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These Are the Five Most Significant Hot Rods Ever Built

All were on display at the 2020 Autorama show in Detroit.

Tim BernsauWriterChuck VranasPhotographer

What are the most famous hot rods? The most influential, history-changing cars in this hobby? The 2020 Detroit Autorama organizers presented their selections this year with an exhibition called "The Most Significant Hot Rods of the 20th Century" (many of which also showed up at last August's Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance).

The Detroit Autorama is the place to see the world's newest, innovative, never-before-seen rods and customs. This year, it was also the place to see some of the best old, familiar, but equally innovative hot rods. Enjoy!

Norm Grabowski's "Kookie T" 1922 Ford Model T

Norm Grabowski's 1922 Ford Model T was probably the best-known hot rod in the late '50s and remains famous to this day. Grabowski blended a cut-down 1931 Ford Model T Touring body with a modified Model A pickup bed, shrank the frame rails by 20 inches in back and stretched them five inches in front, and relocated the front axle ahead of the crossmember. The resulting combination is generally acknowledged as the first T-bucket. The 1952 Cadillac 331 engine was originally topped with a 3-71 blower, and the car wore black paint. It was called the Lightnin' Bug when it appeared at the 1955 Grand National Roadster Show and on the cover of the August 1955 issue of Hot Rod. By the time it appeared on the April 1957 cover of Car Craft (and in an issue of Life magazine the same month), it had been painted the now familiar 1956 Dodge Royal Lancer Blue, sporting flames and pinstripes. The blower had been replaced by four Stromberg carburetors atop a Horne intake manifold. A year later, the car would become even more famous as the Kookie T, driven by a popular character named Kookie on the popular TV series 77 Sunset Strip. After Grabowski sold the car in 1959, it went through a few odd makeovers. Several clones were built over the years. This is no clone. This is Norm's original Model T, recently restored to its Kookie T version at Roy Brizio Street Rods.

Bob McGee's 1932 Ford Roadster

When the average person imagines a hot rod, chances are they're picturing something that looks like Bob McGee's 1932 Ford roadster. Hot Rod magazine founder Robert Petersen took the famous photo of McGee driving his hot rod on the USC campus, which appeared in Hot Rod's 10th issue in October 1948. Since then, the McGee roadster has been called "the prototypical Deuce roadster" and "one of the cornerstones of hot rodding."

McGee had been active in Southern California's early hot rod scene, racing a different roadster on the dry lakes of the Mojave Desert in the early '40s. In 1947, after serving in WWII, he began building this roadster. By this time, hot rodders were constructing their cars for street duty as much as for racing. Many of the details on the McGee roadster would become familiar hot rod details, but back then they were innovative—such as the hidden hinges, smoothed three-piece hood, one-piece rear deck—and the CC'd rear frame and dropped axle to create the perfect low stance. The 1934 Ford Flathead V8 engine was topped with a Burns dual-carburetor intake manifold.

Like Grabowski's Model T and other L.A. area hot rods at the time, the McGee roadster made appearances in a few Hollywood movies. The car was later owned by Dick Scritchfield and eventually by collector/enthusiast Bruce Meyer. So-Cal Speed Shop, with the participation of Bob McGee, performed the restoration that returned the roadster to its Hot Rod cover look. In 2014 the U.S. Postal Service honored the McGee roadster by choosing it as one of four hot rods appearing on postage stamps.

Tommy Ivo's 1925 Ford Model T

Tommy Ivo would be the first to tell you that his famous 1925 Ford T-bucket was inspired by Norm Grabowski's T. There are famous stories about Ivo breaking into Grabowski's garage to measure Norm's T. Ivo's car shows the Grabowski influence, including the unusual suicide front-end setup. Ivo had located the Model T body in the Southern California desert, where he hacked a yucca tree out of the car to retrieve it. He installed a Buick 322 cubic inch Nailhead with a variety of induction systems, including the Hilborn injection system that is on the car now. Like the Kookie T, Ivo's Model T made appearances in several hot rod movies of the period, including Dragstrip Girl, in which Ivo also appeared. In August 1957, the car appeared on the cover of Hot Rod magazine.

In addition to being a successful child- and young-adult actor, Ivo was an avid drag racer and successfully competed with his T. "My T held records at all the tracks I raced at…until they booted me off the drag strip," he told us. It was inevitable that Ivo and Grabowski would eventually line up against each other at a drag strip. In 1957, they faced off for a grudge match at Saugus or Santa Ana (depending on where you read the story). Ivo was an experienced racer, and his car was very successful at area drag strips, running 11-second elapsed times with a top speed of 119 mph. Beating Grabowski probably wasn't his toughest race, but may be one of the most fun. Ivo's T was first restored in the early '90s by owner Jack Rosen and builder Ron Jones.

Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's "Outlaw"

Ed "Big Daddy" Roth may have been hot rodding's favorite nonconformist, a label he earned with his airbrush artwork and especially with his radically original hot rods.

It has been reported that Roth, like Ivo and others, drew inspiration from the Kookie T when he built his first fiberglass bodied creation, The Outlaw, in 1957. Roth abandoned the practice of building rods from existing production cars, instead choosing to create bodies from scratch. The Outlaw was Roth's first vehicle built using a buck to form a mold for a fiberglass body. The Outlaw's unique handbuilt body sat on a Ford Model A frame, modified with a 1925 Ford Model T crossmember. The 1950 Cadillac engine (from a junkyard) originally was built with four Stromberg 97 carburetors on a Cragar manifold, and Cal Custom valve covers. Although not built from a production car, The Outlaw was built with a lot of custom pieces from existing cars, such as 1959 Rambler headlights, 1958 Chevy Bel Air taillights, a 1959 Chevy grille, 1922 Dodge windshield frame, and a 1958 Impala steering wheel, to name a few. The Outlaw (and The Beatnik Bandit) were painted by Roth, clearly inspired by the work of custom painter Larry Watson who would paint other Roth vehicles.

Plans to market the bodies never panned out, and reports of how many were created range from a couple to a dozen or more. Thousands of enthusiasts did buy, and continue to buy, the Revell scale model kit of The Outlaw. Like the other rods featured here, The Outlaw changed hands several times and was redone a few times before being restored to original condition.

Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's "Beatnik Bandit"

As The Outlaw was drawing tons of attention and trophies at shows and in the hot rod press, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth was already designing his next automotive creation, Beatnik Bandit. The original concept images for the car were done by famed hot rod designer/illustrator Joe Henning, who envisioned it in a tall T style. Roth had other ideas, especially in the area of the car's most notable feature—the Plexiglass bubbletop. Other cars had been built with similar canopy tops, and Roth got advice and assistance from Ron Aguirre, whose X-Sonic 1957 Corvette featured one. The Beatnik Bandit was Roth's second fiberglass-bodied car, with Roth's associate, Dirty Doug, working the plaster and 'glass, and earning his nickname in the process. Underneath was a shortened Oldsmobile chassis. A blown Oldsmobile 303 engine rose out of the open engine compartment. Under the bubble, Roth added another unconventional feature—the "unicontrol" joystick style handle that controlled acceleration, braking, and steering. The distinctive panel painting was reportedly shot by Roth, as on The Outlaw.

The Beatnik Bandit was a big success on the show circuit and was the subject of articles in the May 1961 issue of Car Craft magazine and the July 1961 issue of Rod & Custom. The famous bubbletop was selected for the original lineup of first-edition Mattel Hot Wheels cars in 1968 (now known as the Sweet 16). In the '80s, the Beatnik Bandit and The Outlaw were both was restored at Harrah's.

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