I’ve been in love with the Jim Unruh T-Bucket for two decades. You may not believe it, but that’s only how old it is — despite looking like a T-Bucket treasure from the 1950s or 60s.
My eyes locked on the Jim Unruh T-Bucket when I first saw it at the 2004 National T-Bucket Alliance T-Bucket Nationals in Omaha, Nebraska. It looked like a survivor, but it also looked like a clean new build. It was traditional looking for sure!
But, arguably there just weren’t any T-Buckets, other than Norm’s and Tommy’s, that looked quite this cool 60 or 70 years ago.
Come on, can you even think of any T-Buckets back then with such a cool low-slung profile and perfect proportions?
I was so taken with the Jim Unruh T-Bucket when I first saw it in Omaha that I hovered over and under it any way I could to take photos. Alas, they were uploaded to a laptop that was stolen shortly thereafter.
Therefore, I must credit David “Photoman” Shipman with many of the excellent photos shown here. I was lucky enough, though, to take a few later when it was drawing crowds at the old Hunnert Car Pileup.
But, to back up, Jim had some very good local midwestern T-Bucket building influences.
Jim started his early hot rod building as a youngster in the northwest suburbs of Chicago with contemporaries who built their own T-Buckets like Don Kendall, Bob Knaack and Lee Neiman and had the opportunity to learn sophisticated T-Bucket building skills under the tutelage of a master like the late Cotton Werksman. It all began with Jim purchasing a Ford Duplicators T body in 1967 while just a sophomore in high school.
Eventually Jim opened his own shop, Lions Hot Rods, and not only built many T-Buckets and other hot rods but became quite well-known for producing many beautiful Lakes Modified T’s.
Let’s jump into what makes this particular nostalgic-looking T-Bucket so cool and period perfect.
One of the first things you’ll notice is the so-called V8-60 front axle, which was used on Ford’s “economy” cars of the 1937 to 1939 era powered by a shrunken flathead V8 of only 136 cubic inches and generating a mere 60 horsepower. This lightweight axle of oval shaped tubing was more in keeping with the small engine compared to the heavier I-beam axles.
To achieve the distinctive look of the Grabowski and Ivo front axles, Jim cut the spring hangers off a 1940 era Ford wishbone assembly and he reverse mounted the spring hangers so that the spring would now hang behind the tubular front axle.
Take another close look at the finished car photo above the under construction one and on the driver side headlight you’ll see a nostalgic L.A. Roadsters car show participant sticker, and on the passenger side behind the transverse spring an original National Hot Rod Association logo sticker.
For period perfect stopping Jim added early Ford juice brakes and topped them off with 1958 to 1965 era Buick finned aluminum brake drums with matching air scoops for added ventilation.
Following Norm’s “Kookie Kar” lead, Jim went with a chopped Deuce grille shell and fabricated a woven wire mesh insert.
For motorvation, Jim went with an equally nostalgic 283 Chevy small block crate motor that someone had bought years ago for a boat but never used.
When mocking up the car, Jim was planning to use a very traditional Spaulding Flamethrower dual-coil ignition, but decided differently in light of the shortage of replacement parts available and the fact that he planned a lot of driving for his T-Bucket. You can also see the reversed Corvair steering box in the above photo.
The early front motor mount 283 was topped off with a trio of Stromberg 97 carbs, finned valve covers and a finned remote “Beehive” oil filter/cooler just as Norm Grabowski had used.
A hot rod engine can’t have too many fins, so a finned cast aluminum timing chain cover was also used. Painting the engine white in the finished version of the Jim Unruh T-Bucket is yet another tribute to the Tommy Ivo T.
Keeping with the fins theme, is the firewall mounted coil cover, oil fill/breather and the flexible stainless radiator hose. The chromed exhaust headers are of the flowing nostalgic “roadster” vs. more angular “sprint car” style and particular attention was paid to engine mounting to ensure they followed the bottom body lines perfectly.
Now here’s something to think about when it comes to “big and little” wheels and tires. Bigger is not always best! On the front, Jim used 5×15 whitewalls and on the rear 8.20×15. Jim always tries for a 30-31″ tire on the rear of his T-Buckets and lakes modified roadsters.
Of course, they are mounted on chrome reversed wheels which are further accented by nostalgic “Shannon cones”. Those bulleted hubcaps were first made by Esajian Enterprises in Fresno, California around 1961 and founder Richard Esajian’s son’s middle name was Shannon
Yes, it’s a fiberglass body. But you wouldn’t know if from the rear with that louvered tailgate. And if you look closely at the driver side spider web you’ll see a couple of bullet holes there as well. Jim was inspired to do that after discussing bullet holes with Norm Grabowski who’d used them on his Kookie II roadster.
The louvers and bullet holes are real and on metal panels that were blended into the fiberglass body. The above under-construction mockup photo shows how the louvers were done.
If you look closely at the inside of the Jim Unruh T-Bucket you’ll see 3 pedals and a ’39 Ford looking tall shifter, which is actually a Jeep shifter adapted to a Ford top-loader 3-speed transmission. The unfinished interior just gives it an even more “survivor” look.
When you look closely at the dash panel the nostalgic nature of the T is further enhanced by the dash plaque from the first Street Rod Nationals in 1970, which Jim attended.
What I call the Jim Unruh T-Bucket was actually started back in 1997 as a personal side project in Jim’s rod building shop. Back then it was known as “Brett’s car” because Jim was building it for his son.
But, as in any busy shop, it ended up collecting dust in a corner until 2004 when Jim made a commitment to finish it for the 2004 T-Bucket Nationals in Omaha.
It all came together in about four month’s time and Jim was off on a 400 mile journey in his dazzling Dodge Viper blue T-Bucket.
It might have been a bit ambitious for a maiden voyage …
But, the Jim Unruh T-Bucket made it safely to Omaha. That’s when I first saw and fell in love with it.
Since then, his son Brett put many miles on it.
The car was so stunningly cool and unique that it became calendar material.
For a while it was Brett’s daily driver and then it was Jim’s almost daily driver (Chicago area weather, you know). And was alternately known as “Brett’s car” or “the blue car”, depending on whose turn it was.
I could go on, but if you want to discover more of the details about how the Jim Unruh T-Bucket was planned and built and pick up some T-Bucket style secrets you won’t learn anywhere else, then check out our latest Podcast Episode about the Jim Unruh T-Bucket.