In Episode 7 of our Hooked on T-Buckets Podcast we interviewed Tom Booth about his fabulous Torsion T. At the time of the interview, Tom knew where his original T-Bucket was and the owner indicated it was going to stay in a backyard under a tarp. Fortunately, after that interview the Torsion T was purchased and is being brought back to its 1960s state of splendor. We'll let you know when it reappears. For now, enjoy the story of how Tom's Torsion T came about and if you haven't already listened to Tom tell the story on our Podcast, check it out here> Enjoy the story along with the treasure trove of Tom's photos below.
Careful readers of the May, 1966 issue of Car Craft magazine were treated to a small, low-resolution preview of what would become widely known as the Tom Booth “Torsion T”.
Yes, it was a somewhat unusual entry at the 1966 Winternationals Motorama in Pomona as just an engine and chassis. But it didn’t need anything else to draw lots of attention because it was both beautiful and innovative. (As for the reference to 1914 Model T, I think that was just to be different because the ’14 T’s were of the old flat-firewall design).
So striking was the Tom Booth Torsion T that just a few months later it made the cover of Car Craft magazine in brilliant color. But the many who immediately purchased a copy off the newsstand because of that cover were in for disappointment. After flipping through the magazine looking for what would undoubtedly be the rad car enveloping this chassis and finding nothing, they would finally look at the cover photo credit to read, “Tune in next month for a full feature on the beautiful rig.”
And, boy, was it worth the wait! The stance, the paint and chrome, the wheels and tires, the interior and the engine: they were perfect! So perfect that Petersen even featured it again in a two-page color spread in the August, 1968 issue of Hot Rod, with Tom jauntily hopping out of his T. In fact, Tom Booth’s T-Bucket was the first to feature two, if not three, major T-Bucket innovations.
How did this stunning bit of T-Bucket perfection come about? It’s an interesting story.
Before the T-Bucket, Tom Booth and his brother Bill built a rather stunning Model A roadster that was ideally suited for street, strip and show with its dual quad Buick nailhead engine.
With their stylish Model A the Booth brothers became members of the prestigious LA Roadsters club.
This enabled them to participate in outings with a variety of what are now legendary car builders and owners. In the photo above the Booth brothers’ roadster is next to Dick Scritchfield’s highboy deuce, with Fred Steele’s T-Bucket and Tom McMullen’s flamed Highboy deuce roadster. This was while Tom and Bill Booth were still teenagers.
Sometime around 1964 Walt Kaline, who would also be an LA Roadsters president and had built a Pontiac powered T-Bucket that appeared on the cover of Hot Rod magazine in 1963, decided to sell components of a T-Bucket project that he had been pulling together.
It attracted Tom Booth’s attention because he wanted to build a T-Bucket but wasn’t a fan of fenders on T roadsters. You see, back in the early ’60s there were still laws in Southern California requiring fenders on cars over 1500 pounds. And fellow LA Roadsters member Don Oaks had built an under 1500 pound T-Bucket powered by an aluminum Buick V8.
Tom Booth, though, wanted to build an under 1500 pound T-Bucket but with heavier Chevrolet small block V8 power. The fact that Walt Kaline’s project was meant to use torsion bar suspension all around caught Tom’s attention as a nice potential weight savings over traditional leaf springs and he bought Walt’s project.
But what Tom purchased was a long way from what you see in the photo above. Basically, Tom got a Cal Automotive fiberglass body, the beginnings of a perimeter frame and four unmachined 3/4″ spring steel rods that would be used as torsion bars. At the time Volkswagen and Chrysler were both using torsion bars on front suspensions (Volkswagen also on rear) and it was a viable, lightweight alternative to more traditional leaf springs used in the hot rod world.
Although the original description in Car Craft mentioned 2″ x 4″ frame rails, you’ll notice they are nicely tapered to the smaller diameter of the front crossmember. Tom had to taper the frame rails at the front or the crossmember and the torsion arms and bars would look just awkward. I’ll propose that Tom Booth’s T-Bucket was the first to use tapered rectangular tubing frame rails. It’s those little things that count!
Speaking of little things, notice the nicely done “step” in the rear radius rod attachment elegantly provides clearance for the Pitman arm of the Ross steering box salvaged from a Crosley that was mounted inside the frame.
The first thing you notice about the frame is the peaked round tube rear crossmember. It didn’t serve any particular purpose and, more likely, was the result of the builder having a couple of lengths of 3-inch diameter tubing that weren’t long enough individually to be used as a rear crossmember. So why not angle cut the ends and join them to make what I’ll claim as the most unique rear crossmember in hot rod history?!
The photos above perfectly illustrate how cleanly the torsion bar front and rear suspensions were incorporated into the frame by Tom. That’s his second innovation, all-around torsion bar suspension for a T-Bucket. You’ll also note that the frame rail height tapers from rear to front for a very smooth transition of the torsion bars and arms at the front. The look is particularly clean with the tie rod behind the front axle. It certainly helped to be able to display the car without body by having all the welds filled and ground smooth and then applying the dazzling candy gold paint, along with pinstriping, to the chassis.
That peaked tubular rear crossmember, however, came up under the seat of the T-Bucket body so Tom very neatly fabricated a square tubing extension to go under the pickup bed to provide support for the fuel tank and battery. The chromed rear axle is from a 1951 Ford, mated to tubular radius rods Tom fabricated. Even the brake backing plates received the chrome plating treatment. You’ll also note above the chromed torsion arms, which are attached to the torsion bars that are hidden in the frame rails. With the complete driveline from bellhousing to rear axle chromed Tom’s T was visually stunning even without the body. What’s not visible in the above view of the sweeping headers are the Yamaha motorcycle baffles inserted in each of the eight pipes to maintain a reasonable sound for street cruising.
When Tom’s T-Bucket was featured in Car Craft’s September, 1966 edition it was titled as “Built with a Jeweler’s Touch” and went on to say, “Finished to perfection, Tom Booth’s masterpiece could have easily come out of any jewelers showcase, but instead it was driven out of his garage.” Again, the beauty really shines through when you notice the chromed torsion arms that link the torsion bars hidden in the frame rails to the tubular front axle. And pay particular attention to that very clean disc brake arrangement, because it was the first of its kind! And the third Tom Booth T-Bucket innovation beyond tapered frame rails and full torsion bar suspension.
It may not be readily noticeable, but Tom Booth built the first T-Bucket with spindle mount wire wheels with front disc brakes! His third and perhaps most important innovation. Before Tom’s T, every T-Bucket or other hot rod with spindle mount front wire wheels ran them without front brakes. For over ten years now, I’ve contended that the first spindle mount wire wheels on a roadster that wasn’t a strictly drag car were done by Ed Roth on his Outlaw. But first, look closely at the right on the above photo at the rectangular plate attached to the frame rail with four bolts. That is Tom’s hidden access to the internal attaching point of the torsion bar.
He got his wheels and tires (3.45 x 18 Dunlop) from a cycle shop and they came off a 1936 Harley Davidson Servi-Car 3-wheeler and had internal splines for attaching to the 3-wheeler’s rear axle.
Tom loved the look of the front spoked wheels, but was also aware of the safety benefit of front brakes. He was already using Henry’s Machine Shop to machine splines on his torsion bars so he had splines machined on his 1940 Ford front spindles to mate with the wheels and then was able to very neatly and cleanly mount Airheart spot brakes. When the car appeared in Car Craft in 1966 Tom had inquiries from all over the United States about his unique spindle mount disc brake setup and ended up building several sets for others, but could have built way more if he had wanted to.
Tom chose the timeless beauty of 10″ wide Cragar rims for the rear and wrapped them with the very trendy 10.60 x 15 Firestone Indy tires. Only a couple years before Tom’s build Parnelli Jones won the Indy 500 on 15-inch Firestones in a year of tire controversy ranging from 12 to 15 to 16 inches.
T-Bucket beauty like Tom created doesn’t happen overnight and, of course, on a scratch build like this you need to put everything together and make sure it all fits before you even think about polishing, paint and chrome. At this point, it’s more likely Tom has rolled the T to a nearby friend’s garage to do some mechanical necessities like getting that Rochester fuel injection tuned up.
Tom knew a guy that had a Chevron station in Compton and who raced tri-five Chevy gassers. He was always buying engines out of totaled Corvettes and he’d take the Rochester fuel injection off and replace it with multiple carburetors. He’d built up a small pile of them and Tom purchased one of the late model versions from a 327 for $200 because he knew it would provide an eye-catching induction system for his T, and one that could perform well also.
In the pic above you’ll note the Cal Automotive fiberglass T-Bucket body and pickup bed and the beginnings of Tom’s headers, which would also become a distinctive element on his T-Bucket.
Tom’s T-Bucket was truly a home-built hot rod. Using his parents’ garage Tom would tack weld frame and chassis components together and then have a guy with a mobile welding outfit who worked at a nearby mobile home park come by to do the finish welding.
What stands out as the jewel in the above photo is a brilliant brass radiator custom built for Tom by Gilbert Metal Products of El Monte with a 4″ deep core capable of holding 3 more quarts of coolant than a stock style T radiator. A big help for frequent cruising.
So stunning was Tom’s T that it was even featured yet again in Petersen’s 1969 “Street Rod Pictorial”.
This was a collection of glamour shots of “the wildest new street machines, roadsters, coupes, sedans — all in full color!” And it was made up of cars that had appeared in Hot Rod, Car Craft and Rod & Custom magazines.
Not only was Tom’s T one of the few cars featured with a two-page large centerspread photo, but another full page profile shot and two photos on the back cover. Tom’s T featured what I consider some of the coolest looking headers ever created. Sure, others had built T headers with the individual pipes running back without a collector but most of them stuck to the equal length principal and the header outlets were staggered.
Originally, Tom’s headers just went straight back to about the point where you can see the thin stainless steel band around them. With time, though, he didn’t like the exhaust hitting the Firestone Indy tires so he added on the individual turnouts. And when coated with the white aluminum spray finish that was popular at the time it was the perfect accent to the car’s overall look!
For tail lights, Tom followed the style pretty much pioneered, if not popularized, by Bill Rolland after he had purchased Tommy Ivo’s T and added a pair of chromed Model T cowl lights to the rear. From this view, Tom Booth’s T is the essence of clean-looking.
The interior of Tom Booth’s T was just as stunning as the rest of the car, with nylon carpet cutouts that show the chromed bellhousing and one of the most unique transmissions of the day, an Offenhauser “X-Shift” which was a custom aluminum case with a 1937 Chevrolet style top-mounted shifter but housing more modern and stronger tri-five Chevy gears with an open tailshaft, all chromed of course.
The tunneled dash treatment is reminiscent of Tommy Ivo’s and features a wood-grained insert surrounding a complete set of Stewart-Warner gauges. The Model T style wood-rimmed steering wheel and polished wood shifter knob complete the theme. The beautiful black naugahyde rolls and pleats were done by legendary upholsterer Ed Martinez, who had also done the Booth brothers’ Model A.
At first, the Rochester fuel injection was polished and Tom found the upkeep on that tedious so about a year after completion he had the F.I. chrome plated along with the small block heads as well. In this view, the elegant flow of Tom’s headers really stands out.
Look closely at the insides of the radius rods and you’ll see something unusual in the brightly colored bullet shape. These appear to be similar to the very popular at the time laminated multi-colored plastic teardrop knobs used on dashboards, as in the photo below. A nice touch that also helped draw attention to Tom’s elegantly styled radius rods.
The chromed Rochester F.I. and heads make the ’58 Chevy 283 bored out to 301 cubic inches a real stunner.
Tom did the bodywork necessary to get the fiberglass ready for paint and the beautiful candy gold lacquer paint with highlighted flames as well as all the pinstriping were done by a local Compton youngster barely in high school named Dennis Ricklefs. About five decades later Dennis was still applying his paint and pinstriping talents to cars designed by Chip Foose in the Overhaulin TV series.
The above photo with Tom captures how clean the torsion sprung front end was along with the very proportional Airheart-Hurst disc brakes on the 4-1/2″ dropped tube axle by Speed Improvements.
Earlier in this story it was noted that Tom Booth and his brother were LA Roadsters members. As the club name would indicate, only drivers of open top cars could join. However, the Booth brothers also had a growing group of friends who were building and driving coupes and sedans who couldn’t participate in the LA Roadsters events and being newly out of high school themselves they also noted the LA Roadsters members were a good bit older.
So in 1965 Tom and Bill Booth started what became another legendary car club, the Early Times, initially from their parents’ home garage in Compton. The photo above is a group shot taken outside an aircraft engineering firm that let the Early Times hold their meetings there as they grew. You’ll note Tom Booth’s Torsion T in the front row and if you look closely on the other side of the red deuce roadster between them you’ll see the front end of Dan Woods’ red T-Bucket, which coincidentally was originally the green T-Bucket built by Don Oaks that inspired Tom Booth’s build.
Another Early Times group photo get together made the cover of Rod & Custom magazine. This time Dan Woods’ red T-Bucket is in the front row and Tom Booth and his gold Torsion T are directly behind him. The gold-looking T-Bucket in the lower left (actually limefire green) is Dick Knutson’s “Novel T”. The red tub-T in the upper left with the white top was owned by Darrell Peters and later by photographer Sherm Porter.
The 4 foot high trophy being grasped by the woman in the photo is just one example of the many awards Tom’s “Torsion T” captured in car shows. This one was early on, before he added the turnouts to the individual exhaust headers.
The above photo from 1967 shows the headers with the individual turnouts added.
So popular was Tom’s T at Southern California car shows that it was even used in the promotional material for shows as in the above example, which came after Tom had the complete exhaust system chrome plated.
By 1970 Tom had sold his T, which was still winning big events like the L.A. Roadsters show at the Great Western Exhibit Center.
Photo of Tom’s T from the Petersen Archives taken probably 10 years after he sold the car and now with a carb replacing the Rochester fuel injection.
It seems like it takes earning a role in a movie or TV show to have true legendary Southern California hot rod bonafides, and the Tom Booth Torsion T did that.
The 1968 family comedy movie, With Six You Get Eggroll, starred Brian Keith and Doris Day, did well at the box office, and was in the top ten of popular Doris Day’s almost 40 films.
For most, it was the first chance to see the beautiful golden Tom Booth Torsion T with its stylish black leather top, sporting a 3-window effect at the rear.
There’s more to the Torsion T’s movie escapade story, but it’s much better to hear Tom tell it himself — and you can.
The story of how the Tom Booth Torsion T came about is a great look into hot rodding in the 1960s. Fortunately, Tom Booth was kind enough to sit down with us for an interview about it all that you can listen to now on our Hooked on T-Bucket Hot Rods Podcast.
Probably because it was such a stunning rod, Tom Booth’s Torsion T still exists today in very close to its original form.
The most notable change is the replacement of the Rochester fuel injection with a carb. Back in the day, the knowledge for properly maintaining and tuning the Rochester F.I. was lacking even at many Chevy dealers and it was almost standard procedure to swap it out for a carb at the first sign of any problem.
Yes, it may look a little sad with the tire flat from sitting so long and with the addition of what looks like a Michelob tapper for a shift knob, the Torsion T is still uniquely awesome.
Stay tuned, because someday soon we hope to be able to highlight the return of Tom Booth’s Torsion T to it’s days of glory appearance!