Don Tognotti’s King T Pioneers T-Bucket Independent Rear Suspension
Seeing Don Tognotti’s King T on the cover of Rod & Custom in 1964, I was amazed! At first, it looked like just a really nice Model T with a fancy paint job — but what was that wild chrome-covered rear end?!
To put things in perspective, it was only in 1961 that Jaguar introduced the XKE, the first automobile to employ independent rear suspension. Today, some people take a Jag IRS under a T-Bucket for granted. But in 1964 99% of them were still under Jaguar XKEs and probably none had been uncaged like we see them today under a T-Bucket roadster. So, over 50 years ago I don’t think anyone had seen a rear suspension under a hot rod quite like the one under Don Tognotti’s King T. And it wasn’t a Jag IRS!
Get ready to be shocked. It was a ’55 Chevy rear end! At least to start with. Then, a very talented builder of sprint cars and midgets named Walt Reiff worked his machinists’ magic on it. Starting with just the center section of the passenger car rear end, it was cut down to where only 4 inches of axle remained on either side. Walt then fabricated inboard Airheart disc brakes in a fashion similar to the Jaguar rear end. From there, the half shafts were fabricated from GMC truck driveshafts that were each shortened by four feet! Walt then fabricated the outer wheel carriers in his machine shop.
The lower and upper wishbones were elegantly fabricated from steel tubing and early Monroe Load-Leveler shocks with coil springs were used to control the ride. However, Tognotti’s King T was built strictly as a show car. Another neat feature was how the exhaust was routed out between the half shafts and lower wishbones.
The independent rear suspension that Walt Reiff designed and built for Tognotti’s King T roadster would undoubtedly go on to inspire a young Cotton Werksman to fabricate his own T-Bucket IRS in 1968 using a Halibrand quickchange center section.
Now here is where the mechanical skills and vision of Walt Reiff contributed so much to the success of Don Tognotti’s King T. Walt, as an accomplished race car builder, had no doubt become aware of Jaguar’s innovative rear suspension when the XKE was introduced to the U.S. in 1961. It’s very likely he may have seen the lengthy positive XKE road test review that appeared in the December, 1961 issue of Car and Driver magazine noting that, “the XK-E presents an important advance in independent rear suspension.”
To someone without Reiff’s mechanical skills, though, it would not be possible to see the beautiful swan that was hidden beneath the ugly ducking stock caged Jaguar IRS. What Walt built for Don’s T was his own artistic interpretation of what a team of British engineers had probably spent man-years developing. It’s my contention that Walt Reiff’s scratch-built IRS directly inspired the uncaged Jaguar IRS movement that followed in the T-Bucket and hot rod world just a few years later, after that amazing rear end helped Don Tognotti’s King T win the coveted 1964 America’s Most Beautiful Roadster award.
Tragically, in 1970 during the 3rd Annual U.S. Open Championship For Sprint Cars and Super Modifieds at the old Sacramento Fairgrounds, Walt Reiff was one of three drivers who lost their lives that day in two separate accidents.
About Tognotti’s King T
In the “Hot Rod Yearbook 4” of 1964 Don Tognotti’s King T was labeled “a ‘Stock’ Bodied ‘T'”. Quite an understatement. When it appeared on the cover of R&C in June, 1964, the King T was fresh off becoming the Grand Sweepstakes winner at that year’s big ICCA Winternationals Car Show, which was annually held in conjunction with the NHRA Winternationals Drag Races.
Following that in 1964, the King T returned to Northern California where the 1914 T became the oldest car to ever win the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster award at the Oakland Roadster Show.
Don Tognotti started building the King T in July 1962. As R&C said, “The original ‘T’ bucket was purchased for $300”. Don had B&N Automotive in Sacramento disassemble the Model T and box the original T frame. Something not recommended if you’re actually going to be driving a T with a modern V8, but this was a show car from the get-go. Point in fact: the entire frame was chrome plated. While Blackie Gejeian introduced Oakland show goers to the first chromed suspension, Don left nothing out. Even the running board brackets were chromed.
With a dropped tubular front axle, the King T was suspended with 1951 Chevy coil springs and the same donor vehicle was used for the spindles which mated to front Airheart disc brakes.
For power, Don chose a relatively stock 1955 Chevy 265 cubic inch engine to which he originally added a custom manifold that mounted four port Hilborn blower injectors. Again, this was a show car and that was eventually replaced with a single quad carburetor and blower scoop in a later restoration. The small block was mated to an early GM Hydro transmission.
The Hydro was shifted using the original Model T spark control arms on the steering column. A custom dash was fabricated with painted wood grain and an engine-turned gauge panel insert. The original upholstery was in pearl-beige Naugahyde with silver buttons.
The bodywork and paint on the King T were done by living legend, Gene Winfield.
Gene mixed and applied the unique pearl “chameleon” lavender lacquer which also won Best Paint at the Winternationals show.
The miniature life of Tognotti’s King T
Like many popular rods and show cars of the 1960s, Tognotti’s King T also fascinated thousands of youngsters as well as adults who were avid model car builders. By the way, in an era with only three television channels and no such thing as video games, model building was huge. In fact, at one time almost half of Rod & Custom’s content and ads were devoted to model cars.
In late 1964, Model Products Company (MPC), which was started by former AMT executive, George Toteff, produced the tooling for a Tognotti’s King T 1/25 scale model which was very nicely detailed.
By agreement with his former employer, Toteff allowed AMT to be first to introduce the King T, which they did along with another T tooled up by Toteff, Joe Wilhelm‘s Wild Dream, in a double kit. A great way for AMT to increase profits: have someone else invest in the tooling and then have the customer spend twice as much for two models.
After the agreed upon initial production run marketed by AMT, Tognotti’s King T was then sold as an individual model by MPC.
Don Tognotti’s King T also served as inspiration for Mattel in 1968 when it became part of their offering of 16 California custom styled Hot Wheels.
It was called the Hot Heap and was made from 1968 to 1971 in both the Hong Kong and U.S. factories of Mattel.
Tognotti’s King T Hits the Car Show Circuit
In the same June, 1964 edition of Rod & Custom with the four-page photo feature on Don Tognotti’s King T there was an ad promoting the Seattle Custom Auto Fair. With a picture of the King T, it welcomed show attendees to see, “Don Tognotti’s fabulous “King T” … the world’s dreamiest Show Rod”.
In the Fall of 1964, Tognotti’s King T went on tour with Promotions, Inc. and was featured in car shows throughout the country.
It’s very nicely described on a promotional show card.
As we rounded out the Promotions, Inc. Show Car Division roster of feature attractions for the 1964-65 season, a top-notch rod was an obvious necessity. Little trouble was encountered though, as we needed look no further than Sacramento, California, where we found the wildest stock-bodied roadster, ever built. Sweepstakes winner at both Winternationals and Oakland shows, the rod is none other than Don Tognotti’s KING-T.
Don is positive proof that car enthusiasts are a different breed of people. Although he customizes cars strictly as a hobby, Don worked 20 hours a week over a period of 1 1/2 years to create this Model T extravaganza which is now valued at $10,000. Why so much time and money spent on a hobby? In Tognotti’s own words, “It gives a person the chance to be an individual.” His answer appears to be quite accurate, for there can be no doubt that the KING-T is a one-of-a-kind automobile.
Don purchased the original 1914 Model-T Ford for $300.00, stripped it to the frame, and started rebuilding. His final product, the KING-T, features stock fenders, body, windshield, radiator shell, and headlights with a turtle deck reproduced in fiberglass. The paint combines shades of special “chameleon” lavender, applied by Gene Winfield of Modesto who is also credited with the body work.
The interior sports black deep-pile carpet, chrome-button tufted pearl-beige naugahyde upholstery, gleaming walnut instrument panel, and wooden steering wheel. Power comes from a modified 1955 Chevy engine, coupled to a Hydro trans. Don mounted Hilborn blower injectors on a special intake manifold.
The biggest single feature of the KING-T is probably the undercarriage, for every piece, including the frame rails, has been chrome plated. A hand formed tube axle with ’51 Chev coil springs supports the front end, while independent rear suspension is featured. Airheart disc brakes are utilized with inboard location at the rear.
The KING-T successfully fulfills builder Tognotti’s objective of combining past and future into one wild automotive creation.
toured by Promotions, Inc.
Tognotti’s King T Since Then
Somewhere along the way, the King T was sold. Don Tognotti was famous for not only being a custom car builder and speed shop owner and race track promoter, but he also at one time owned the Sacramento Autorama as well as the Grand National Roadster Show. Sadly, shortly before Christmas in 2000 Don Tognotti took his own life and that of his wife who had been ill.
Not long after that, car collector Ken McBride of Seattle acquired the King T which had been sitting in the basement of a skyscraper in New York City. Supposedly it had not been shown since 1968. In 2007, McBride undertook a restoration of the King T and had Gene Winfield fly to Seattle to repaint it to its original stunning finish. It was reintroduced to the show world in 2008/2009. Then the King T was sold at the Barrett-Jackson 2010 Scottsdale event for $85,800 and became part of the extensive Tammy Allen Collection in Colorado.
And now it’s back at Barrett-Jackson.
It goes on the block on Saturday, October 15, 2016 in Las Vegas with no reserve. Here is the Barrett-Jackson description:
Lot #684 – The “King T” was designed and built by Don Tognotti and Gene Winfield over a two-year period from 1962 to 1964. It features a tubular frame with independent rear suspension and ’51 front coils. Power comes from a Chevy 327ci mated to a Hydramatic transmission, the shifting of which is done via the original Model T spark advance and throttle controls on the steering column. The “King T” was restored to its former glory in 2007. Gene Winfield himself was brought in to recreate the original Wild Lavender Pearl paint. The car’s original Hilborn fuel-injection system was replaced with a simple carburetor system during the restoration. The car has always been known more for its styling, paint and extensive chroming. The “King T” was the 1964 AMBR trophy winner and it also won at the Winter Nationals Auto Fair and the Oakland Roadster Show. The “King T” was so famous it was immortalized as a model kit and as the Hot Wheels “Hot Heaps” Roadster. From the Tammy Allen Collection.
Auction Las Vegas 2016
Reserve NO RESERVE
It will be very interesting to see what Don Tognotti’s King T brings this time around. It’s truly an award-winning nostalgic show rod that still looks great today. Plus, it was very influential in the T-Bucket world and street rodding in general in terms of eye-catching independent rear suspension. And with King T fever and Speedway’s new T-Bucket fenders offering we might be on the cusp of seeing a whole new trend in T-Bucket building.
October 15, 2016 Update – Sold
For the bargain price of $39,600! What a terrific deal for an America’s Most Beautiful Roadster winner! Congratulations to the new owner.
UPDATE (11/14/16): Evidently the sale at a loss of the Fast ‘n Loud raked T-Bucket we wrote about recently didn’t sour Richard Rawlings and the Gas Monkey crew on T-Buckets, because I just learned he was the purchaser of the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster winning Tognotti King T!
“People were asleep and I stole it!” That’s how Richard Rawlings describes how he bid and won the car that’s known at The “King T” at Barrett-Jackson Las Vegas 2016.
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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