I’ve been a fan of the U. S. Speed Sport T-Bucket kits since first reading about them in an article and seeing their ad in the August, 1963 issue of Popular Hot Rodding magazine.
What caught my eye back then was the beauty of the 1923 T-Bucket body that U. S. Speed Sport offered. Even at the age of 15, I was captivated by how the abbreviated 12 inch pickup bed was so artfully molded into the T body. And the interior featured a sculpted dash with deep insert for gauges like the one I had admired so much on Tommy Ivo’s T.
You can bet that I was blown away to see the U.S. Speed Sport T up close and personal on a visit back in 2006 to the Petersen Automotive Museum, where it was fittingly on display next to Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s Outlaw.
Known as the original “Instant T”, the sharp looking U. S. Speed Sport T-Bucket kits had an immediate impact in the hot rod world and played an important role in the T-Bucket phenomenon that would dominate hot rodding in the ’60s and ’70s.
Fortunately, the original U. S. Speed Sport “Instant T’ has been preserved over the years by the McMullen family, who have also done a wonderful job documenting the history and achievements of Ted McMullen through their website, www.USSpeedSport.com. I’m thankful to Steve McMullen, the current caretaker of the Instant T, for granting permission to publish the following fascinating story on the development, trials and tribulations behind one of the more important, but lesser recognized, T-Buckets of the golden age.
Ted McMullen, U. S. Speed Sport and the Instant T
U. S. Speed Sport was born through Theodore P. “Ted” McMullen’s life long love of cars. Ted was born in 1929 in the car crazy capitol of Los Angeles. Growing up in L.A., Ted displayed a talent for things mechanical and an appreciation for things artistic – these elements came together in automobile designs.
Ted started designing and building dragster frames, teaming up with another builder, Bob Fletcher. In early 1963, they put one of their cars in a show. It was a cleanly designed dragster chassis set up with a small block Chevy. The body was a frame rail hugging fiberglass body built by a budding young fiberglass pioneer and race car designer, Wayne Hartman [who later founded Hartman Fiberglass — Ed]. The body had tapering gauge humps on the cowl and a chute pocket built into the rear. The combination of chassis and body attracted a great deal of favorable attention at that L.A. car show in late 1963.
At the same time, Wayne was working on a mold for a fiberglass 1923 Model T pick-up body. Ted had many ideas regarding street rod design and fabrication, but he wanted to design a street rod chassis to compliment the bodies from Wayne’s mold. This new dragster had been built in Bob Fletcher’s garage. But that would never support the business that Ted envisioned, so Ted and Bob opened a large fabrication shop at 12628 Carmenita Road in Santa Fe Springs. They named their new company U.S. Speed Sport Mfg.
Up until that time, T-Bucket style rods were one of a kind, most with original steel Ford bodies, such as Norm Grabowski’s Kookie T and Tommy Ivo’s model T hot rod. Ted’s concept was to design a universal chassis that would accommodate any number of engine, trans and rear end set-ups. And that is just what Ted did. The chassis was designed around the bodies that were produced from Wayne’s mold, and these bodies became an exclusive item from U.S. Speed Sport.
The U. S. Speed Sport Fiberglass Body
At the time that Wayne was shaping the “plug” (the hand built body used to make the mold), 1923 T fiberglass bodies had just become available in the market. Wayne used a fiberglass body and molded on a hand built, using wood and Bondo, shortened pickup bed, following dimensions from a steel bed. He also integrated a hand built, beautifully sculpted dash, loosely based on the dash in Ivo’s car, taking care to allow enough relief on each side to mount stock windshield brackets. The plug was stabilized with wood and steel struts. The mold that was made from the plug was built in five pieces, creating a one piece 1923 T roadster pickup body.
The body mold was a unique construction. All the bodies were hand laminated using 3 oz. mat and 6 oz. cloth and doubled at the edges to inhibit cracking. The mold allowed the fiberglass mat to extend through a gap allowing a continuous strip from the firewall to the end of the bed. This created a very solid and rigid body with smooth transitions to the bed and dash. The only other piece needed was the tailgate. Wayne took an old steel tailgate and made a plaster mold of the Ford script logo building it into a tailgate plug for the tailgate mold. The tailgate produced from that mold was a perfect fit for the elegant body.
Ted’s overall vision was to mass-produce a chassis and body that any budding rodder (with or without a welder) could economically use to create their own street rod. The chassis design was clean, simple, and functional; and they were all jig welded so they were uniform and geometrically true. One could purchase them fully welded or non-welded as a kit. Many components were available from U.S. Speed Sport, and one could get various mount brackets, spring hangers, radius rods, front axles, etc. for any drive train and suspension combination that was being used and they would all fit. Thus, components could be purchased over time as the buyer’s budget permitted and delivered anywhere in the world.
Even completely assembled cars were made available.
If ever a product was ripe for a demanding public, the U.S. Speed Sport T roadster pickup street rod was it. Ted hit the car shows with the first production car, hung a banner over the booth and brought along some bare glass bodies for display. This was a good move and it generated a lot of interest.
Popular Hot Rodding did an article on U.S. Speed Sport in the August 1963 issue and dubbed the car the “Instant T” [a few years later, Andy Brizio‘s shop became the “Home of Northern California’s Instant T” with the geographic qualifier likely in deference to U.S. Speed Sport, which closed around that time — Ed]. Ted placed an ad in Popular Hot Rodding, and it ran in the same issue. The ad offered more information for a mere fifty cents. And the cards and letters poured in; 4,000 arrived in the first month – from as far away as Australia.
In the beginning months of U.S. Speed Sport Mfg, Ted was still doing his delivery duties as a milkman, starting at 3 a.m. By noon, Ted would get to the shop and work until 9 or 10 p.m. In the mornings, Ted’s partner, Bob, took care of the business until Ted’s milk route was finished.
The article appearing in Popular Hot Rodding was shot during the morning so Ted was not included in any of the photos.
The guys in the photos were various customers, friends, an employee, Dick Fletcher, (no relation to Bob) [and later to partner with Ted Brown — Ed] and Ted’s business partner, Bob Fletcher. Also photographed was a man named Tex Collins, the owner of a fiberglass body reproduction company called Ford Duplicators. Tex was outraged that his name was not featured in the magazine article, so he sued U. S. Speed Sport. U. S. Speed Sport did not have any editorial control over the article, so at a preliminary hearing, the judge threw out the frivolous suit. But an irate Tex wasn’t satisfied. He would eventually come back to affect the future of U. S. Speed Sport.
The first production Instant T was to be owned by Dick Fletcher, and part of his salary was put toward the build and purchase of the car. It was built with a 283 cu. in. Chevy mounted in black frame rails with candy tangerine paint on the body. This T was used at the shop as the display vehicle so customers could visualize a complete car.
The Wayne Hartman/U. S. Speed Sport body was such a gem, that it caused great interest. To help stimulate even more interest, Wayne brought his T body plug to the shop to put it on display so customers could view his work and see how bodies were made. But due to that heightened interest, other fiberglass manufacturers were anxious to get their hands on it. Coordinating directly with Bob Fletcher, Wayne instructed him to be sure nothing happened to it. When Wayne returned to the shop about a month later, he discovered that the plug entrusted to Bob Fletcher was gone. Working two jobs, designing and fabricating and providing customer interface, Ted was unaware of the exact arrangements made between Bob and Wayne. Because of that, Ted did not realize that Wayne was not the one to remove the plug from the shop.
One highly interested and anxious fiberglass manufacturer was Tex Collins. He passed himself off as a cowboy and movie stuntman, but his name never appeared on any movie credits. Tex seduced and cajoled Bob into loaning him the plug so he could make a set of molds. Tex convinced Bob that his own illegitimate copies could more cheaply supply U.S. Speed Sport at only $35 per body. With Wayne currently charging $100 per body, Bob figured it was a good deal despite the fact that he knew those plugs would be unauthorized duplications of Wayne’s work. When Tex had the first bodies ready, he informed Bob his price was now $135. In fact, Tex never had any intention of selling copied bodies to U.S. Speed Sport. He wanted a set of molds from Wayne’s plug so he could sell to everyone else and run U. S. Speed Sport under. Police investigators later determined that Bob’s plan was to dock company funds $100 to “pay” for a body he really got for only $35, allowing him to pocket $65 with no one the wiser. After this plan backfired on him, Bob continued on a downward spiral.
While Ted was busy pleasing customers by swapping stories with them as he cut steel, bent tubing and welded chassis, Bob was secretively selling off speed equipment put on consignment by other customers – and pocketing the money. In the fall of 1963, Bob took the U. S. Speed Sport checkbook and knowingly wrote a bad check to buy himself a new Chevy. Then Bob hightailed it to Florida to allegedly see one of his girlfriends. Ted immediately notified the authorities and Bob was arrested on a felony warrant. He was returned to California to stand trial. Even though Bob had stolen money and property, passed bad checks, crossed the state line in a commission of a felony, and severely crippled a pioneering hot rod business, not to mention the customers he victimized – the court let him off with a hand slap. Bob disappeared again without a trace, never making restitution.
U. S. Speed Sport had been dealt a devastating financial blow. Tex had previously taken control of another fiberglass body supplier and it appeared he was manipulating Bob to position himself for another takeover – this time of U.S. Speed Sport. Now, with U. S. Speed Sport’s reputation damaged and financially ruined, Tex hoped to purchase the company far under value. In the midst of his own financial loss, Ted was determined not to let the business go under or to let others suffer. So Ted took out a second mortgage on his home in La Mirada, and he made good on all the damage Bob had caused, including those losses for which U. S. Speed Sport had no legal responsibility. Naturally, these honorable actions won Ted a lot of admirers but for him, it was just the right thing to do.
Ted needed to downsize in a hurry and get things restarted, so in December of 1963, he moved the shop around the corner about a half a mile from the first location to 13538 Imperial Highway in Santa Fe Springs. He left his job with the Meadowview Dairy and threw all his effort into reestablishing U.S. Speed Sport. The hot rodding public was quick to respond, and Ted bounced back, building even more Instant T street rods.
The original Instant T plug was never recovered. Wayne Hartman later moved on from the street rod business to work in the Formula racing circuit, building custom one-off racing bodies over 35 years for Al and Bobby Unser, Nissan Racing and Swift Racing. Wayne is now retired and owns a sweet, flathead powered, full-fendered ’32 Ford 5-window coupe. Wayne Hartman is another of those unsung heroes to which the hobby of hot rodding owes a great deal.
And Tex Collins? He was later shot to death allegedly in a horse deal gone bad. [Other stories exist, but a good source notes Tex was killed in a confrontation between an ex-convict and one of Tex’s employees who had been seeing the convict’s wife. When Tex offered up an alibi for his employee that wasn’t believed, the convict shot them both and Tex died.–Ed]
In 1964, Fawcett Books published Championship Hot Rods in paperback. An article on U.S. Speed Sport was featured, titled “Street Roadster In Kit Form” and subtitled “Assemble an inexpensive kit into a roadster that ranks with the best.” This statement very concisely summed up the U.S. Speed Sport concept of street rod design and marketing. The photos for this article were taken at the new shop on Imperial Highway, and the well-written article gave a lot of information on building an Instant T.
About the same time, Petersen Publishing released a Spotlight Book titled “Basic Steering and Chassis”. The article, titled “How To Build A Frame For Your Rod” also focused on Ted McMullen and U. S. Speed Sport. This article was quite extensive, with many photos and line drawings that included dimensions for fab and assembly. Ted was happy to share his info and his methods with the public because it promoted the sport of hot rodding and made it easier for the “average guy” to get involved.
Here are the quick Instant T tech specs:
|Original “Instant T” 1962 -1963 as built configuration:|
|Body:||U.S. Speed Sport|
|Paint:||Cerney & Sons (Candy Tangerine)|
|Windshield:||1915 Ford Model T|
|Chassis:||U.S. Speed Sport|
|Front Suspension:||1929 Ford Model A|
|Front End:||U.S. Speed Sport|
|Front Wheels:||Chromed Steel|
|Radiator:||Gilbert Sheet Metal|
|Steering Column:||1923 Ford Model T|
|Rear Suspension:||1923 Ford Model T|
|Rear End:||1948 Ford|
|Rear Wheels:||Halibrand Magnesium|
|Engine:||283 cu. In. Chevy|
|Headers:||Speed Improvements (chrome finish)|
|Gas Tank:||U.S. Speed Sport|
|Front & Rear Lamps:||1915 Ford Model T|
|Chrome Plating:||Lustre Chrome|
|Additional Parts:||Antique Auto, Rosemead, CA|
|“Instant T” Changes 1964 – 1966:|
|Paint:||Cerney & Sons (Candy Blue)|
|Front Wheels:||True Spoke|
|Rear Tires:||M&H Racemaster Drag Slicks|
|Intake:||Dual AFB 4 bl Carburetors|
|Headers:||High Heat White Paint finish|
[Don’t forget that Ted McMullen was a drag racer at heart and he was able to combine that with his T-Bucket activities in a very novel way, which follows — Ed].
Bonus: U. S. Speed Sport Fuel Roadster T-Bucket
In 1964, Ted built a lightweight frame with a torsion suspension. He modified a fiberglass T body by cutting wheel wells in the sides, molded a cover over the open body and attached a bolt on extended pick-up bed. This design set the body far back on the frame, resulting in a low, sleek wicked looking roadster pickup. The rail was also powered by a blown 392 cu. in. Chrysler Hemi, sucking nitromethane for fuel. This configuration did not fit within the vehicle classifications set by NHRA, the sanctioning organization used at Lions Drag Strip in Long Beach, California. There was class A/MFR for the short wheelbase, big block modified fuel roadsters, but no AA class for a long wheelbase like the new U.S. Speed Sport car. With no one to really run against, the U.S. Speed Sport car could only run exhibition passes down the ¼ mile track. And that is exactly what happened.
Ted had hired a local boy from San Pedro to pilot the AA/MFR. He was a real character and a top-notch driver; a genuine talent by the name of Gary Gabelich. Gary was one of a very rare breed of intuitive drivers – without a hint of fear. And driving Ted McMullen’s car that was capable of speeds approaching 190 mph, was just the ticket for Gary to put on a show.
When the car was push started and fired, Gary would turn it around and come back to the starting line on the return road. At Lions Drag Strip, the bleachers were separated from the return road by about ten feet of asphalt and a rickety chain link fence. Most everyone at the time was using “zoomies”, which were exhaust headers that made a 180-degree arc and dumped the exhaust on the tires. The idea was that the tires would heat up and provide a better grip on the track. The U. S. Speed Sport car ran exhaust headers that were called “weed sprayers”. They splayed out from the engine and sat parallel to the ground. Spectators “in the know” would crowd up to the fence as Gary made his return to the line. This is what they knew and expected:
As Gary cruised past the giddy line of spectators, he steered close to the chain link fence and revved the big Chrysler full throttle, spewing out blue flames about a foot from the open headers, blasting the fans’ pant legs, like a nitromethane machine gun. Seen from behind, one can only say that it was a spectacular sight. As the car passed, one by one, fans’ pant legs fluttered from the blast all the way down the fence line. The blasting blue flames caused fans to leap back from the fence as if in some synchronized moving wave. Thus, the original sports fans “wave” was created. And to add to the flair, Ted built a push-bumper and mounted it on the Instant T. It was quite a sight to see the Instant T pushing the T bodied Double A Modified Fuel Roadster.
Ted’s AA/Modified Fuel Roadster racing partner, Jerry Goure, ultimately put an end to the drag racing plans of U. S. Speed Sport. Gary told Ted that he wanted the steering to be more responsive – he explained to Ted that when the front wheels lifted on take off, he needed less play for tighter steering. “It makes a difference,” he told Ted. Ted knew what Gary needed and adjusted the steering for a very tight, quick response for a skilled driver. Gary drove the car many times with the adjusted steering and was very pleased with the feel – Ted had got it just as he wanted. However, on that fateful day at Lions Drag Strip Gary did not have his firesuit, so Jerry wanted to drive the car. Ted was nervous about the event, almost clairvoyant, trying to discourage Jerry, but Jerry insisted on driving. Jerry had driven a few times before, but was still a novice. So Jerry drove it for his first time with the tighter steering configuration. He handled the car well enough until he hit top speed. For no apparent reason, he drifted off the track and plowed the car into the side wooden fence at nearly 190 mph, causing the car to flip end over end in the finish lights as the car disintegrated. Ted’s well-built roll cage remained intact and Jerry only suffered a dislocated shoulder. The car was brought home in the back of a pick-up truck, literally in pieces.
Not only did Ted enjoy building hot rods, he loved driving them as well. Ted wanted to join a car club so he purchased a clean 1929 Ford Model A Roadster Pick-up street rod, and petitioned to become a member of the L.A. Roadsters. One had to attend 6 club meetings in a row to become a member, but the demands of running U.S. Speed Sport put joining the club on the back burner.
Employee, Dick Fletcher, by now decided to move on, so Ted bought out Dick’s remaining interest in the Instant T, making it solely Ted’s again. Never really thrilled with the color orange, Ted had Cerney’s repaint the T candy blue.
Thanks again to Steve McMullen and the McMullen family for letting us share their great history of Ted McMullen, U. S. Speed Sport and the Instant T.
Ted McMullen left a tremendous T-bucket legacy. Ted was very happy to discuss and share the details of his well-engineered T-buckets and it was Ted’s contribution that formed the basis for a very significant 8-part series on “How to Build a Hot Rod” by Ray Sisemore that debuted in Car Craft magazine in November, 1964 (and concluded with the July, 1965 wrap-up story, “$1399.88 Rod”). Never before, had the construction of any hot rod been covered in such detail and this series is undoubtedly responsible in large measure for the T-bucket boom that occurred in the 1960s.
Ted McMullen was one of those unsung heroes of street rodding. He had a tremendous influence on the history of street rodding by introducing a style and design that has lasted decades. Ted was quite humble about it. His satisfaction was in the fact that he had done something well, had enhanced the hobby he loved and influenced so many others to also enjoy the hobby.
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