Courtesy of Leake Auction Company
  • Chevrolet 350-ci V8
  • GM Turbo 400 automatic transmission
  • Disc brakes
  • Jaguar limited-slip IRS
  • Extended front end
  • Part of the Rolland Collection

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1920 Ford T-bucket
Years Produced:1908–27
Number Produced:995,498 (all 1920 Model Ts); 15,007,033 (all Ts, 1908–27)
Original List Price:$618.20 (1920 Runabout with starter)
Tune Up Cost:$150
Chassis Number Location:Varies
Engine Number Location:Pad on front of engine block, below passenger’s side cylinder head (SBC)
Club Info:Goodguys Rod & Custom Association
Alternatives:1927–31 Ford Model A hot rod, 1932–34 Ford hot rod
Investment Grade:D

This car, Lot 501, sold for $22,000, including buyer’s premium, at Leake’s auction in Oklahoma City, OK, on February 24, 2018. It was offered without reserve.

In the beginning, Ford created the Model T. From it sprang the American hot-rod and custom-car culture — and later industry. Cheap and plentiful, Henry’s Ts (as well as As and their various ’30s siblings) were the blank canvas upon which generations of custom-car builders would practice their art.

The birth of the bucket

Pinpointing the birthdate of custom Model Ts is difficult, as many Ts were modified while they were still in production, with owners fitting speed parts in an attempt to coax more than the stock 20 hp from their four cylinders. Bucket-seat speedster and torpedo-style fenderless racers weren’t far behind, but what we know as the T-bucket came about shortly after World War II, when V8s were dropped into T roadsters (Runabouts, in Ford-speak).

As you might expect, the Ford flathead V8 was often used, but all manner of engines found their way into the cars — Cadillacs, Olds, Nailhead Buicks, Chryslers, etc. It didn’t take long after 1955 for the then-new small-block Chevy to find its way into a T.

The genre was popularized when cars by drag racer “TV” Tommy Ivo and pioneer rod builder Norm Grabowski were featured in magazines of the day. And proving that nothing helps a car quite like film exposure, when Grabowski’s T-bucket was featured on TV’s “77 Sunset Strip” as the “Kookie Car,” the Fords became the thing to have.

Any way you like it

In the automotive landscape of the 1950s, with chrome-laden Detroit behemoths and wild chopped, channeled and candy-colored customs, T-buckets stood out due to their basic nature. A roadster body — usually fiberglass after the late ’50s — was placed on a ladder-type chassis. The chassis might be from a T, A, Deuce or similar. The amount it differed from stock usually depended on what the builder had at hand and what he could afford.

The choice of drivetrain and virtually everything else came down to availability. Massive blowers were common, but so were various carb arrangements. But the basic shape was set: hoodless, fenderless, and with narrow tires up front and wide rubber on the rear.

Many retained their factory trunk/turtledeck, but another popular style was to replace it with a small pickup bed just large enough to hold the cylindrical fuel tank and a cooler. Some had soft tops, but a tall windshield was always part of the look. A T radiator shell — a brass/chromed pre-’15 unit or painted ’20s piece — did its best to keep the engine cool.

Interiors consisted of a basic bench seat. Paint finishes ran the gamut of simple one-color finishes to complex Ed Roth-style pinstripes, lace patterns, “endless” tape designs or faded panels, depending on the era of the build.

In short, here was a custom the average car guy could build. Unlike the radically altered customs of the day, you didn’t have to be a budding George Barris with access to a full shop to build one.

Newer build, “old-school” looks

This recently built example presents as a car you might have seen in the mid-’60s, with nothing too extreme or dated. The body-color small-block Chevy features a blower-style intake scoop atop an AFB carburetor and all the accessories are chromed or polished. I don’t think they had color-matching spark-plug wires back in the day, but they’re here and help the car’s clean appearance.

The firewall is polished, and a modern electric fan shows this was meant to be more than just a showpiece. The wheels are key to giving the car its mid-’60s look: in front, narrow chrome wires with faux knockoffs, and in the back, wide chrome reverse units with Baby Moon hubcaps. Likewise, the interior is bench-seat basic with only newer (and nicer than available in-period) antique-looking gauges and nice leather to belie its age.

Likewise, this chassis looks the part of a high-end build. The stretched frame features the ubiquitous dropped front axle and transverse leaf spring, but its showpiece is tucked under the bucket.

Hot-rod lore says some guys in the Bay Area were the first to put a Jaguar independent rear suspension under a rod in the mid-’60s. The unit, with limited-slip differential and four coil-over shocks, gave the cars a much nicer ride and better handling than solid axles. The inboard disc brakes reduced unsprung weight but came at the expense of turning a simple brake job into an all-day affair. The good news was the ring-and-pinion gears were Dana/Spicer parts and readily available.

Performance aside, the unit looked great, and when chromed, became as much a showpiece as the engine. Hot-rod historian and author Pat Ganahl describes their appeal: ”When chromed and fully exposed at the rear of a T-bucket, watching the axles twirl and suspension work was almost mesmerizing, especially at night.”

A great buy

At $22,000, this car, with fewer than 300 miles, was well bought. Coming out of a prominent race-themed collection, it was clearly a well-built, well-equipped car and easily outsold the other two T-buckets on offer by the same consignor ($11k and $12k, respectively) at the same sale.

As you might guess given their nature, T-buckets are generally affordable. While comparables are thin on the ground in the ACC Premium Auction Database, the high-dollar outliers are well-known period builds with magazine and show history. A check of the Internet shows plenty available.

As I write this, one classified website has 26 on offer with prices ranging from $9,500 to $43,000, with most around $20k. And being a rod, if you find one and it’s not quite what you want, you’re free to change it without concern for authenticity.

If you can’t find the one you want, an online speed shop sells nearly complete kits with fiberglass bodies, frame, SBC and TH350 tranny, wheels, interiors and lights — but without paint, glass and various small items, for $19,715, highlighting the value of this car.

A slice of history

Like the A and the Deuce, the T-bucket holds a special place in rod/custom history. I’ll let Ganahl have the last word (from his book Lost Hot Rods II): “They’re not as comfortable as a coupe or even a ’32–’34 roadster. But they’re better than a motorcycle, and at least as exciting. That’s what T-buckets are all about: wind, noise, spinning tires, everything hanging out in the breeze — pure, essential hot rod.”

(Introductory description courtesy of Leake Auction Co.)

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