Kookie Kar Kopy of Gary DeFer

“Yes, I copied the Kookie Kar and Ivo’s T,” said Gary DeFer when I met him at the 2017 T-Bucket Nationals in Carson City, Nevada. I felt in the presence of a celebrity because I’d been admiring Gary’s evolving traditional T-Bucket for over 25 years in various online forums.

To me, Gary had really nailed it in building a truly traditional T-Bucket that captured the essence of both Norm Grabowski’s Kookie Kar and Tommy Ivo’s famous roadster. It had the chopped deuce grille shell and Caddy engine that were such notable Norm features, but it was also very much like Ivo’s because it wasn’t quite as radically raked, didn’t have windshield support rods, and featured hairpins and a flameless red paint job, although without titian shading.

Like both his inspirations, Gary went with the so traditional T V8-60 front axle, banjo rear and wide whites with baby moons at both ends.

I’d been in Carson City on Thursday and Friday taking loads of photos at the annual National T-Bucket Alliance event, but the Saturday show-and-shine at the local park was the first time I saw Gary’s Kookie Kar. Since I’d already seen most all the other T’s and because I was such a fan of Gary’s I kind of attached myself to him for the day, peppering him with questions about his build and discussing T-Buckets in general.

Gary had left his home in Northern California early that morning for the 5 hour drive to Carson City and arrived at the park before most of the NTBA attendees had left for the show-and-shine.

Gary said he’d trailered his T there since he was just making it a day trip. However, it’s a hot rod that he’s racked up quite a few miles with. In the early stages, it was his daily driver for about a year and he noted that he’d made the trip twice to Bonneville in the roadster from the Bay Area, as well as three or four trips to SoCal for the L.A. Roadsters Fathers Day show.

If you check out the autographs on his dash above you’ll see names like Norm, Isky, Blackie, and even Kookie himself, Edd Byrnes.

“I am not a racer or even in the car business just another old guy that loves old rods,” according to Gary. “We all have our build era. Mine is pre-1960.”

Case in point. Take a look at the flexible radiator hose above. One day, after noting on a forum that his T overheated it was suggested that particular hose type and configuration could be a contributing factor. Gary responded that it was just as Norm had done it on the Kookie Kar and VonFranco did it the same way in his clone, so “unless everything else fails it will stay there.”

But look at the engine again and you’ll see the modern stainless overflow tank. Gary explained that to a forum group: “I go by the thought that if my roadster was built in the ’50 or the ’60s somebody would have updated some things. Really it just blends into the other chrome. I have not had anybody notice it even at the T-Bucket Nationals and scrutinized by the TBucketPlans guy.” 🙂

Following Gary’s philosophy, take a look at the shifter. That’s not connected to a ’39 Ford box, but a fully synchronized 3 speed from a 1960s Ford Econoline van, with a Jeep shifter attached. Now take a look at what the other end of the arrow is pointing to under the dash. Care to guess what that is?

That’s a handy-dandy tool for unsticking stubborn Stromberg 97 floats. Also known as a hammer. 😉

Gary is a real traditionalist and pretty much kept to himself that day. Later, he posted that there was only one other car there he took photos of, a very traditional track roadster. I was surprised to see he went on to say, “Did meet and enjoyed talking to John, ‘TBucketPlans’ out of Chicago.”

I enjoyed chatting with Gary so much that day that I didn’t record anything or take notes, but Gary had already written a very nice story about how his Kookie Kar came about and was kind enough to give me permission to use it. Unfortunately, Gary passed away a little over six months after we met. He will certainly be remembered by many.

Hope you enjoy his story.


By Gary E. DeFer
In 1979 after many years of mentally building a Model “T” hot rod along the lines of Norm Grabowski’s and Tommy Ivo’s rides, I stumbled across the remains of someone’s unfinished project sitting in a vacant lot in Hayward, California.

Kookie Kar Kopy Gary DeFer T-Bucket

I had followed “Estate Sale” signs to the spot where it was languishing next to a house where the sale was being conducted. Ignoring all the other sale items I went straight to the “T”. It consisted of the gutted but steel tubing reinforced front half of a middle teen to early twenty’s “T” touring body with a shortened Model “A” P.U. bed tack welded to the back. A highly modified “A” frame and the prize, a pair of Tornado aluminum headlight stand’s.

I knew this was my chance to start the project I had dreamed of for so many years. I casually walked over to the people running the sale and asked them if “the old car” was for sale. They seemed surprised anybody would be interested and said I could have it all for $20. I couldn’t get my wallet out fast enough. I took it home and put it in the old leaky shed that I used as a shop in the back of my San Leandro tract home.

Kookie Kar Kopy Gary DeFer T-Bucket
The 32 Ford grill was purchased later that year at a swap for $12.50. After dickering it down from $15. That will tell you how tight money was for me in the late 70s, raising a family while trying to build my dream rod.

The next few years I lived the Northern California swap circuit. Picking up parts I deemed necessary to achieve “The Look”. I never wanted to clone Norm’s “Kookie Kar” as Von Franco, unknown to me at the time was doing, but just to capture the look as Tommy Ivo had with his copy in the ‘50s. Certain parts were essential.

I already had the original early “T” body with the shortened “A” bed and the Tornado headlight brackets. I now needed a 37 Ford V8 60 tube front axle and a 40 Ford banjo differential to complete “the look”. These parts I wouldn’t compromise on. I found and purchased them in the ensuing few years.

Kookie Kar Kopy Gary DeFer T-Bucket
1988, me in the plaid shirt with my good friend Al Fontes who did most of the heavy welding and all of the final paint.

Yes this was a long-term project encompassing most of the decade of the ‘80s. Remember, in the ‘80s the word nostalgia wasn’t in most of our vocabulary so all I needed was a V8 engine. A friend gave me a 260 Ford V8 that would do fine, and it fit into my budget.

By the late ‘80s I had a rolling chassis. and had discovered the Goodguys rod runs. I stepped up the pace and had the roadster streetable in 1989.

Kookie Kar Kopy Gary DeFer T-Bucket
Me driving the roadster from the backyard shed for the first time 1989

I attended my first Goodguys event in May of that year where I met Von Franco. We hit it off great.

Von Franco taking me for a ride in his Kookie Kar clone that I still thought was the original ’50s Grabowski rod.

I loved his car that was so like Grabowski’s “T” I thought at the time it was the original, and Franco gave no reason to believe otherwise.

Kookie Kar Kopy Gary DeFer T-Bucket

Over the next fifteen or so years I enjoyed driving my “T” to many rod runs in California.

I hit up the L.A. Roadsters Fathers-Day shows in Pomona several times, many Goodguys events and a couple of Northern California Billetproof shows.

Kookie Kar Kopy Gary DeFer T-Bucket
A pit pass on the windshield. We were with the Tardel racing group.

I even got the chance to drive it to the Bonneville salt-flats a couple of times with the Tardel racing team.

Getting a glimpse of the Bonneville salt. Just outside of Wendover, Utah and ahead my good friend Jay West in his bitchin’ flathead powered 29 highboy.

By this time the roadster was starting to get a little frayed around the edges.

Salt caked on rear suspension. No way to prevent damage.

The salt had taken its toll on the rear suspension, the brakes were showing signs of wear and I had started working on a ’53 Cadillac engine for it. By now I wanted it to be all ‘50s. It was time for a rebuild.

Kookie Kar Kopy Gary DeFer T-Bucket
A picture from about 2003. I can tell because of only one blue Bonneville sticker and I first drove it to Bonneville in 2002 then again in 2004. This pictures shows the “ugly gaps between the firewall and the Mustang small-block engine and the engine and the radiator” as told me by a professional photographer at a calendar shoot. Something I would correct in the rebuild.

After getting back from my second trip to Bonneville in 2004 I already had the early ’50s Cad. engine almost finished. It was time to tear down the roadster for a redo after almost fifteen years of driving. In those fifteen years I had found parts to change it from just a ’50s look to a real ’50s car. The salt had gotten into all the rear suspension and it all needed dismantling, cleaning and replacing. All that couldn’t be saved.

Kookie Kar Kopy Gary DeFer T-Bucket
2003: ’50 Cad long block finished. New old stock Isky roller tappet cam, Chevy roller lifters, adjustable push-rods ’55 heads ported and polished with hard seats installed.

I built my roadster in the ’80s when nobody was building nostalgia rods (except maybe Von Franco and his Kookie Kar clone), so I built with a lot of newer parts. Since the first build in the ’80s and the rebuild starting in about 2005 I had been collecting parts that would have been used on a ’50s built car.

My goal now is for a real informed old school hot-rodder to look my roadster over and not be sure it wasn’t originally built in the ’50s and stored away all that time and just now brought out and cleaned up.

Kookie Kar Ross steering

I saw this old chrome steering box laying by a friends unfinished 29 roadster. I told him if he didn’t use it that I wanted it. About a year later he told me it was mine and would only take the $20 he had paid for it many years before. You don’t find friends like that every day.

Horne Cadillac intake manifold

More old parts collected over the years. All old chrome for the ’50s build look.

Pretty much put together here. Quarter inch contoured plywood backrest in a continuing effort for more legroom.

Kookie Kar Kopy Gary DeFer T-Bucket

Exhaust collectors are WWII mortar shell casings.

First time driven out of the garage 2009. Thought I might use those back tires. Glad I didn’t.

New tank for the rebuild. Probably doubled the old Toyota tank and looks old.

Rebuilt rear suspension with as much stainless as I could get.

Kookie Kar Kopy Gary DeFer T-Bucket

L.A. Roadsters Show 2010 first real showing. New tires and a quick coating of white header paint on the exhaust. I like the look so much I think I’ll just keep them that way.

Blackie Gejean signing my dash at LARS. The shifter skull Norm Grabowski carved for me in about 2000.

I want one more signature and have a place for Ed Iskenderians’ right above his round water decal on the right of my dash. Hope to get it this Fathers day at LARS. (Note: Gary’s Kookie Kar did get that Isky autograph)

More ’50s parts. Deep “baby moons”.

New carpet designed to show off the Ross steering box.

I hope you enjoyed Gary DeFer’s story as much as I do and that you may find it inspirational as well. He built a truly notable T-Bucket, but on a budget and over a relatively long period of time. I truly hope Gary’s Kookie Kar is in good hands today.

John Morehead
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5 thoughts on “Kookie Kar Kopy of Gary DeFer”

  1. In the middle of a old school 23T with 283 chev / winters rear not to old and a 26 doctor coupe same kind of engine / jag rear both frames almost finish both body’s still need work
    I am a retired aircraft mech/ pilot and a life long tinker

  2. Hi John,
    I love old school T buckets and this is a really good one. I am a retired shop teacher in the Central Valley of California and built mine in the early 80s. I will admire anyone’s car, but the ones that really get my attention are the cars that have hand-built components with unusual drivetrains. I really think there are lots of T- buckets in California that would be considered “garage finds”.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. very nice build i like the whole car i am building one for my self chevy driveline though but very close to same candy apple red to nice job rob


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