TV Tommy Ivo and his T.
By Don Prieto


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 young chickies.

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 a thing.

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 bottling company.

"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 fiercely competitive.

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 craaazzy!"

"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 to original."

"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 car."

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 earlier.

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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