It was a momentous day in 1968 when I first saw the Don Kendall T-Bucket. I had just opened the November issue of Rod & Custom magazine and couldn’t take my eyes off the two-page spread on a T-Bucket like I had never seen before. It had two very unique features that just about every other T-Bucket builder had never considered. It held a lifelong fascination for me and 43 years later I was able to discover the “secrets” of the Don Kendall T-Bucket.
My Fascination With the Don Kendall T-Bucket
The first thing that caught my eye with Don’s T was, of course, the awesome cross-ram 426 Mopar. Truly mind-boggling power for a lightweight T-Bucket! But, there had been other high horsepower T-Buckets. The second thing that really got my attention was seeing Don in the car — seated with his shoulders below the rear of the body. Now that was truly unique, after having seen every other T-Bucket driver with a major portion of their torso rising up above their T-Bucket door line.
40+ years ago, 26 year-old Don Kendall nailed one of the most important objectives of successful hot rod building. It was highlighted in a recent episode of Chasing Classic Cars. Host Wayne Carini had engaged high end Moal Coachbuilders to build him a custom hot rod/sports car. Moal’s designer and stylist, Alberto Hernandez, stated it perfectly: “One of the most important things that we keep in mind … is how would you look in the car?”
Young Don decided to employ what was termed “lounge chair” seating in his T-Bucket. So, like you might lean back in your La-Z-Boy recliner with your legs and feet comfortably extended above your hips Don used the same principle — not an easy thing to do in a close-quartered T-Bucket.
And contained in that nicely upholstered area under Don’s legs were his T-Bucket’s battery and fuel tank. Which leads us to what I view as the second most unique feature of the Don Kendall T-Bucket.
I’ve noted that I’m a big fan of the “California Modified” style of T-Bucket. That means a T body without a turtle deck or pickup bed behind it. To me it was just a nice, clean utilitarian look. The drawback was that instead most other California Modifieds plopped the fuel tank back there and even if they somehow hid the fuel tank the area behind the T body was blocked by an ugly crossmember and transverse spring arrangement in full view.
Don, however, engineered his chassis so that nothing distracted from one’s view of the beautifully chromed ’56 Olds rear end that handled the mighty Mopar’s torque.
Don was even clever enough to mold into the rear of the body what was then a very novel feature: a combination brake light and sequential turn signal unit.
The above photo, taken a year before its R&C appearance, shows Don with his newly completed T-Bucket; at that time sporting front mag wheels before they were swapped for the Moon wire wheels. After this photo was taken he also added the miniature cowl lights and the chrome chain attached side mirror.
The photo above shows the original tall top on Don’s T. Not long after the R&C feature appeared Don decided to chop the tall T windshield and have a new low-profile top installed, as you’ll note in the photo below.
From the ground to the highest point of the top it was only 50 inches tall (about the height of a modern Dodge Viper). Check out how low it is in the pic above compared to the decklids of the cars in the background.
The lowness of the Don Kendall T-Bucket is further illustrated in this which illustrates that no opening door is necessary. You can just step into it.
His tilting top was a touch of genius.
Don’s T-Bucket was so fine in its concept and construction that it earned the Chicagoan coveted associate membership in the L.A. Roadsters Car Club.
But even with the relatively long (for T-Buckets) 103 inch wheelbase that Don built his T-Bucket on, it was still a bit squirrelly with 425+ horsepower. So Don lengthened the wheelbase further and in the added space between the front crossmember and the radiator he added a 2 gallon tapper beer keg. Some might think that was for looks, but it gave a 50% fuel capacity increase to Don’s T-Bucket with its 4 gallon fiberglass fuel tank under the front part of the floor. A 426 Max Wedge Mopar isn’t too kind on gas mileage and the fuel capacity increase was very welcome. Don “did drive it from Chicago to the Peoria and Tulsa Nationals hitting every gas station along the way.”
The headlights were also changed to the larger brass style and the new top featured upholstered louvers much like the treatment on Cotton Werksman’s T-Bucket.
And getting in with the new, low top was not a problem since Don built a nice flip-top structure.
The Don Kendall T-Bucket was very successful in car shows, but was also driven quite a lot.
Don went on to build another legendary ultra-low T-Bucket with Corvair power. I’ll cover that in another story in the near future.
He eventually sold his Mopar T-Bucket to artist and pinstriper Gary Glenn in Michigan. Gary passed away in 2013 but I had a chance to talk to him about the Don Kendall T-Bucket.
After acquiring the T, Gary added some flames to it and swapped the cross-ram manifold for a tunnel ram.
Gary was no stranger to fast T-Buckets. His own previous T-Bucket was motivated by a supercharged small block Chevy. It can be seen to the right of the Kendall T in the photo below.
Gary said that it was the fastest T-Bucket he had ever driven and that it indeed was a wild ride which he named “Groundshaker”.
Gary eventually sold the T and didn’t recall where it ended up. If anyone does know, we’d love to get an update on it.
Don Kendall T-Bucket Mysteries Solved
Since first seeing the Don Kendall T-Bucket back in 1968 in Rod & Custom I really couldn’t quite figure out how Don had constructed his seating arrangement and I also was not certain how he’d done his rear suspension to keep it so clean looking. So I was on a mission to locate Don and learn from the master how he did it. But, first a quick update on Don’s changes.
After building his wild front engine Corvair-powered T-Bucket in 1973 Don heeded the call to “go West young man” and departed the Windy City for Sunny Southern California. He became a member of the Early Times car club and did some work with fellow club member Dan Woods and eventually opened his own shop.
By the time the 90s rolled around, both Don and Dan Woods had gotten out of the hot rod building business and moved to Northern California where their metal fabrication and mechanical skills were valued in the field of architectural metals used in such high end projects as the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur.
In 2011, I had the opportunity to meet with Don at his shop and home in Sand City, California.
Don was kind enough to share information on how he’d built his Mopar powered T-Bucket and I learned that he found the La-Z-Boy seating quite comfortable on long runs, although he never had to be seated for very long given that he started out with just the fiberglass 4-gallon fuel tank under the floor and even with the additional 2 gallons ahead of the radiator after stretching the wheelbase he was pretty much limited to slightly more than one hour seat time between fuel stops.
In terms of the nearly invisible rear suspension, Don had devised a clever quarter elliptic system with beefy traction bars that played a major role in the tremendous acceleration the T was capable of without undue tirespin. He had also fashioned the rear frame rails to tuck up nicely under the body. You’ll also note that with the long Mopar Torqueflite transmission that the driveshaft was no more than a couple inches long.
What I also found fascinating was Don’s story of how he came to build his T-Bucket with the powerful 426 cubic inch Max Wedge engine. It seems that one of his Chicago buddies had paid a visit to Mr. Norm’s Dodge and was actively campaigning a Super Stock Dodge in the Chicago area street races. When the gendarmes caught up with him and his drivers license was in jeopardy his better half convinced him it was time to swap a mild 383 for the 426 and Don was the beneficiary of that.
Thanks to the Petersen SEMA Digitization Project, there are a few never-before-seen photos that help tell the story of this inspirational T-Bucket hot rod.
On the windshield in the photo above you’ll note Don Kendall’s L.A. Roadsters associate member decal. To the left of the engine-turned dash panel you’ll note the Mopar pushbuttons for the Torqueflite transmission.
Whether the headlights are converted brass spittoons I don’t know, but they sure look like they could be.
The Don Kendall T-Bucket also drew a crowd at the 1974 Street Rod Nationals in Minnesota and this was after Gary Glenn had acquired it.
If you look closely at the valve cover in the photo above you’ll see it’s denoting a Mopar 440 rather than 426. Whether the engine was replaced or the decal denoting the extra 14 cubic inches was the only change, who knows?
You’ll also note from the windshield sign that it’s for sale at the bargain price of $3800. I can’t really make it out very well, but the contact name appears to be a David so this photo may have been taken after Gary Glenn sold the car.
Of course, the tunnel ram replacing the cross ram didn’t help with visibility.
Unfortunately, Don Kendall passed away in 2014. His mechanical accomplishments are his legacy and are not limited to this T-Bucket and his Corvair T-Bucket that will be covered in another story. Don will be remembered as quiet and unassuming, but with a keen eye for style and the mechanical insights, knowledge and skills to bring the most complex concepts to reality.
For me, the Don Kendall T-Bucket in this story will always be an inspiration and I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to spend some time with him. Stay tuned for the next chapter.