitch up a red rolled and pleated interior. And the shift knob was (can we have the envelope please?) a large dice.

During the chassis reconfiguration process, the framerails had become so unsightly through the cut-and-try method, that Norm also called on his friends Neal Emory and Clayton Jenson at Valley Custom to have them make frame covers for it. So, those really neat, tapered front rails and neatly rolled rear kick-up sections are, in actuality, a false front, just as the old western buildings on movie sets. And speaking of movies, it was while the car was at Valley Custom that it was spotted by someone form the studios who passed the word to Norm (through Neal) that they would like to rent it. It was also in this finish that it appeared in a Hot Rod magazine feature (and on the cover too) in October of '55, dubbed "Lightnin' Bug." One of the T's first film gigs was Mr. Kagle and the Babysitter, staring Charles Coburn and Fay Holden in 1956. The T acquired its top (and taller windshield frame) when Norm became the stunt driver for his own car, renting it to the studios for $50 per day. It seems that during a film production, an actor had "got on it," running Norm's car into a post, causing substantial chassis damage, which the studio paid Valley Custom to repair. As there was no stunt double car (not usually the case today), Norm decided that if he were to continue lending the roadster to production companies, no one but Himself would drive. So, for the upcoming filming of Wire Service, Norm not only had Bill Colgan in Burbank make him a top, so nobody could see who was driving (this took a week and cost $200), but he was also required to join the Screen Actor's Guild as well--another $200 expenditure. Norm remembers being paid only $400 for his work in the movie--at least he broke even. It may be noted that Franco's replica of the Kookie T doesn't include a top.

Norm's creative efforts in the promotion of hot rodding did a service to rodders everywhere when his roadster came into our living rooms on Friday evenings as the car star of 77 Sunset Strip in the late '50s-early '60s. Possibly even more responsible for bringing Norm's car into even more living rooms than television, however (no doubt hip, L.A. detective shows weren't everyone's favorite entertainment venue, even if they did have a handsome young actor, Ed Byrnes, playing car hop Gerald Lloyd Kookson at Dino's Lodge on Hollywood's famed Sunset Strip) was most everyone's "must-read," Life magazine. For it was indeed the April 29th edition of Life that not only had hot rodding as its theme, with a cover featuring a flagman starting a drag race in Fort Worth, Texas, and nine pages on the subject, but a full-page shot of Norm at Bob's Drive-in in Toluca Lake as well (unlike folklore dictates, Norm's T was not on the cover, but appeared on page 137). As Norm tells the tale: "Life magazine shot the car when I was in Hollywood one night. They were following me around trying to get me to stop, and I didn't know it. Finally I stopped at the drive-in. They took about 200 pictures that night...just unbelievable!"

Norm's T had gone from a blown, Cad-powered roadster that he used for drag racing (103 mph in the quarter), cruisin', and an occasional half-case delivery vehicle for his family's egg ranch, to a '56 Dodge Royal Blue knockout (painted by Valley Custom) with Dean Jeffries-applied flames and pinstriping, the aforementioned red Tony Nancy-stitched interior, and a Horne intake sporting a quartet of Strombergs replacing that borrowed supercharger. It was in this guise that teenaged boys everywhere waited breathlessly to see a representation of their second favorite fantasy, Kookie's Car (which sometimes, unfortunately, was omitted from episodes completely), as Connie Stevens most certainly was first on their list! Teenage girls on the other hand didn't have long to wait for Ed "Kookie" Byrnes (as he was on every week); most likely wishing he'd "lend them his comb." All of this happened around the time when people like Tex Collins (Cal Automotive's founder) were testing the aftermarket waters with 'glass replicas of Model T roadster bodies to bolster up the diminishing supply of the real steel deal. Soon others jumped on the bandwagon, and almost overnight, it seemed most anyone could not only have access to the makings of an entry-level, hot-cum-street rod, but afford to build one as well. Thus the proliferation of Kookie klones, i.e., T-buckets, Fad Ts, Bellybutton Cars (everyone's got one), etc., etc. And, just as with flame styles, the T-bucket evolved even more with further refinement from builders like Dan Woods, whose horizontally coil-sprung frontends, sectioned '17 T bodies, and tons of "antique" brass goodies made the lowly T-bucket a contemporary (for the '70s, that is) horseless carriage going way beyond entry-level hot rod status.

The first near copy of Norm's T, however, happened (as the story goes) when Norm arrived home unexpectedly one day to find another fledgling young actor, Tommy Ivo, with tape measure in hand, measuring Norm's car so that he could build a similar hot rod of his own. The nailhead-powered Ivo T went on to be a car star too, appearing in several "B" movies such as The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow in 1959, The Choppers in 1961, and many others besides (see Milestones, SRM, Jun. '00).

So, what happened to the Kookie T anyway? Well, as most builders do, another project usually comes along and the current car is sold. In this case that would be another T Norm was already tooling around in--a full fendered '25 touring. Dayton, Ohio's Jim Skonzakis, aka Jim Street, was into showcars, and car shows (already owning the Barris-built "Golden Sahara"), purchased the car in 1959 for $3,000, taking it to Larry Watson for a cosmetic makeover. Larry repainted the car in a Rose Pearl with Candy Red flames with black tips and white pinstriping (in his signature seaweed-style as opposed to Jeffries' earlier "crab claw" or traditional Von Dutch-style). And it also got a more contemporary (for the times) white pearl button-tufted interior as well. And although not the little hot rod we all knew and loved from television anymore, it still looked pretty cool in its new precursor-to-the-'60s-style makeover. It may be noted that the top went with the car, but wasn't used afterwards. It toured the show circuit in this guise for awhile, then Jim once more updated it to its final form, with dual headlights, dual superchargers, and dual slicks, zoomie headers as tall as the windshield, and high-back seats as well. It was shown this way, then put in storage where it remains to this day, a stablemate to the aforementioned Golden Sahara. It's been said of Jim that he'd like to restore both cars someday (the Kookie T to the last version described), but as far as we know, there has been no movement in this direction. Jim has (as of this writing) so far denied viewing of these two famous "Milestones" of rodding and customizing to members of the automotive press, but one can always hope he'll change his mind. These cars should be seen again, even in unrestored condition, as they're a big part of our history, so we can only hope that Jim gets going on the dual projects soon, as the years are ticking by. And just as in writing books on the subject of rodding and customizing (which many are doing nowadays), with the passing of this generation, there will be few left who really care about the subject--the time is now!

As we've covered the Kookie T from inception to premature burial, let's talk a little about Norm (it's always about Norm--isn't it, big guy?), his other cars, and his woodworking hobby-turned-business (note that Norm also built a succession of bikes, including one that was Corvair-powered). As stated, Norm followed the Kookie T with a '25 T that also worked the show biz circuit, appearing with Mamie Van Doren in 1960's Sex Kittens Go To College, and also appeared on at least two Hot Rod magazine covers: Aug. '60 (which included a full feature) and Mar. '61, as a background prop for Marty Holmann's '15 T roadster. I used to see Norm cruisin' Hollywood Boulevard with his red, full-fendered tub filled with chicks (who says they only went for guys in customs?). Later Norm sold the touring to his friend Kaye Trapp for $2,700, who turned it into the "Porter" prop vehicle for NBC-TV's 1965-66 sitcom, My Mother the Car, staring Jerry Van Dyke (there's definitely a "Van" thing going on here), with Ann Sothern as the voice of the touring, which was supposed to be his reincarnated mother. Pretty strange stuff, but then again, the '60s were pretty strange times.

Norm also had an F-100 pickup that was a magazine feature vehicle, as well as his famous, handcarved Henway flatbed which facilitated his move from SoCal to Lead Hill, Arkansas, with all his earthly possessions, where he resides today whittlin' away on mostly wooden rocking horses and skulls. We mentioned in our July issue's Street Corner that Norm had been in an accident, damaging his carving hand, but we're happy to report that he's now recovered, back at his craft, and may be reached at (870) 436-5280, if you're in need of a skull to top that shifter in your latest street rod, or perhaps just to make a statement on your desk as an objet d'art.

Norm also built "Kookie II," which was covered in a full buildup in STREET RODDER a few years back (from an introduction in the Mar. '90 issue's Street Corner with Von Franco's color rendering, to a cover and full feature in the Jan. '94 issue) that he continues to update, show, and drive. I once rode in it with Norm at the wheel over some back roads in the Ozarks, and this thing would be a revenuer's worst nightmare! Norm always has several projects in the works, the current crop of which includes a Zipper Motors '27 T modified, soon to be DOHC banger-powered. Norm is also caretaker of the late Kaye Trapp's '76 Chevy pickup (built by Bill Hines, painted by Larry Watson, and possibly soon to be chopped), continues to refine his work-in-progress, the "Kookie Hauler," and still owns his beloved Henway (which is slated for an early restoration), as well as other projects. How about a '36 Ford truck body with loads of patina on a late-model Ford pickup chassis for one?

Our feature car is Von Franco's exact replica of the Kookie T, as the original (as stated) is not only unavailable for photography, but has been changed significantly as well. We wish to thank current owner John LeBelle, and the Petersen Automotive Museum (where the car was on loan) for their cooperation in allowing Eric Geisert the opportunity to shoot this, our Milestones feature for December.
You Aren't Living If Your Windshield Isn't Dirty.

TS3X65MPH

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Re: NORM GRABOWSKI'S THE MAN & HIS KAR'S
« Reply #1 on: January 05, 2016, 12:45:17 PM »
NORM GRABOWSKI'S T COVER OF CAR CRAFT APRIL 1957.
You Aren't Living If Your Windshield Isn't Dirty.

oldsjoe

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Re: NORM GRABOWSKI'S THE MAN & HIS KAR'S
« Reply #2 on: January 06, 2016, 09:12:57 AM »
Can I add a couple of his bikes too?  With a couple of cars too!   Joe
Living the DREAM!!! One nut and bolt at a time!

32drifter

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Re: NORM GRABOWSKI'S THE MAN & HIS KAR'S
« Reply #3 on: January 06, 2016, 09:14:38 AM »
 :) Norm's Henway in Gatlinburg '75  ( He would always say when asked what's a Henway?  Oh about 3 lbs.     Or something like that.) :

32drifter

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Re: NORM GRABOWSKI'S THE MAN & HIS KAR'S
« Reply #4 on: January 06, 2016, 11:07:32 AM »
Hey, and don't forget Norm's carvings and gearshift knobs:    (a talented guy for sure!)

32drifter

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Re: NORM GRABOWSKI'S THE MAN & HIS KAR'S
« Reply #5 on: January 06, 2016, 11:08:19 AM »
 :)

TS3X65MPH

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Re: NORM GRABOWSKI'S THE MAN & HIS KAR'S
« Reply #6 on: January 06, 2016, 11:30:04 AM »
Can I add a couple of his bikes too?  With a couple of cars too!   Joe
Any thing Norm is good to go.Thanks Joe.
You Aren't Living If Your Windshield Isn't Dirty.

TS3X65MPH

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Re: NORM GRABOWSKI'S THE MAN & HIS KAR'S
« Reply #7 on: January 06, 2016, 11:31:12 AM »
Hey, and don't forget Norm's carvings and gearshift knobs:    (a talented guy for sure!)
Yes he was.Wish I would of gotten a purple bag from him.
You Aren't Living If Your Windshield Isn't Dirty.

TS3X65MPH

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Re: NORM GRABOWSKI'S THE MAN & HIS KAR'S
« Reply #8 on: January 06, 2016, 11:32:11 AM »
Rods TV T.
You Aren't Living If Your Windshield Isn't Dirty.

TS3X65MPH

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Re: NORM GRABOWSKI'S THE MAN & HIS KAR'S
« Reply #9 on: January 06, 2016, 12:02:42 PM »
In it's first form black & blown.
You Aren't Living If Your Windshield Isn't Dirty.

TS3X65MPH

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Re: NORM GRABOWSKI'S THE MAN & HIS KAR'S
« Reply #10 on: January 06, 2016, 12:03:50 PM »
In it's first form black & carbs.
You Aren't Living If Your Windshield Isn't Dirty.

oldsjoe

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Re: NORM GRABOWSKI'S THE MAN & HIS KAR'S
« Reply #11 on: January 06, 2016, 04:38:40 PM »
This is good stuff!  Joe
Living the DREAM!!! One nut and bolt at a time!

TS3X65MPH

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Re: NORM GRABOWSKI'S THE MAN & HIS KAR'S
« Reply #12 on: January 06, 2016, 05:30:18 PM »
Norm Grabowski, the Entertainer
Written by Tim Bernsau on May 8, 2015
Contributors: Chuck Vranas, Josh Mishler, Bob D'Olivo, Tommy Ivo, Darrell Mayabb, The Greg Sharp Collection, Petersen Archives, Tom Burger, Paul Dumain, the Norm Farnum Collection, the Bob Owens Collection, the Jim Street Collection

Norm Grabowski was Bigger than Life

It sounds like a joke. A hot rodder, a woodcarver, and a Hollywood actor walk into a bar. Everybody turns and says, "Hi Norm!" OK, it's not that funny—but Norm was hilarious. After a few minutes in that bar, he would've had the whole place laughing. And if a guitar were within reach, he might've serenaded them with an old-timey song. By the time he walked out, every stranger in the joint would've been a friend. That's just the way he was.

He had more sides than a mirror ball. The side he was best known for depends on whom you ask. For many people, it was the "Kookie Kar", his masterpiece and the hot rod credited as the original T-bucket. For others, it was the artfully grotesque (and widely cherished) hand-carved wooden skulls he created. For still others, it may have been his movie and TV roles (too many to count) or his on-stage musical performances, or his appearances at car shows, or the unforgettable memory of a random public encounter. It seems like everybody knew Norm, and everybody has a story or two about him.

Norm Grabowski died on October 12, 2012. He started his life 79 years earlier, on February 5, 1933, in Maplewood, New Jersey, the third and youngest child of Anthony and Mania Grabowski, who were both Polish immigrants. Looking at Norm, who was built like a refrigerator, you'd never know that he was not a healthy kid. He suffered from severe asthma as well as a physical condition affecting his ribs and breastbone, and wasn't expected to have a long life. What nobody anticipated was his passion for living and his determination to squeeze the most out of life for as long as it lasted.

In 1945, the Grabowski family moved from Maplewood to the Los Angeles community of Sunland, where the warm dry air was better for Norm's health. As a young man at the epicenter of the hot rod explosion, Norm was building custom vehicles even before he was old enough for a driver's license. His nephew, Norm Farnum (his sister Joanie's son), recalls home movies of a 12- or 13-year-old Norm with a homebuilt motorized bicycle.

Norm entered Verdugo Hills High School, but his studies were interrupted when he started helping out with his family's chicken ranch, the Happy Valley Egg Farm. The typically Grabowski-esque company slogan was: "Eggs so fresh they should've been laid tomorrow."

He got his first car when he was 16—a '30 Packard sedan that he bought for $25. Norm used to tell a story about loading the Packard with 15 or 16 of his teenaged friends for the morning ride to school. One day, after losing the brakes on a downhill slope, he ran the jam-packed sedan into the back of a plumber's truck. After that, he was banned from bringing his car to school. According to a 1973 Rod & Custom interview, he ended up cutting off the top with a hacksaw and knocking off the body with a sledgehammer, and eventually sold it—to a policeman. The Packard was followed by a few other beaters. Then in 1952 he bought a '30 Model A, replaced the body with the body from a Touring car, and added a shortened bed to the back, and the T-bucket trend was born.

He had just been released from the service on a medical discharge when 19-year-old Norm started building what would become one of the most famous hot rods in history. The cut-down '22 T Touring body (bought for $5) was paired with an extremely shortened Model A bed, and was mounted on the completely reworked frame of his Model A. The 'rails were Z'd in the rear (resulting in a plunging rake). Twenty inches were removed from the rear of the frame, and 5 inches were added to extend the frontend. The '52 Cadillac engine (pulled out of his parents' Cadillac) was topped with a 3-71 blower sandwiched between a Bandimere intake and Rochester four-barrel carburetor. The finished car featured black paint and a red Tony Nancy interior.

The details of the original modifications and the constant changes that followed have been written about numerous times over the past 50-plus years, but the unique front suspension setup bears another description. Norm's variation on the suicide frontend has been copied often, but in the mid '50s it was unusual. Even Tommy Ivo (who adapted the design on his own famous Grabowski-inspired T) is still talking about it: "What Norm had was sort of a reverse suicide frontend. He had taken the radius rods ['40 Ford wishbones] and instead of running them from the axle back, he reversed them, cutting them off short right next to the axle, so that the axle was further forward rather than directly under the spring. That gave the car a 25 percent setback from the front spark plug to the front axle. In drag racing in the Street Rod class, you were only allowed a 10 percent setback. But the way he stuffed the motor up against the radiator—and with the suicide front end and reversed radius rods—nobody realized what it was. So I was hooked!" Ivo built the front end of his car the same way. "My T held records at all the tracks I raced at … until they booted me off the dragstrip."

When Norm installed the steering box, only to find out that he'd done it wrong and the turning was inverted, he drove it to Valley Custom Shop in Burbank, California, where Neil Emory and Clayton Jensen corrected the problem. Gary Emory, Neil's son and Clayton's nephew, was a kid at the time, but remembers Norm's frequent visits. "Norm would build the car and put things together, and bring it down to the shop where my dad and my uncle would do finish work on the car, making it fit right and cleaning it up."

Gary also got an early taste of Norm's comical antics, especially his sound effects. Everyone who knew him has stories about his whistling skills and the crazy noises he could produce. "My dad and I would be working at the shop, and Norm would sneak up, lean over my dad's shoulder, and start making all kinds of jungle noises."

Automotive illustrator and close friend Darrell Mayabb described the Norm whistle. "It was something I've never heard anyone else do. It came from way down in his throat. He'd be talking and whistling at the same time." This would prove useful throughout Norm's life.

Norm entered the T in dozens of hot rod shows and won trophies at all of them. In October 1955 (after appearing at the Grand National Roadster Show in Oakland), the car showed up on the cover of Hot Rod magazine. Norm once told us it was known as the "Bad T", but the Hot Rod writer nicknamed it "Lighnin' Bug". By this time there couldn't have been a hot rodder in L.A. who wasn't familiar with Norm's T, whatever they called it. Norm was a regular at Bob's Drive-In in Toluca Lake and on the streets of Hollywood (not to mention his egg delivery route). The car was drawing crowds wherever it showed up, with the wild-acting hot rodder attracting as much attention as his wild-looking hot rod.

While this was taking place on the streets, things were changing at the Hollywood studios, where they'd started cranking out movies with youth-culture themes. The standard elements of these movies were young stars, beaches, rock 'n' roll music, and hot rods.

Norm and his brother, Donald, had been building sets for a studio, so they had some familiarity with the movie business. And the studios—aware of the T from all the attention it was getting—were interested in renting the car for films. The Lightnin' Bug was soon showing up on the big screen whenever a hot rod could be worked into a plot line.

"The first thing they did when I took it to the studio: ran it into a big post," Norm told STREET RODDER in 2010. The accident put the car back at Valley Custom.

In addition to the necessary repairs, the T soon morphed into today's more familiar version. Bright '56 Dodge Royal Blue paint (set off with Dean Jeffries' flames) replaced the black finish, and four Strombergs on a rare Horne manifold took the place of the blower setup. The rake got more radical, the windshield was taller, and a bleeding skull shifter knob was mounted in place of the oversized dice. The car also sported a cloth top. This was a functional addition; it hid Norm, who now insisted on driving his car whenever it appeared in a movie.

The newly restyled car was revealed to the hot rod world with a cover story in the Apr. '57 issue of Car Craft. The same month, Life magazine, investigating Southern California's hot rod culture, published photos of Norm and his car, including the now-famous shot of Norm and the T parked at Bob's Drive-In. "It was photographed so much and it hasn't ever gone to my head. I'm still a great guy!" Norm assured us a few years ago. Suddenly the whole country, not just enthusiasts, was familiar with the wild flamed T-bucket. And the greatest publicity was a year-and-a-half away.

It Wasn't a Burger
Chuck Vranas, a STREET RODDER contributor and close friend of Norm's, ribbed Norm about the well-known Life magazine photo of him in the car at Bob's Drive-In, chomping on a hamburger. "I asked him about that one time. I said ‘So how did that burger taste that night?' He said, ‘Wait a minute! I was an actor at that time—I was eating an avocado and egg sandwich!'"

Inspiring Ivo
One of the local teenage hot rodders influenced by Norm's T was already a veteran child actor and just-beginning drag racer, Tommy Ivo. "Norm Grabowski was, in a roundabout way, my mentor in drag racing. Had I had never seen his roadster, I might never have gotten involved racing my T, and drag racing might never have started for me.

"One night I went over to Bob's Drive-In where everybody was and there was Norm Grabowski and his roadster—back when it was still black. And I thought ‘Man oh man, wouldn't that be something to have a car like that to drive to Bob's on Friday and Saturday night.' So I went over to Norm, like everybody did and said, ‘Boy, do I like this thing! Would you mind if I built one like it?' He said, ‘Go ahead', like he said to 10,000 other people who told him the same thing. So I went home and did it."

Gary Emory remembers Ivo stopping at Valley Custom during the build of his own T-bucket, to find out what was happening to Norm's car. "One day Norm's car came into the shop banged up from the studios, and Ivo came in and was asking about it. My dad said, ‘Well, they keep breaking the windshield.' He picked up a piece of rod from the shop floor, and jokingly said, ‘We're going to put radius rods from down here to the windshield to keep it from breaking.' Later, when Norm came in and heard about it, he said, ‘That would look pretty bitchin! Let's do it!'"

There are also a few old stories about Ivo sneaking into Norm's garage to take measurements. "It didn't happen quite the way Norm told it," Ivo says, "but I did indeed go out to his house and measure the car. Later, my friend Randy Chaddock, who helped me with my car, dragged Norm over to my house to see it. He about fell over, and said [imitating Norm] ‘Gee whiz, I knew you were going to build one but I didn't know it was going to be exactly like it!' I told him that mine was going to be different, because I was going to put a top on it, which will change everything! The theme is the same, but they're different cars; same church, different pews."

In 1958, Warner Brothers launched the TV series, 77 Sunset Strip, casting Edd Byrnes as "Kookie", a hip young parking lot attendant, and Norm's flamed rod as Kookie's personal ride. The series lasted six seasons, but a nickname attached itself permanently to the T, forever after known as the "Kookie Kar". (Raise your hand if seeing the car on TV nudged you into building a hot rod.)

The car continued to appear in movies, but Norm only owned it until 1959. He sold the Kookie T to Jim Skonzakes (aka Jim Street). The blue paint and yellow flames were soon repainted (by Larry Watson) in pearl white with candy red flames. In its final public incarnation, it was unrecognizable as the Kookie Kar, wearing dual slicks, quad headlights, twin blowers, and white high-back diamond tuft seats, among other changes. Whether or not it will ever reappear as the Kookie Kar, nobody knows. Fortunately, the iconic T-bucket has been replicated many times—the two best-known versions were built by Von Franco (who also created a Lightnin' Bug replica) and Johnnie Overbay at Reno Rod & Custom Supply. The Von Franco version is now owned by Norm's longtime friend, John LaBelle, and is on display in the lobby of Sacramento Vintage Ford in Rancho Cordova, California. The Overbay-built version is owned by Fred Thompson, another longtime friend, and sits in the lobby of the NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona, California. Von Franco's replica of the Lightnin' Bug is owned by Model T enthusiast Mickey Himsl of Concord, California.

Bit by the Bug
The Lightnin' Bug clone is not the only Model T in Mickey Himsl's collection, but it may be the most personally significant. The first impression it made on Himsl was described by Eric Geisert in the Apr. '08 issue of STREET RODDER: "Most folks can cite certain events when what they were experiencing would affect them for the rest of their life. So you might call it an epiphany, or perhaps kismet when, in 1956, a young Mickey Himsl had tagged along with his three older brothers (Joe, David, and Art) to the Grand National Roadster Show in Oakland, California. The only way they'd take him along is if he'd promise not to say anything to them while there, but that was about to be taken care of when Himsl first spied Norm Grabowski's T-bucket. While the older Himsls walked the entire show, Himsl was slack-jawed at the sight of Norm's T—so much so that he sat down in the aisle of the arena in front of the car and stared at it until his brothers came to get him to leave."

After he sold the Kookie Kar, Norm continued to build other rods. He also continued his career as a character actor in films and on TV. A stuntman neighbor had helped Norm get work as an extra. When his whistles, barks, birdcalls, and funny noises got the attention of studio big shots, he started to get acting roles. He was never the star, but he wasn't hiding behind a canvas car top anymore. Norm was a muscular guy (due to the weight lifting he did to improve his health) and was typically cast as a jock or a thug in B movies such as High School Confidential!, College Confidential, and Sex Kittens Go to College, or as a soldier in war movies. He appeared with Elvis Presley in Girl Happy and Roustabout, and would later tell his niece, Mary Farnum Birdsong, that he was the only person to give Elvis a black eye! After appearing with Burt Reynolds in W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, the two became good friends and Burt specifically requested Norm for Hooper and The Cannonball Run.

Ad-Libbing
Norm appeared in at least half a dozen movies with blonde bombshell Mamie Van Doren. He told Chuck Vranas that in one of those pictures he was required to perform a belly-flop on the beach. Norm had eaten a big dinner the night before and when he landed face-first in the sand, the foghorn fart was heard by everyone within earshot, including Miss Van Doren, who didn't speak to him again.

Norm acted in at least eight Disney live-action comedies. According to John LaBelle, Walt Disney loved having him on the set. "Norm never called him Mr. Disney; it was always Walt. If Norm showed up at Disney's office when he was in a conference, Disney would hear him and call him in, right in the middle of a meeting. He'd stand with his arm around him and say, ‘Norm, whistle for them. Show them how you put that whistle around the room.' And Norm would whistle and do his noises—trains and machine guns."

He also had parts on television, appearing on many comedies, dramas, and variety shows throughout the '60s, including Route 66, The Munsters, Batman, and The Monkees. Norm Farnum remembers his uncle's disappointment at not getting the part of Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies (he came home from the audition with a speeding ticket), although he later appeared in a couple of episodes.

By the late '60s, Norm, now in his mid-thirties, was eager to leave the pace of L.A. life behind him. He loved the water, and considered living on a boat. "I remember Uncle Norm and my grandparents shopping for a watercraft so they could sell their home and live on the ocean," Norm Farnum recalls. "They got a little bit of sticker shock when they discovered what these big boats sell for, so then they started shopping for a Chinese junk."



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Re: NORM GRABOWSKI'S THE MAN & HIS KAR'S
« Reply #13 on: January 06, 2016, 05:51:46 PM »
Norm Grabowski, the Entertainer
Written by Tim Bernsau on May 8, 2015
Contributors: Chuck Vranas, Josh Mishler, Bob D'Olivo, Tommy Ivo, Darrell Mayabb, The Greg Sharp Collection, Petersen Archives, Tom Burger, Paul Dumain, the Norm Farnum Collection, the Bob Owens Collection, the Jim Street Collection

Norm Grabowski was Bigger than Life
PART 2

Live Bait
Norm's love for the water expressed itself in several ways. In 1967, he took scuba diving lessons, accompanied by his 12-year-old nephew Norm, who told us about it. When the diving students and instructors showed up for the class, they were all wearing standard black wet suits, except for one guy. Norm had found a bright orange wet suit—which was, as his instructor pointed out, "definitely shark bait".

The alternative to living on the ocean was living near a lake. In 1972, Norm moved from Sunland to Lead Hill, Arkansas, on Bull Shoals Lake. He was joined by his parents and his niece and nephew, Mary and Norm, whom he was helping to raise. Mary, by the way, is the toddler sitting in the T in the well-known early photo of Norm working on the car with a homebuilt hoist. Her brother is the toddler standing by the car drinking from a beer can in another photo.

Far from Hollywood, Norm still found a way to entertain people: with music. That talent was inherited from his father. Tony Grabowski was a master on the piano, and played the accordion and the trumpet, Mary told us. He'd come to America as an entertainer on a cruise ship, playing trumpet.

Norm's instrument was the guitar. He had learned to play in California. And the voice that could throw a whistle and imitate jungle noises could also sing. By all reports, Norm had a beautiful voice and loved to sing, but more than that, he loved to entertain. Norm started performing in clubs in his twenties. "For a number of years in the mid to late '50s, he worked with a fellow named Johnny Hart," his nephew explained. "They had a nightclub routine and did quite a few different bits—comedy and musical. Norm played guitar and did special effects, his whistling and such. I don't think it went as far as they might have hoped at the time. His movie career was starting and that took a front seat."

Moving to Arkansas gave Norm the opportunity to revive the act he had started 20 years earlier. He started entertaining at places like Elks lodges and business parties, primarily as a single act, and sometimes with his niece and nephew. The three of them would perform at Christmas parties and special events, and once or twice at street rod events. "We sang at the Nationals in Gatlinburg in the mid '70s, backed up by the Country Playboys," Mary told us. "Another time, we took the Hennway to a national event in Minnesota, and Uncle Norm and I went to the Minnesota state penitentiary and performed there with Chubby Checker."

Eventually, he was a regular performer at some of the famous entertainment theaters in Branson, Missouri. In 1977, Norm and his nephew (who had become a talented musician himself) were working as a duo, entertaining the crowds at Silver Dollar City, a Branson-area theme park. "We did bluegrass tunes and old-time songs from the '30s and '40s. I played the five-string banjo, and he was on guitar and whistling," nephew Norm said. That job ended after one season, when Norm lost a fingertip on his left hand during a water skiing accident and was unable to play the guitar.

While he recovered from his injury, Norm devoted more time to yet another one of his favorite pastimes: woodcarving. His nephew continued to play music and, in the early '80s, was hired at the Roy Clark Theater in Branson. He introduced the theater owner to his colorful uncle (whose finger had healed by now) and Norm was hired as a guitar player and comedian. Norm, his nephew, and eight or nine other musicians were known as the Super Pickers and played the warm up show for Roy Clark and other headliners. "One of our routines included Ray Stevens' song ‘It's Me Again Margaret'," his nephew related. "He imitated the part of the crank caller. And in an often-performed finale, during the Oak Ridge Boys, ‘Elvira', Uncle Norm would strut out wearing a way-too-tight pink mini-dress and a crazy wig, and the audience would explode in laughter!"

In addition to playing on the main stage with the Super Pickers, both Norms revived their two-man act as a nightclub routine for the Roy Clark Theater lounge. Known as "Norm and Ab-Norm" (you can guess which was which), they combined music and comedy in the same style as the shows Norm created with Johnny Hart years before. "I was the straight man and he was the comic relief," the younger Norm told us. "He drew all the attention. We worked up different musical bits; one was a bluegrass arrangement of ‘House of the Rising Sun'. His truck driver routine was a favorite. He'd do all the sound effects, going through all the gears of an 18-wheeler, exaggerating the whole thing. People just roared."

As hilarious as he was, Norm was not always a clown when he sang. "He could throw his voice like an opera singer," his nephew said. "Maybe that's due to the fact that he suffered from asthma as a child. He developed his lungs out of the need to breathe and ended up with this strong voice."

Norm never restricted his talent at putting on a show to paying audiences. Any audience was irresistible. His boisterous personality attracted people, without him really trying. John LaBelle remembers being with Norm in the Bob's Drive-In days of the '50s. "He liked to have people around him. If you were at Bob's and Norm wanted to drive over to Hollywood, you knew that was going to be an involvement. Everybody wanted to hang out with him. Even in later years, at car shows, I would just leave him sometimes because he would get to one spot and suddenly there would be a crowd of people around him."

"At 70, Norm was still a wild man. You never knew what he was going to do," Bob Owens says, aka "Flat Top Bob", another close friend. "If you were out having dinner at a restaurant, one minute he'd be at your table, and the next minute he could be five rows over, singing to a table of women as they ate their supper. If the restaurant had a microphone to call your name when your table was ready, Norm would grab the microphone and start singing!"

Mayabb has similar stories. "My wife, Sharon, and I took him for dinner at a pizza place. At the end of the meal, my wife and Norm walked outside while I paid the bill. A few minutes later, I walked outside. There on the sidewalk was this street entertainer dressed in a fancy suit doing his mime act, with robot moves and dancing, working for tips. Before long, Norm gets out there and starts doing his own version of all that. As soon as I come up, the street entertainer comes over to me and starts complaining, ‘Man, get outta here! That guy's ruining my gig!'" For Norm, the desire to cheer people up was as strong as the need to breathe. Norm stayed at the Roy Clark Theater for three seasons, leaving in 1985. "It ran its course," nephew Norm explains, who, along with his wife and their children, continues in his uncle's footsteps (more or less) as popular performers at numerous venues in the Ozarks (www.farnumfamily.org).

Norm had been involved with wood carving prior to moving to Lead Hill—his "Hennway" truck, proves that. The Hennway is a '23 C-cab flatbed truck, built with a 413ci Chrysler engine and featuring handcrafted wooden body panels. The truck, which he owned the rest of his life, was actually put to use during the move from California to Arkansas. The nickname is pure Norm Grabowski humor. People would see the truck and ask, "What is it?" Norm would answer, "It's a Hennway!" The puzzled questioner would inevitably take the bait, "What's a Hennway?" And Norm would zing them with the punch line (stop me if you've heard this one), "Oh, about 3 pounds!" followed by the famous Norm laughter. The Hennway showed up on the cover of the Mar. '74 issue of Rod & Custom.

Norm got into carving wooden skulls, possibly as a result of the sycamore wood shifter knob he made for the Kookie II Model A in the late '80s. "That car put me in the wooden skull business," he told us a couple years later. The carvings varied in size from small ones, roughly the size of a billiard ball, to big ones the size of a softball or larger. All of them were elaborate sculptures, meticulously formed from exotic woods, and hideously ugly. Many of them were put to use as shifter knobs, but many ended up displayed on shelves or in glass cases. It must have suited Norm's weird sense of humor that his weird skull figures, with mangled fangs, oozing brains, trickling blood, and the trademark brass ammo cartridge wedged in place, would be coveted by collectors (each skull was delivered to the customer in a dark blue velvet bag that Crown Royal whiskey bottles come in). Low-brow art elevated to high-art status—only Norm Grabowski could've pulled it off so well.

Chuck Vranas owns a Grabowski skull. "Norm and I met in person at the 50th Grand National Roadster Show at the Cow Palace. He saw my '23 T-bucket and told me, ‘The only thing wrong with your car is it doesn't have one of my skull shifters on it.' Years later, about a month after Norm and I went to England, a box was delivered to my house. In it was a Crown Royal bag. Inside the bag was a small skull shifter knob. I had it in the car where I could see it several times a week. Eventually, I put it on my desk where I can see it every day." Ironically (maybe), the skull that started it all wasn't carved by Norm. The shifter knob on the original Kookie Kar was a cheap cast ceramic piece, given as a midway prize at Disneyland and modified, of course, by Norm.

"I've got a box full of skull shift knobs that I sent off for over the years," Mayabb told us, "including one I saw in the back of Popular Mechanics magazine. Norm told me that it came from the same mold as the one on his car. Because it was Greenware [dried clay that hasn't been fired] Norm was concerned that if he drilled it and put a bolt through it, he might bust it. When he drilled through the top of the skull, he knocked off the top edge, so he put a metal sleeve in it and added an acorn nut on top to protect it. If you look at the old pictures, you can see the acorn nut. Then, to cover up where he chipped it, he took paint and made blood coming out of the hole!" We've heard reports that the painted blood was applied by a young custom painter named Larry Watson.

Grabowski Bikes
Norm's enthusiasm for everything extended to motorcycles. His wildest was "Six Pack", a Corvair engine-powered bike that, like the Kookie Kar, went through a few changes. And like the T, it was striped by Dean Jeffries. Norm, famously accident-prone, was injured on the bike when a car ran a red light. The collision took the frontend off the bike, sent Norm flying, and put him on crutches. He eventually added a sidecar using a cut-down 'glass T-bucket body. His niece Mary remembers riding to elementary school in the sidecar. Norm later built a second Corvair-powered motorcycle called "PP 'n' Vinegar".

Never Hitchhike!
The Kookie Kar clone, built by Johnnie Overbay (originally for Ron Kregoski), and the largest collection of Norm Grabowski hand-carved rocking horses, is owned by Fred Thompson from the Los Angeles area. Thompson was a friend of Norm's since their accidental meeting in the '50s. "I was driving up around the Sunland area—near where his parents had their chicken ranch—and I see this guy standing on the corner looking for a ride. So I said ‘hop in' and I took him up to his house. When we got there, there was the Kookie Kar. He was really nice, and took the time to show me the car. After that, I'd see him around with his car. Twenty-five or 30 years go by, and in about 1985, I ran into him again at a hamburger stand. From that time on we were good friends. Whenever we were together, his joke would always be, ‘You're driving me crazy! Why didn't I listen to my mother? Never hitchhike!'"

Racing Lying Down
The only person we know who could get mixed up in as much mischief as Norm Grabowski is SRP Editor Brian Brennan. Get the two of them together and, well, here's Brian's story. "I had met Norm several times before the mid-'70s Gatlinburg, Tennessee, rod run, where our paths crossed again.

"We had spent the better part of an afternoon and early evening driving around in the Hennway when we decided to grab a bite to eat. After dinner, we ventured into one hotel parking lot after another looking at one hot rod after another. Of course, we never really walked; with Norm it was more of a shuffle as one rodder after another would stop him and a barrage of questions would begin. He continually entertained. As is customary in the hot rod world, a bottle of beer can never be far away, and by midnight Norm and I were in a jovial mood.

"Gatlinburg is a resort community that offers skiing in the winter and summer fun in, well, the summer. Chairlifts run from the main drag (near a good-sized stream) to the mountain top and back. After a couple of trips up on the chairlift, Norm and I figured there had to be a better, or at least more fun, way to go up or, more precisely, down the mountain. "Due to the car show, every hotel in town was sold out and every roll-away bed was in use. It was at this point that Norm and I decided we could get our roll-away down the hillside to the stream quicker than any other rodder. As it turned out, we were pretty fast, but braking wasn't one of our, or others', strong points. After half a dozen roll-away beds jumped the flower beds and ended up in the stream, the hotel managers put an end to it all. "Once our roll-aways were confiscated, not only was our fun brought to an abrupt end, but now we had to sleep on the floor. In hindsight, we should have thought this one through a bit more, but we sure had fun!"

Kookie II, 40 Years New
In the late '80s, Von Franco was building the first famous replica of the Kookie Kar. Norm would visit to check out the progress and contribute by sharing photos and providing information. Seeing his long-gone Model T coming back to life triggered some nostalgia, so Norm decided to build a similar, but different Kookie. "I had Franco draw a '29 Tudor sedan, cut the roof off, shorten the back 7 inches, take off the fenders, and put a '34-style front end on it," he told us when it was finished. The body was dropped onto a '32 frame. The extended hood was cut to make room for the bug catcher on top of the blown, injected 500ci Cadillac engine. The paint scheme, and the red leather upholstery, are throwbacks to the first Kookie. "It was like déjà vu … like the old days."

Boogie 'Til You Puke
Norm enlisted Mayabb to create a poster for the '36 Ford flatbed truck he found in a field—with a bumper from a tree limb he found alongside the road. "The limb must have weighed a million pounds," Mayabb laughs. "But he got a bunch of buddies to help hoist it onto the truck. He gets in it and he's all proud of it and he can barely drive down the street. There was so much weight on the back end that the front tires hardly touched the ground. He took it to a mill and had them cut it down, bolted it to the front end, and tried to drive it. He had them keep shaving it down until he got it balanced. Then he carved the words "Boogie 'Til You Puke". His idea for the poster was to sit in front of the truck with a bunch of beer bottles all over the place and mustard or something all over his shirt."

The Norman Conquest
In 2006, Norm was invited to England as a celebrity lecturer at the Hot Rod Super Nationals. He was accompanied by STREET RODDER contributor and friend, Chuck Vranas. Vranas was surprised when they arrived at the event and Norm was uncharacteristically reluctant to talk. So Vranas spoke for a while, glancing back occasionally until Norm indicated it was his turn, "Then when he was ready to go," Vranas recalls, "he stepped up and talked for more than an hour, entertaining the people with stories. They loved him!"

From small things, big things often come. For Norm, small skulls led to large rocking horses. The woods are exotic, as they are with the skulls, but the imagined personalities seem a little friendlier. Fred Thompson, who owns the rocking horse named "Plugger", says that Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson, Boyd Coddington, and Wayne Gretzky are among the diverse Norm fans who have ordered horses. In total, Norm built 17 rocking horses, 3 Clydesdales, and 9 jackasses.

Many people, including Norm himself, felt that his rocking horses should be in a museum where they could be enjoyed by the public. When the NHRA Motorsports Museum expressed interest in displaying Fred Thompson's Kookie Kar replica, Thompson requested a spot for Plugger. At first, the organizers resisted, but when Tommy Ivo offered his Norm-inspired T-bucket on the condition that Plugger be displayed with the two famous T-buckets, they agreed. At the time of his death, Norm was in progress on a Clydesdale, which Thompson is in the process of having finished. It weighs 2,000 pounds, has 11-foot runners, and will stand more than 8 feet in height—bigger than life.

When Norm Grabowski died, after battling esophageal cancer, he still had a lot to accomplish. The consolation is that he had an incredible life, and lived it as fully as anybody ever has. His niece, Mary, said that Norm had always been told by his mother, Mania, that he could do anything. He spent his life proving her right. Even so, had he never built a single car or carved a single piece of wood, he still would have left a remarkable legacy in all the smiles and laughs he produced, and continues to produce in all who remember him. One of Norm's earliest movie roles was an uncredited appearance as a crew member aboard a German U-boat in the 1957 World War II drama The Enemy Below. During his brief scene, he joins in singing "De Sauer March", an old German drinking song. At his service, Norm's family and friends sang the song as a toast to his memory:

To you, my friend, and you, my friend, and all of us together;
Here's a toast to life and to laughter and song.
Good beer, my friend, good cheer, my friend, through every kind of weather;
Make the welkin ring as we sing loud and strong.
Fill up the flowing steins again with foam on every lip;
We'll give a skol and shout "Jawohl!" in lasting fellowship.
And when we eye a Lorelei with captivating ways,
May we drink to love all our livelong days.



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Re: NORM GRABOWSKI'S THE MAN & HIS KAR'S
« Reply #14 on: January 06, 2016, 06:18:39 PM »
FROM STREET RODDER.
Tommy Ivo believes this to be the only photo of their two T-buckets racing each other. "When I first got my car running, I took it to the dragstrip. Norm showed up. I don't know if that was a setup to catch me on the first time out, but we both ran 104 mph and ended up racing each other. I beat him by inches."
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Re: NORM GRABOWSKI'S THE MAN & HIS KAR'S
« Reply #15 on: January 06, 2016, 06:22:15 PM »
FROM STREET RODDER.
Norm and his nephew, Norm, performed as Norm and Ab-Norm in a music/comedy lounge act at the Roy Clark Theater. Notice the Polish flag decal on his guitar.

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