1915 T-Bucket Body and a Hot Rodder Named Don Oaks

1915 T-Bucket Body: The One We Know Today and How it Came About

California Custom Roadsters 1915 T-Bucket Body

Gary Percival’s California Custom Roadsters bodied 1915 T-Bucket

It goes without saying I love T-Buckets, but I’m especially fond of what’s known as the 1915 T-Bucket body. For good reasons, which we’ll try to cover here, there are many misconceptions about the 1915 T-Bucket body. And, just in case you didn’t even know the 1915 T-Bucket body existed or how it’s different from what’s known as the 1923 T-Bucket body then you’ve come to the right place.

First, though, why are we even talking about the 1915 T-Bucket body? Aren’t all T-Bucket bodies the same? No, they’re not. And here’s why.

If you look at 100 different T-Buckets you might notice that maybe one of them looks a bit more sleek than the others. It’s lower on the sides, higher in the back and somehow the cowl is pinched down a bit so that it helps emphasize the engine, rather than hovering above it. That’s probably a 1915 T-Bucket body.

Take a look at the dimensions and see for yourself.

1915 T-Bucket Body 1923 T-Bucket Body

Dimensional comparison of 1915 T-Bucket Body and 1923 T-Bucket Body, both available from California Custom Roadsters (CCR)

You’ll also note that the 1915 T-Bucket body is 3 inches narrower in the body and 4 inches more narrow at the firewall than the 1923 T-Bucket body. Therein lies the rub — pun intended. You see, many people find even the standard 1923 T-Bucket body too confining. Therefore, the much more diminutive 1915 T-Bucket body is ruled out of consideration, especially for big guys. But if you place greater emphasis on how your ride looks than on creature comforts then the 1915 T-Bucket body is the only choice!

However, what’s known today as the 1915 T-Bucket body as shown at the top in Gary Percival‘s cool ride and the California Custom Roadsters dimensions below it really isn’t close to the original 1915 T-Bucket body. Get ready for a fun, short Model T Ford history lesson.

1915 T-Bucket Body: First Half of 20th Century

1915 T-Bucket body

The photo above is an actual 1915 Ford Model T on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. OK, the museum lighting sucks for taking good photographs, but it’s still easy to see that on the original 1915 Model T the sides are not as low and the back is not as high as in the California Custom Roadsters 1915 T-Bucket body dimensions.

1915 T-Bucket body

However, the 1915 Model T body is quite different in the cowl than the 1923 T-Bucket body. Here’s the story. Model T’s from 1915 to 1922 used what’s referred to as a “low cowl” because the earlier years had a shorter radiator and, therefore, the cowl had to narrow down to meet the hood. From 1923 to 1925, Model T’s had a taller radiator and employed what’s known as the “high cowl”.

1915 T-Bucket body 1923 T-Bucket body

This photo shows a 1923 style high cowl on top which attaches to a higher and wider firewall, while the 1915 style low cowl below it shows why the shorter and more narrow cowl does a better job of “hugging” a V-8 engine placed in front of it.

1923 T-Bucket body

The photo above shows a 1923 Model T with the high cowl. You’ll also note that the body reveal that follows the top of the door line is more parallel to the ground and does not extend as far or curve down as much as on a 1915 Model T. With that said, let’s get on with some pretty cool hot rod history I’ll bet you never knew before!

1915 T-Bucket Body: Don Oaks Creates a Phenomenon

1915 T-Bucket body Don Oaks

Back in the early 60s there were still laws in Southern California requiring fenders on cars over 1500 pounds. A young El Segundo firefighter and L.A. Roadsters member named Don Oaks had a cool ’29 roadster with a Cadillac engine which had been built by Lou Schorsch, who was a rather notable hot rodder in the day.

Don, like many L.A. Roadster members at the time, wasn’t a fan of fenders, and the big Caddy engine in the steel Model A contributed to a total weight close to 3000 pounds — resulting in numerous “no fenders” tickets. Don decided to end that problem!

Don recognized that the lightest weight hot rods on the street in the early 60s were fiberglass bodied T-Buckets. So, the young hot rod builder went on a weight reduction quest like no hot rodder had done before.

Starting with a clean sheet of paper, Don decided on powering his new fiberglass T-Bucket hot rod with the lightest weight mass-production V8 in the world: the 215 cu. in. aluminum Buick. Continuing the light weight theme, he also chose an aluminum transmission from an Olds F-85. For a relatively narrow rear axle, Don found the 1962 Ford Falcon’s 7-1/4″, 4-lug version suitable. Although designed for the Falcon’s puny 85 horsepower, it was going into a hot rod with a target weight almost half that of the then tiny Falcon economy car.

When it came to building his T-Bucket, as an L.A. Roadsters Charter Member, Don had previous access to both the Ivo T and the Norm Grabowski T. Perhaps more significantly, Don was also exposed to the T-Bucket built by lesser know, but also influential, Roadsters member, Martin Hollmann, which happened to use a steel 1915 Ford runabout body.

While the relatively new Buick aluminum V8 was perhaps only slightly smaller in physical dimensions compared to a Chevy small block, it was quite a bit smaller than the Cadillac and big Buick engines used in the Grabowski and Ivo T-Buckets, respectively. So, Don took his measurements from them and then scaled to achieve a balance between the two to best show off the little aluminum Buick.

Ford Duplicators 1915 T-Bucket body

He made another somewhat unconventional decision: to use a 1915 T body rather than what was the standard hot rod fiberglass body at that time, the fiberglass 1923 T-Bucket. Back then, before he acquired Cal Automotive, Tex Collins owned a company called Ford Duplicators and they made a low cowl fiberglass 1915 T body primarily for Model T restorers. Don chose the ’15 T body because he felt that the pinched ’15 cowl, which was a little over 3 inches narrower than the ’23 and also shorter would better align with the Buick engine.

1915 T-Bucket body Don Oaks

But after fitting the body on the frame, the cowl was still too large and awkward looking in Don’s eyes and as you’ll note from the photo above the top of the carb air scoop is below the cowl and the tops of the valve covers were several inches below the body’s side reveal lines.

1915 T-Bucket body Don Oaks

Don felt he could do better to get a much more pleasing appearance and he worked with the best available hot rod design tools at the time: photographs which were cut and pasted to get the desired proportions. It looked like about a 3 inch section would do the job. To do this, Don took a short 2×4″ piece of lumber to which he drove through two long nails, three inches apart and sharpened. He then used his homemade pantograph to follow along the body reveal lines and the firewall, scribing where his cuts would be made to section the 1915 T-Bucket body.

1915 T-Bucket body Don Oaks

The resulting fiberglass work very successfully framed and highlighted the little Buick engine, and also had the added benefit, with the unsectioned back of the body looking somewhat similar to the very popular “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” cars at Disneyland.

1915 T-Bucket body Don Oaks

Don went on to finish his newly redesigned 1915 T-Bucket with 12-spoke American Mags up front and special 4-lug Halibrands on the rear.

1915 T-Bucket body Don Oaks

Continuing to keep weight at a minimum, the car had no dash as original ’15 T’s did not either. Instead, Don relied on a Motometer on the radiator to keep tabs on temperature and an oil pressure gauge mounted on the back of the intake manifold.

1915 T-Bucket body Don Oaks

With a 5-1/2 gallon fuel tank mounted up front and a relatively roomy pickup bed which he nicely molded into the body, Don had succeeded in building a 1225 pound 1915 T-Bucket roadster, which it was registered as, and a legal fenderless hot rod.

1915 T-Bucket body Don Oaks

Not only had Don achieved his objective of creating a truly street-legal fenderless roadster, but he also created an entirely new T-Bucket profile in the then-developing T-Bucket field.

The Don Oaks 1915 T-Bucket Body Legacy Grows

Don later sold his 1915 T-Bucket to a young Bob Reisner, who was described as a 21-year-old, self-employed garage owner when the car was featured in the February, 1966 issue of Popular Hot Rodding magazine, virtually unchanged from how Don had finished it in April, 1964, with the exception of the fuel tank being relocated and a brass buggy horn being added.

1915 T-Bucket body Don Oaks Bob Reisner

As a matter of fact, that 1966 issue of PHR with Reisner’s T-Bucket (built by Don) was one that helped really set the hook on my lifelong love of T-Buckets.

1915 T-Bucket body Don Oaks Bob Reisner

In the PHR feature the little T still sported the same California license plates issued to Don when he built it.

1915 T-Bucket body Don Oaks

The little Buick engine was the same with its very cool no-name finned valve covers. (By the way, Don would like to find a set of the same valve covers today for a recreation he’s building. When he originally purchased them it was from a nondescript Los Angeles warehouse. He learned that his originals later ended up on Dan Woods’ “Ice Truck” show car, but you have to read on to learn how that came about. If you have a pair let us know and we’ll put you in touch with Don).

1915 T-Bucket Dan Woods Buick engine

Now, the plot thickens.

1915 T-Bucket body Don Oaks

It turns out that Bob Reisner, shown in the above Petersen photo in the T he bought from Don, went on to start a business called California Show Cars with Jay Ohrberg (Mr. Roadster).

1915 T-Bucket Dan Woods

And at about the same time Don Oaks was building his T-Bucket a young Dan Woods was building his famous “Milk Truck” show car.

Dan Woods 1915 T-Bucket body

Dan Woods in the former Don Oaks ’15 T-Bucket, now red with addition of widened Buick Skylark wire wheels. (note ‘PCY 366’ license plate).

Long story-short, Bob Reisner ended up trading the T-Bucket to Dan for the Milk Truck. Bob could then better pursue his featured show cars endeavor and Dan Woods got a nice hot rod that he could better use to cruise with his Early Times car club friends.
Dan Woods 1915 T-Bucket

In fact, the T-Bucket was still sporting the original Don Oaks “PCY 366” California license plate after being owned by Reisner and Woods.

Dan Woods 1915 T-Bucket Early Times Car Club

Dan Woods’ ’15 T-Bucket at an Early Times Car Club outing

By August, 1970 Rod & Custom was previewing Dan’s “Ice Truck” follow up to the Milk Truck and in the October, 1970 issue featured the little 1915 T-Bucket as “The Old Woods’ Machine” just to show that when it came to his daily driver Dan wasn’t limited to exotic suspended C-Cabs.

Dan Woods T-Bucket

By then, the most significant external change Dan had made to the Don Oaks T-Bucket was to replace the rear Halibrand mags with his personal favorite rear rims which were Buick wires he had widened to 12 1/2 inches.

Dan Woods 1915 T-Bucket interior

On the interior, Dan replaced the T wheel on the vertical column with one of the unique Woods/J&J Chassis 7 inch diameter by 17-inch deep dish steering wheels.

1915 T-Bucket body Don Oaks

Dan enjoyed the little T-Bucket for many years and hot rod builder and photographer Sherm Porter captured the T (now painted red) among other T’s in the above outdoor car show photo. By the way, the injected nailhead T of San Diego Prowlers member, Gary Rickle, in the foreground and the pink one in the background show the big difference in the cowl height between the ’23 and the ’15 bodies.

Rod & Custom June 1967 Dan Woods

In fact, Dan Woods and the now red T-Bucket found themselves on the cover of the June, 1967 issue of Rod & Custom in the midst of an Early Times car club outing. Shortly thereafter, Dan was dispatched to serve our country in Vietnam.

Contemporary Carriage Works Dan Woods 1915 T-Bucket body

After returning home and spending some time at J&J Chassis, Dan open his Contemporary Carriage Works in the early 1970s, with a focus on building unique, high-end T-Buckets both as turnkey cars and in kit form.

Dan Woods Contemporary Carriage Works 1915 T-Bucket body

Based on his own love for the now stylized 1915 T-Bucket body on his own T, Dan then had a mold made and began selling the cut down 1915 T-Bucket body as originally built by Don Oaks ten years earlier. This began the popularity of the uniquely cool looking 1915 T-Bucket body and is the event that popularized what we now know today as a 1915 T-Bucket. Eventually, Dan would move on to other creative fabrication endeavors and Contemporary Carriage Works ceased to exist.

CCR 1915 T-Bucket body

After Contemporary Carriage Works ceased operations the distinctive 1915 T-Bucket body could then be obtained from California Custom Roadsters, whose body is shown in the photos above and below.

California Custom Roadsters 1915 T-Bucket Body

The late Bill Keifer and Dan Woods, like many Southern California rod builders at the time, worked together from time to time to help each other out on projects and while the exact details are lost in time it’s my understanding that the current CCR 1915 T-Bucket body is either produced from the original Contemporary Carriage Works moulds or a plug was pulled from one of the CCW bodies.

Although no longer in their catalog, the 1915 T-Bucket body is still available from California Custom Roadsters on a special order basis (2-4 week lead time) and lists for $895. Of course, the older body design is nothing like the high quality bodies CCR now sells and comes without floor or firewall and, typical of older bodies, has a mould parting line down the center that requires some finishing work. But, if you want the look, to my knowledge it’s the only place to go.

Back before Total Performance was acquired by Speedway Motors, Total produced a “somewhat similar” appearing body known as their Anniversary T, which was actually a more roomy T-Bucket body that had been smoothed of body reveals. It was chopped 3 inches on the sides, has a 2-1/2 inch lowered cowl section and 3 inch raised rear with a slanted back pickup bed, as noted in the illustration below.

Total Performance Anniversary 1923 T-Bucket body dimensions

Compared to the standard Total Performance 1923 T-Bucket body it had the roominess of that design with the swoopy looks of the 1915 T-Bucket body style. Unfortunately, I understand it is no longer available from Speedway.

But, if you live in the U.K. the good news is that a 1915 T-Bucket body source exists.

1915 T-Bucket Body Millers Speed Shop Wales UK 1915 T-Bucket Body Millers Speed Shop Wales UK 1915 T-Bucket Body Millers Speed Shop Wales UK

The above photos show the 1915 T-Bucket body available from Miller’s Speed Shop in South Wales.

That pretty much leaves your choices today for a 1915 T-Bucket body to either purchase one from California Custom Roadsters or to section your own standard T-Bucket body like I did using the valuable information I gained from Bob Hamilton’s 5-hour, 3-DVD set titled, Fiberglass Body Modifications.

1915 T-Bucket body Don Oaks

From my perspective we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Don Oaks for the creativity he exercised 50 years ago in pleasing his own design aspirations that has given us a now timeless variation on the classic T-Bucket, the 1915 T-Bucket body.

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John Morehead

Founder at TBucketPlans.com
T-Bucket fanatic since 1957 when my 8 year old eyes became glued to a full page LIFE magazine photo of Norm Grabowski in the wildest hot rod I had ever seen! I later discovered the fascinating T-Buckets of TV Tommy Ivo, Marty Hollmann, Bob Johnston and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s T-Bucket inspired Outlaw. I was hooked for life on T-Bucket hot rods!

TBucketPlans.com originated in 2005 as a personal blog extolling the virtues of T-Buckets. In 2009 I blogged about Chester Greenhalgh, the "how to" genius who wrote the legendary, out-of-print “How to Build a T-Bucket Roadster for Under $3000”. That led to a friendship with Chester and our partnership in marketing the updated eBook version of his T-Bucket building bible. The T-Bucket fire burns stronger and stronger.
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