Then, as now, a brand-spanking new issue of Rod & Custom caused a rush of excitement while flipping through the crisp pages, but the magazine could also stir a moment of angst from the pre-driver's license set. Here for perusal were the latest mouth-watering automotive efforts from builders everywhere in the USA, but a young teen stood about as much chance of constructing or owning a hot rod as a snowball in Bakersfield.
After all, in real life, there was an adult world of Ward Cleavers who regularly lectured on the illogic of building an old car, frustrating even the most enthusiastic teen. Then, too, there were usually other roadblocks. For instance, most had zilch for tools, zero dough in the piggy bank, and a total lack of experience, other than changing the spark plug on dad's Allstate lawnmower. Gee whiz! What was a car-crazed kid to do to satiate his hot rod desires?
Unknown to the frustrated youths, a remedy, a placebo, was on the way, arriving in hobby shops in the fall of 1962. It was Monogram's fabulous red roadster in a colorful box, the perfectly crafted Big T, in 1/8 scale, for a barely affordable $10.98.
Now, Monogram's engineers didn't just sit down at the drafting table and whip out a set of plans for an all-new kit, then whisk them off to the production department. No, the criteria for the Big T was that the model had to be as accurate as possible, utilizing currently available parts that hot rod builders of the day employed in real-life versions. However, Monogram was in the model business, not in the business of full-size car construction, but they needed fully operational vehicles to test their plans. What they wanted was someone with the expertise to build a well-crafted prototype that was not only functional but would be capable of winning trophies at car shows and be very photogenic for promotional purposes.
They didn't need to look any further than Wichita, Kansas, home of the young bubbletop wizard, Darryl Starbird. True, the T roadster was mundane compared to Darryl's other creations, circa 1961, yet Monogram knew his reputation for execution, craftsmanship, and attention to detail which kept the Star Custom shop busy with customers coming back for updates.
Recently, Darryl Starbird talked about the development that led to the building of the 1:1-sized Big T in those thrilling days of yesteryear. "Monogram had possibly started the Big T project as early as 1960. They had an engineer who was about a halfway hot rodder, and he really liked the Kookie T that was on the TV show 77 Sunset Strip at the time. The guy loved the car magazines. That's what he wanted them to build a model of. Problem was, they didn't know some of the hot rod tricks, like channeling, for instance. Monogram didn't make very much progress on the model. That's when they hired me sometime in 1961."
At this point in his career Starbird was establishing himself as a customizer of future legend status, but had he done any hot rods at Star Custom? "Oh yeah, I'd chopped some '32s and a '34 Ford pickup. Also, I knew a guy who was building a rod at home, and when he'd hit a problem he couldn't solve, he'd bring it to the shop. I ended up finishing the roadster for him, did the paint and details, so hot rods weren't anything new to me. However, the Big T was my first ground-up turnkey hot rod. Monogram wanted a nice T roadster, so I built one that looked good to me. You've got to remember back in 1962, you didn't pick up the phone and order all the parts like you can today, though I did order a fiberglass body from Speedway. Other than that, the rectangular steel tubing chassis was built in my shop. Of course, I had to scrounge the salvage yards for the rest of the parts, which were basically all pre-'49 Ford, except for the '37 Buick transmission and the 283, which also came from the wrecking yard.
"We really had to hustle to get the Big T ready before the model's introduction. Another thing I had to do was send detailed photos back to the engineers at Monogram, so they could draw the plans as we went along. We probably took six to eight weeks to finish the car and turn it over to the company, which wasn't a lot of time to build a roadster from scratch."
Starbird went on to have a very successful, creative partnership with Monogram, constructing full-size prototypes for a number of years (he also served as a consultant for the company). The follow-up to the Big T was the '64 project, the Big Deuce. Generally speaking, sequels to smash hits are met with lukewarm response-not so with the launch of the Monogram Big Deuce.
Arguably the best design Ford Motor Company ever sent out the doors of Dearborn, the '32 was considered the way to go by fledgling rodders since day one. A roadster-well, that's to car nuts what the Mona Lisa is to art lovers. Put the hot rod classic in a large box of neat parts and you've got a hot seller on your hands; let Darryl Starbird massage the details and Monogram couldn't make enough product to keep up.
Besides the cars' being different years and models, the development work on the Big T and the Big Deuce was as different as day and night. Starbird remembers, "The Big T was a complete buildup, with Monogram following closely drawn plans as the work progressed. With the Big Deuce, Monogram was ready to produce the model but needed a full-size car built to test the components for fit and function before introduction, so that if changes were needed, they could be done beforehand."
Over the years these works of art were housed in a large warehouse at Monogram. Sometime in the mid-'60s, Monogram expanded and needed the space that the prototypes occupied, forcing the disposal of the vehicles. A few were sold to employees. Others were given away in promotional contests, including the Big Deuce and the Big T. Darryl said, "I believe someone in Los Angeles won the Big T, and it hasn't been seen since. By then, a lot of guys were using the roadster pickup as the basis for their cars, and I always felt the Monogram car just blended in. Every once in a while, someone still sends me a photo of his or her Big T discovery, but I can look at the pictures for a few minutes and know it's not the original because certain details aren't the same."
In any case, after the '32 was given away, it and the new owner disappeared without a trace, a trick that would have made Harry Houdini jealous. Asked if he had an attic full of un-built kits, Starbird laughs, "Wish I did! A few months back I bid $600 for one on eBay and was out-bid. My wife, Donna, bought one for our Hall of Fame not long ago for $500. The box was rough, but the kit is perfect, unassembled, and with all the pieces there."
The original Big T and Big Deuce have drifted off into the world of lost art and legends. There was talk a few years ago that someone was going to have Starbird build an exact replica of the original T, but alas, it was just a rumor.
Okay, so that won't happen, but why doesn't Monogram reissue them both, complete with the line of accessories parts packs? After all, there's a sizeable population of Baby Boomers out there who still don't have large toolboxes or stacks of cash and are lacking the skills to build a real hot rod. They certainly wouldn't mind having luscious red 1/8-scale versions on the coffee table.