It was very early in the days
of hot rodding that a teenage movie actor named Tommy Ivo was
smitten with the "bug" and it happened quite innocently.
Tom drove a then new '55 Buick Century and he cruised and hung
out at a drive-in restaurant known as Bobs Big Boy in Toluca
Lake California. He got his share of attention from the local
girls with his new Buick-- that is until Norm Grabowski came
upon the scene with his freshly built T roadster with its gleaming
chrome-and-polished-aluminum multi-carbed Cadillac engine sticking
out in the breeze.
The local guys and gals dropped
everything, gathered and oohed and ahhed over the little hot
rod with its bug-eyed driver who made funny faces. It wasn't
long before Tom engaged Norm in conversation about the possibility
of Tom building a similar machine for himself.
"Sure, kid." was Norm's
curt reply while turning his attention back to the surrounding
Accepting what he saw as a challenge,
Ivo set out to build one of his own. He started by carefully
measuring (with permission) everything about the Grabowski car.
Wheelbase, engine setback, ground clearance etc, he didn't miss
Because of the success of his
'55 Buick at the local drags and the smooth delivery of power,
he decided to use a Buick engine in the hot rod and he promptly
found one for sale by the son of the owner of a local Coca Cola
"It was a metalsprayed stroker,
Ivo explained, and while it was a fairly strong motor, I didn't
expect it to last very long."
With the help of friend Randy
Chadock, Ivo assembled all of the parts wherever he could. He
gathered up a rusty hulk of a '23 Ford Model T body from a desert
area wrecking yard, and picked up a Model A Ford frame of unknown
vintage from a local yard. He bought a '40 Ford and dragged it
into the drive way of his mother's house-turned it up on it's
side and stripped the running gear from overturned hulk.
"The front end, rear end,
springs-everything I thought I could use. I started with that
Model A frame and Randy and I modified it extensively-he did
all the welding. I never trusted my own welding".
Fitting the body over the frame,
he arrived at the right ride height by kicking up the frame in
the rear to lower the whole car but doing so retained the same
ride with stock springs. The engine was installed originally
with two four barrel carburetors just to get it running. Once
it was clear that the little hot rod would run and drive, it
was disassembled for painting and chrome.
Like most hot rods, as soon as
it was finished enough to drive, it was off to the drive-in.
Sure enough, Grabowski makes his appearance and spots the Ivo
car. He looked it over rather carefully and then inquired as
to what was next in the way of modifications.
Ivo allowed that he planned to
add a top next and some trick paint.
"Wouldn't you know it, Ivo
says with disdain, before I could get the top made, Norm had
one on his and he also added flames. I was gonna put flames on
mine but now that he had already done his that way, I had to
find another route."
Like most works in progress,
he changed it often-improving both the appearance and the performance.
He added a chromed '37 Ford tube axle-replacing the I-beam '40
Ford unit. He convinced Phil Weiand that he (Phil) should cast
a 6 carb manifold for a Buick---which he did and Ivo got the
first one. Other touches included a tall folding top with a crescent
moon shaped rear window adorning the white canvas material.
It was during this time that
his studio connections landed a part in the movie Drag Strip
Girl for both Tom and his T.
"During the filming, like
between takes, relates Ivo, they would leave the car idling for
hours. They didn't want to shut it off for fear it wouldn't start
again. I knew it would but they were renting the car and I knew
better than to interfere. They just about wore it out between
running the snot out of it and letting it idle, it was fit for
a rebuild when they were through. A rebuild, which, by the way,
they were more than willing to pay for."
"Knowing that they would
pay, I stopped by Max Balchowsky's shop there in Burbank and
inquired about getting him to give me a hand building a first
class engine. He agreed and proceeded to give me the advice I
needed. That's how I got to know Max and it was the beginning
of our relationship."
It must be pointed out that Max
Balchowsky had become famous in his own right building and racing
the series of Ol Yaller race cars---all using "nail-valve"
Buick engines. His reputation was one of meticulous preparation
and uncommon use of parts that his competitors viewed with disdain.
Things like white wall tires and crudely shaped sheetmetal bent
to fit and with exposed rivets. He had a way of disarming his
fellow racers---much the same can be said of Tommy Ivo---both
After a lengthy discussion about
what was needed, Max suggested a stroker (this time a welded
one) for 322 cid engine and when completed, the finished product
measured 402 cubic inches with 10 to 1 compression, a Winfield
cam and a Hilborn fuel injector.
"Max showed me how to port
the cylinder heads, says Ivo, and
'oh by the way there
are two more sets that you can do while you are at it'. What
could I say? No! This after he had just showed me what to do,
I don't think so"
Ivo then upgraded the roadster
with a '37 LaSalle gear box behind the big Buick and painted
the whole package "Titian Red".
As a side not, fellow Road Kings
club member, Don Johnson had Max build a Buick for his dragster.
Known as "Daddy's Auto Body", this early Kent Fuller
chassis dressed in a swoopy body was to be the end all racer
in the club. Ivo learned that the engine for the dragster was
a much smaller (fewer cubic inches) than his and he took advantage
of this knowledge and promptly challenged and beat Johnson at
the local drag strip.
In fact, it was at the drag strip
that the Titian red T really shined. Using racing recapped slicks
and a locked 4.11 to 1 rear end gear, Tom stormed the local drag
strips turning elapsed times in the 12 second range and achieving
speeds in excess of 117 mph. In 1957 this was exceptionally fast
and he not only won trophies in class but often took home the
overall "Top Eliminator" trophy, (that being the designation
of the fastest car at the track that day).
He won 21 trophies in as many
weeks at several different drag strips and in doing so caught
the eye of the editors of Hot Rod Magazine. They ran a 2-page
photo feature on his car that was titled "For Kicks and
Cups" and includes and overhead shot of the front of the
car and engine on the cover-a very prestigious accomplishment
among his peers.
While his accomplishment at the
race track are many, Ivo likes to point out the he did meet Norm
Grabowski on the starting line only once, "__and I Won!"
he quickly adds.
"Turned a hundred and four (mph) that day at Saugus. I had
a grin from ear to ear."
The T ran in the "Street
Roadster Class at the drag races and Ivo had little trouble beating
everything and everybody around the Southern California area.
It was only the all out race cars and some hot motorcycles that
could take him and then only if they made a very good run. He
was a threat to win the whole meet everywhere he went.
He ventured out from the San
Fernando and San Gabriel Valley drag strips of Saugus, San Fernando
and Colton, to the hot bed of dragdom known as Lions Drag Strip
run by soon-to-be famous racer, Mickey Thompson.
It was here that he encountered
the rules Nazis.
"Some guy named Cassidy
was running a street roadster down there and I was wiping the
floor with him and he protested me---first because I had no windshield
wiper. Well I ran the car without the windshield, why should
I have to have a wiper? Well the rule says
So I added a wiper. Next it was fenders, they said I needed fenders
so I added fenders. I still wiped 'em out. Then it was the pickup
bed was too short. It needed to be 3 feet in length. So I made
a bracket that bolted to the back that made the bed the legal
length. Then it was a roll bar. This stuff went on for weeks.
Then one day someone got hold of Mickey and told him the engine
was set back too far for the class (more than 25%). 'Well that's
why it got such a good bite' and they were on to me and they
drove me out of the class."
"It didn't end there. I
went home and built the absolute rattiest rig I could build with
a dented up rusty body and I even welded a hatchet stuck in the
trunk. I put on a Squirrel tail on an antenna---all the clichés
of hot rod squirrel-bad taste---but I put my strong engine in
it and I reduced the weight by about 150 pounds and went back
at 'em just to prove a point.
And I won again. It made them
"That didn't last too long
though, Ivo laments, as I had decided to build my first dragster.
It too had a Buick engine and it was quite successful winning
its fair share and setting many records in the process."
"I sold the car to Bill
Rowlands and he hacked it up and changed it all around. I was
upset but EH! I had my fun with the car. The car sat around for
years after that and then Jack Rosen the new owner decided to
restore to the original state. I was pleased that it was returned
"When it was finished some
ten years ago, Rosen invited me to an Early Times Rod Run where
the car was to make its debut and a film crew was to make a documentary
of the whole event. I agreed and wouldn't you know, the day before
I was to go, he sent me a fourteen page script to memorize. Needless
to say, I winged it---I'm too old to remember lines like I did
when I was a kid. But all in all things went well and I have
a copy of the film that they made. It was a nice tribute to the
Speaking of tributes, Tommy Ivo
was enshrined in the National Hot Rod Association Museum of Drag
Racing in Pomona Ca. in 2002 and there in all of their glory
were 4 very famous cars that link to his past and among those
four was the Roadster that he so carefully built some 45 years
It is interesting to note that
after all of this time, both the Ivo T and the Grabowski T have
remained two of the most famous hot rods of all time, icons really,
owing to the fact that Ivo's car appeared in several movies,
as mentioned, and Norm's car became know as the "Kookie
Car" named after the character played by actor Ed (Kookie)
Byrnes as it was featured in the tv program "77 Sunset Strip".
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