Don Brusseau T-Bucket: 1949 to Today

In 1967, I was fascinated by the incredible detail of the Don Brusseau T-Bucket that appeared in two of the major magazines that year. I originally did this post in 2015 and the following year learned that this legendary T-Bucket was for sale after residing for a number of years in the Bill Rolland collection. Later in 2016, I received a call from a gentleman in Australia who along with his brother had purchased the Don Brusseau T roadster and at the time were arranging for its shipment from the U.S. to Australia, where I understand it still resides.

I also wanted to repost this because of the availability of a large group of images courtesy of the Petersen Photo Archives, which you will find in a new gallery at the end of this post.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket Car Craft February 1967
Don Brusseau T-Bucket as featured in February, 1967 Car Craft magazine

It first grabbed my attention in a two-page spead in the February, 1967 issue of Car Craft magazine. With a custom tubular frame, ’37 Ford Tubular front axle with ’63 Econoline spindles and brakes, black walnut pickup bed, cowl mounted windshield wipers, engine-turned aluminum firewall that featured a cockpit fresh air system and a dynamite interior with bucket seats, an under-seat drink cooler, hand made center console and fully instrumented engine turned stainless steel dash, it was a feast for the eyes.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket Rod and Custom July 1967

But things got even better when it graced the cover of the July, 1967 Rod & Custom magazine. Inside was an awesome 6-page feature on everything that went into this incredible T. And I’m talking about detail. The magazine had subtitled the feature, “R&C’s Nomination for the World’s Finest Street Roadster”. No T-Bucket before had been the beneficiary of such well-engineered customizations and modifications. But that’s not all.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that I had been equally impressed by the incredible clean lines of the Don Brusseau T-Bucket seven years earlier, before he totally rebuilt his roadster.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket Hot Rod July 1960

I was twelve years old then and consumed by hot rod roadsters when the Don Brusseau T-Bucket appeared in a three-page spread in the July, 1960 issue of Hot Rod magazine. It was the most “together” looking T I had ever seen. Every element seemed to be coordinated to the extent that it was pleasurable just looking at Don’s T-Bucket. But even that wasn’t the first time for Don’s T to appear in Hot Rod.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket ad Orange County Speed Shop

Evidently, I wasn’t the only one so enamored of Don’s T roadster. It showed up years later as the centerpiece of an Orange County Speed Shop ad.

Recently, I was completely blown away to discover that Don Brusseau’s T-Bucket had first appeared in Hot Rod magazine in May, 1951. That’s almost 65 years ago! But that’s not the best part …

Don Brusseau T-Bucket Roadster

Seven decades later, the Don Brusseau T-Bucket is still around, very well preserved and was recently for sale! This is an amazing historic hot rod find and I’m happy to be able to share my observations on how a gifted craftsman with incredible attention to meticulous detail built what I consider one of the truly most legendary T-Buckets.

History of the Don Brusseau T-Bucket

While his T still exists today, unfortunately, Don Brusseau has passed away. His hot rod legacy, however, lives on.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket
The Don Brusseau T-Bucket with Don’s son, Dan Brusseau

The following was written by Dan Brusseau, Don’s son, after Don passed away in 2012 at the age of 87.

In 1950 my parents and their baby daughter Jeanne were living in a small apartment in Oakland with just enough space for a young family of three. A buddy of my father’s lived a few blocks away and had that most prized of all things – a garage.

It was there that my father would turn his lifelong fascination with all things mechanical into something real. He assembled a frame of Shelby seamless tubing and mounted an old Ford flathead engine and a Lincoln three-speed transmission onto a 1925 Model-T pickup body. Racing, both on the street and on makeshift quarter-mile dirt tracks, ruled the day.
My father’s passion for engineering was disrupted by the Korean War. Upon his return, my family (now including me) relocated to San Lorenzo Village and settled into a new three-bedroom home. He now had his very own attached garage, perfect for indulging his mechanical fantasies. He set out to create something that was fairly new in those days: a street rod that was also a show car.

The Ford flathead was changed out for a 283-cubic-inch Chevy engine with three two-barrel Stromberg carburetors. Beautiful header pipes were fabricated and chromed. Except for the handmade wooden pickup bed, the entire theme of this roadster was black and chrome. It was a thing to behold.

In 1959, my father and four other like-minded individuals founded the Bay Area Roadsters. The Roadsters’ charter stated that admissible cars must be 1932 or older, no hardtops were allowed, and only two-seaters could apply. New members had to be unanimously voted in by the founders.

The membership and the friendships quickly grew. The main activities were talking cars at the monthly meetings (followed by a pizza and keg party), and most importantly, the extended road trips or “runs” that were planned at those meetings.

It was around this time that my father decided that he wanted to show off what he had built. He began entering all the local car shows, including San Jose, San Mateo, San Francisco, and most memorably for me, Oakland – the granddaddy of them all.

It was at the 1960 Oakland Roadster Show that he won the People’s Choice Award, voted by the public attending the show. Dad took many trophies at those shows, but that was the one he was most proud of. Soon thereafter Hot Rod Magazine did a three-page spread on my father’s car, aptly titled “You Can’t Fool the Public.”

Of course, Dad soon got the urge to rebuild and upgrade the car, so in 1963 he built an 880-square-foot shop behind the house to better facilitate that task. By the end of 1965 the now metallic blue roadster was equipped with a 327 Chevy engine, a 350 Turbo-Hydramatic transmission, VW Bus torsion bar rear suspension and new low-slung headers to provide for a passenger door.

By the mid-1970s, the blue paint job had become a dark metallic green, and the 327 Chevy engine was swapped for a 350 stroked to 388. This is the car as it now stands.

My father passed away in December of 2012, and my sister and I inherited the roadster. His memorial was attended by many friends and family, including a lot of the old guys from the original club. Also in attendance were a few current members of the still-thriving Bay Area Roadsters, many of whom had never met my dad. They came to pay their respects to the man who founded the club that they cherish. I was deeply moved by that.”

Don Brusseau T-Bucket
Dan Brusseau with the T-Bucket built by his late father, Don Brusseau

For you T-Bucket fans and those planning to build a T-Bucket, here’s some further detail on how one of the nicest T-Buckets ever built came about.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket, Phase I: 1949-1951

In 1949, Don’s hot rod inspirations were the quick and nimble T-bodied track roadsters of the day. Don spent many hours in the pits on Saturday nights taking measurements for the basis of his own T roadster build.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket Hot Rod May 1951

What’s really impressive is that back in 1949 Don built a tubular steel frame for his 97 inch wheelbase T. This was a time when most were using Model A, boxed T or other junkyard frames. He used 11 gauge, 2 1/2 inch diameter Shelby seamless tubing. To attach the ’40 Ford I-beam front axle, he built a tubular front crossmember between the front tubular frame rails which neatly hugged the sides of a Deuce grille shell. After reaching the firewall of the steel 1925 T body the frame flared out to follow the body lines and was kicked up five inches at the rear. It received further support from a tubular rear crossmember for the 1948 Ford rear axle as well as a center tubular crossmember to support the transmission. While some may say that Norm Grabowski’s legendary T-Bucket was one of the first with four bar front suspension, Don Brusseau included it on his in 1950.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket 1951 Tracy Throttle Mashers
Don Brusseau T-Bucket, on left, from May, 1951 Hot Rod magazine story about Tracy Throttle Mashers drag races. By the way, “hits the Jato!” refers to the acronym for jet-assisted take off.

Don hopped up a Mercury flathead engine to 3 5/16 x 4 for 276 cubic inches and mated it to the defacto performance transmission of the day, a Lincoln.
In the early 1950s drag racing was still in its infancy. Most races were run on airstrips since there were no dedicated drag strips. And 5 mph rolling starts weren’t unusual. To have a 100 mph flathead powered roadster on gas like Don’s was very impressive.

So, over 66 years ago Don Brusseau designed and built a frame for his T roadster much like those that became popular two decades later, except his was fashioned from tubular steel which is harder to fabricate than rectangular steel tubing.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket 1958 under construction
Don Brusseau T-Bucket under construction, 1958 .

Don Brusseau T-Bucket, Phase II: 1958-1964

As Dan noted, in 1951 his dad was called to active duty in the Korean War and sold his roadster to his brother. Don returned home from Korea in 1953 and for the next five years had other things that captured his interest. The hot rod bug bit again in 1958 and fortunately Don’s brother still had his old T roadster. However, while Don was away his brother swapped the flathead for a 1950 Cadillac OHV V8 and later tried to replace that with a 1951 Chrysler Hemi and automatic transmission, at which time the mechanical challenges were too much and it was left disassembled.

Don Brusseau rebuilding T-Bucket
Don Brusseau rebuilding his T-Bucket in 1958

When Don reacquired his T roadster from his brother in 1958 he set about reassembling it, but with a new 283 Chevy V8 with tripower Stromberg carbs.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket 1959
Don Brusseau T-Bucket 1959

The highly positioned headers flowing to the rear of the T body were a distinguishing feature of the T.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket Bonneville

And Don built his T to drive. After finishing it in 1959 he drove some 9,000 highway miles.

Don Brusseau Hot Rod Roadster T-Bucket

When he drove the roadster to Bonneville it made the trip at a then economy car rate of 25 MPG.

Oakland Roadster Show Don Brusseau T-Bucket

By the time the 1960 Oakland Roadster Show came around, Don had further finished his budget T build and decided to enter it. And Don walked away with the coveted People’s Choice Award.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket Roadster
Don Brusseau T-Bucket at 1960 Oakland Roadster Show, next to Ray Anderegg’s 1927 T

“I didn’t start out to build a way-out show car, just the best doggone, most comfortable roadster possible.” Don Brusseau

Don Brusseau T-Bucket 1960 Oakland Roadster Show Peoples Choice winner
Don Brusseau accepting “People’s Choice” trophy from 1960 Oakland Roadster Show from show manager, Mel Fernandez

After the Oakland win, Don set out to enjoy the roadster he had designed and built by traveling some 30,000 miles in it from 1960 to 1964.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket, Phase III: 1964-1966

After racking up all those street and highway miles Don observed how he could make his little T roadster even more comfortable and fun so he set out to do a rebuild. His goal was to have it completed by the 1965 Oakland Roadster Show. That was not to be.

Disassembled Don Brosseau T-Bucket Roadster

You see, Don undertook a complete rebuild. To legally run fenderless at 1,450 pounds and because the original T tin had seen its day Don bought a fiberglass T-Bucket body from Cal Automotive. He bent thin wall electrical conduit to fit the internal body contours to stiffen the body — and also built his own top bows.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket Roadster

Not liking to see “garbage” like exhaust and other parts hanging below the body, Don designed and built a very functional full belly pan for the T based on an elaborate framework fashioned from angle iron. The belly pan was made up of 15 separate pieces, all of which could be easily removed for whatever work was necessary thanks to the use of some 100 Dzus quarter turn fasteners.

He also took this opportunity to replace the I-beam front axle with a chromed 1937 Canadian Ford tubular axle hung under a new suicide perch. To improve on the ’40 Ford brakes, Don adapted Ford Econoline spindles and brakes to the axle. To give better visibility to the new axle the Deuce grille shell was replaced with a 1921 Model T shell.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket Roadster

The belly pan also featured vents that could be controlled to allow warm air into the passenger compartment on cold days, as well as a firewall vent that allowed fresh air in on hot days. Don was also an early adopter of the electric fan for radiator cooling, as well as for exhausting hot air. He also build a dashboard controllable heat exchanger that would cool the engine oil by 30 degrees when activated. At the time, the ’48 Ford rear axle was replaced by the more durable Ford 9 inch version out of a ’57 Ford station wagon that was more narrow than the one it replaced and fit more nicely to the T body.

The Shelby tubing chassis was also reinforced to better handle the increased power of the Chevy engine by running a 1 inch O.D. tubular ladder type rail under each of the primary 2-1/2 inch rails. The Lincoln tranny was replaced by a dual range HydraMatic transmission from a Chevy truck for effortless around town cruising.

Rear view Don Brusseau T-Bucket roadster

In 1966 the Bay Area Roadsters and Los Angeles Roadsters, along with a few others established the first Roadster Roundup of both Northern and Southern California roadsters at a mutually agreed upon spot in the middle, which happened to be Pismo Beach. Close to 60 roadsters were there and one of the key activities was for the roadsters owners to inspect each others’ cars and choose the “Most Popular Roadster”. After much scrutiny, Don Brusseau’s T-Bucket was the almost unanimous choice for the coveted honor.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket Car Craft Top 10

It was the Roadster Roundup recognition that also garnered magazine features in Rod & Custom and Car Craft in 1967 and Don’s car had even more covered in 1968 when it was selected as one of Car Craft‘s Top 10 Features of the previous year.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket, Phase IV: 1967-Today

Don’s T-Bucket was so iconic of the 1960s hot rod state of the art that it was the featured image on the back cover of the terrific “Hot Rods & Customs of the 1960s” book by photographer Andy Southard, Jr.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket Hot Rods of the 1960s

Don Brusseau T-Bucket camper top

Of course, Don wasn’t content to leave things as they were and in the 1970s his T-Bucket could even be seen sporting his own custom made camper top above the abbreviated pickup bed.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket camper

Don Brusseau T-Bucket camper

But when he needed more than his little camper top could hold, Don would hitch up a full size travel trailer.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket camper trailer

For an even better ride, the transverse spring rear suspension was replaced by torsion bars from a Volkswagen bus.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket

The 283 was eventually replaced by a more contemporary 350 engine and the triple Strombergs with a large single quad carburetor. Don’s handmade headers gave way to stainless steel Sandersons. The old super low ratio Hydro seems to have been replaced by the more modern and dependable Turbo Hydramatic. Continuing with the upgrades, Don evidently replaced the front Econoline drum brakes with discs. The chrome Astro wheels of the 60s were replaced with nice American Racing slotted versions, too.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket Roadster

Along the way, the original ’40 Ford steering wheel has given way to what looks like a Grant wood rimmed wheel.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket Roadster
Don Brusseau at 50th Anniversary Grand National Roadster Show, 2009

After Don’s passing, his T roadster joined the collection of Bill Rolland, a man who knows fine T-Buckets, having acquired Tommy Ivo’s T and updated it for numerous movie appearances in the 1960s. More recently, I saw where it was being offered for sale at $60K — a deal and a half in my book!

I could go on about what a marvelous one-of-a-kind T-Bucket Don Brusseau created and how his skilled and meticulous construction combined with advanced engineering brought about a true T masterpiece. But I think Don would be happy to know that what he started over 65 years ago still serves as inspiration for hot rod builders today. I know you’ll marvel at it when you examine the photos in the following photo gallery.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket Bill Rolland Photo Gallery

The images of Don Brusseau’s T-Bucket in this gallery are from when it was owned by influential hot rodder, Bill Rolland. Click on any thumbnail to enlarge it and then scroll through these 60 photos of the Don Brusseau T-Bucket for some great T-Bucket building inspiration.

Don Brusseau T-Bucket Petersen Photo Archives Gallery

We’re very grateful for the incredible Petersen SEMA Digitization Project which now includes over 1 million images. The Don Brusseau T certainly captured the attention of Petersen’s photographers and you’ll enjoy seeing it in detail in this gallery of images.

Another Petersen Digital Archives gem is this pic highlighting the comprehensive dash of Don’s T at the 1968 Pismo Beach Roadster Roundup.

Pismo Beach, by the way, is a 225 mile trip south of Don’s residence in San Lorenzo. This is a T-Bucket that was driven far and frequently, a testament to Don Brusseau’s building skills.

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10 thoughts on “Don Brusseau T-Bucket: 1949 to Today”

  1. Don Brusseau was my uncle. I remember as a little girl, him having trophies taller than I was, for this beloved vehicle. I just found out that it is now in Australia, at John’s Rods and Customs shop. They are looking for exactly the history you have so wonderfully laid out. They are on Facebook…..

    Reply
    • Thanks Nancy. I’m a big admirer of the work your uncle did in his long-term T roadster build. The detail, ingenuity and practicality of it are incredible. After I originally posted the story in 2015 it was listed for sale in 2016 and that same year I did have a call from Australia from the buyer. I’m guessing it’s now with a different Australian owner and hope that anyone who is lucky enough to have it will recognize its historic significance. Thanks again for letting me know. You’ve given me a good reason to update and repost.

      Reply
      • I grew up in Hayward,Ca. (next to San Lorenzo). San Lorenzo Village was a subdivision built in the 50’s so guys coming back from the war could buy a house for their families on the G I bill. My dad & I would go to the Oakland Roadster Show almost every year. SMALL WORLD!

        Reply
        • Thanks Don. Yes, it’s also great to see how Don Brusseau’s T-Bucket fit into those modest times because all the upgrades were done on a civil service worker’s budget and the end result is a testament to not only how budget friendly T-Buckets are but also to Don’s incredible home building skills.

          Reply

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