The T is making a comeback. Pushed out of popularity for a while by Models As, Deuces, and '33-34s, Ford's earlier model is elbowing its way back into popularity among hot rodders and street rodders. The revival of interest, especially in roadsters, owes a lot to the return to traditional rodding in the last several years. There was a time when Ts were the most prevalent hot rods around, and any list of historical hot rods is going to include some of the most famous T roadsters from the early days.
Some of those T's are: Norm Grabowski's Kookie T, Tommy Ivo's 12-second Nailhead-powered '25 T-bucket, Blackie Gejeian's wild '27, Frank Mack's timeless '27 track-style roadster, and Ed Iskenderian's ahead-of-its-time '23, first built in 1939. Walk through any hot rod show today and it's pretty obvious that Isky's roadster set the standard almost 70 years ago.
The reason Ts were popular then is the reason they're popular now. In addition to an appearance that screams hot rod, the smaller size and generally cheaper price tag on Model T raw material makes them the perfect choice for anybody looking for a low-budget, entry level rod project. One guy who has helped keep it that way is Mickey Lauria, the owner of Total Performance. For 35 years, Mickey has been making a successful living selling aftermarket Model T packages and components to enthusiasts looking for a simple, economical hot rod. You'd think the man would be out of ideas by now, but guess what? When we saw him at the NSRA Street Rod Nationals in August, he was debuting his newest Model T package, which he calls the King T.
The King T, as presented by Total Performance, looks like it rolled right out of the early
We asked Mickey what inspired a new addition to his long-established line-up. "I'm a real hot rodder from the old school, and I wanted to get back to a low-dollar hot rod. We're known for putting a package together that any customer can build and I wanted to continue that," Lauria said. "Part of the inspiration came from the emergence of all these so-called rat rods, which they're really not; they're real hot rods in my opinion."
The King T is different than other T-bucket packages available from Total Performance. The track nose, satin finish (Harley-Davidson Black Denim), and Moon discs on the roadster prominent on TP's promotional material (and shown here) is an instant clue that Mickey's imagination is calling upon some styling elements from way back when. It's just a no-frills, minimal chrome, nothing-fancy hot rod-the kind everybody likes.
Even the King T name is intended to evoke a sense of nostalgia, based on the idea that the Model T was and is the "king" of hot rodding.
Original plans called for using the complete Total Performance '23 T chassis, but as the ideas evolved, Mickey decided to construct a completely redesigned, longer-wheelbase chassis for the King T. The jig-welded frame comes with all bracketry welded in place and all holes drilled. The front suspension uses Total Performance's on-the-shelf T-bucket components, including dropped axle, spindles, four-leaf spring, friction shocks, tie rod, and radius rods, as well as the complete steering system with the column and steering wheel. The rear four-bar suspension includes coilovers, Panhard bar, and TP's 8-inch Ford rearend housing. The brake pedal, pad, dual master cylinder, and pushrod, plus a T-bucket fuel tank, are also part of the package.
The effort that went into redesigning the chassis was necessitated by the radically redesigned body. You probably noticed that the fiberglass King T body combines the increased dimensions of a '26-27 Model T with the smaller cowl area of a '23. The result is a larger, more comfortable car with the popular, aggressive front end treatment-not to mention a full three-piece hood and track nose with grille shell and insert. The newly designed windshield is shorter and wider, but utilizes TP's existing straight or angled posts. A molded dash, floor, and trans tunnel come with the package. Brian McAllister at Total Performance calls the King T "a redesign of things we've been doing for a long time to achieve a look we've never offered before."
The dimensions of the King T body, which combines the best elements of the '26-27 and the
Brian emphasizes that the King T will not be the final package for a lot of Total Performance customers, but the starting point for getting creative. "If you can weld and know how to fabricate, you can take our package and do your own thing," he says. "It's cool to see what guys are doing to our stuff. The way this car is assembled and built, it doesn't have to be a Bonneville car, but it could be. It doesn't have to be a traditional rod, but it could be. It could just as easily be high-tech. This can be the launching point for whatever you want the car to be."
We decided to take a closer look at the idea of building the King T in different directions, but with an emphasis on keeping it relatively low-buck. The Total Performance package, including just about everything except the interior, rolling stock, and drivetrain, starts at just under $7,000, which is a pretty economical start.
We wanted to get some ideas about finishing the car in a way that would keep the rest of the budget under control.
Earl Kane is the designer/illustrator who worked with Mickey Lauria to turn Mickey's ideas into a real vehicle Total Performance could manufacture. We asked Earl to create some additional illustrations for the King T in a few popular styles that could be built on a real-world budget. He obliged with a bunch of cool dream car concepts centered on this new King T roadster.
There aren't many changes from the "out-of-the-box" King T package on Earl's simplest, most traditional-looking '50s hot rod. Notable features on this roadster are the lowered headlights, which are Total Performance lights dropped down to the axle-a simple change. The headers could be homebuilt with straight pipes and an aftermarket flange-it doesn't get easier. Earl selected a tilted windshield, available from TP.
A vertical windshield would suit this car too. He added a high crown to the glass to fit the period. The front suspension components and the headlight buckets are finished in flat black. Chrome sets off the headlight bezels, and the smoothie caps on painted steelies. The King T grille is polished. The chrome windshield frame is contrasted with painted mounts. More pieces could be chromed as paychecks roll in.
(From previous page and illustration) The paint is basic hot rod yellow. The tuck 'n' roll upholstery is contrasting red and black. Fiberglass racing seats with inexpensive vinyl upholstery would be another choice. Aluminum inner door panels epoxied in place and dressed up with rivets would be a low-dollar, racy alternative to upholstered panels. Other interior elements are the flat steering wheel and tall shifter. A small-block Chevy with a two-barrel and Cadillac air cleaner would be a good low-buck engine choice. A manual transmission would be the hot rod choice and, fortunately, the King T offers enough foot room for that third pedal.
This variation is a modified version of an earlier drawing Earl created when helping to design the King T, and it doesn't depart much from the basic setup as offered by Total Performance. The theme is early hot rod, leaning toward lakes car styling. The prominent change is the Limefire exhaust pipes with cutouts, which would represent the only significant expense. The other biggest visual element is the flame paint job. Earl went for an intentionally crude flame design kept to the end of the exhaust pipes and around the rear wheels. He suggests using a brush to hand-paint the flames, which are modeled after the earliest versions painted by the World War II vets when they started building hot rods in the '40s. The rest of the paint is simple semi-flat black. The windshield has been angled back for reduced wind resistance. The interior is plain and simple; Naugahyde tuck 'n' roll keeps the seats cheap. Earl added a Sprint Car-style steering wheel and kept the Moon discs from the TP concept. For power, we talked about a small-block Chevy for economy, or a Ford four-banger, which would be cool, but could lift the project out of the low-buck category. Earl's preference was a small-block Ford, most likely a snappy 289. That's it.
(From top illustration) This look is a little more elaborate than the previous version and obviously takes its influence from the Salt Flats. The suede black paint extends to the running gear, typical of Bonneville cars-and don't forget the obligatory three-digit race number. The Moon discs are the obvious choice for maintaining the smooth theme. The Limefire headers have been modified with a diagonal cutoff and stuffed with cylindrical motorcycle mufflers.
The TP track nose grille is removed and the nose is filled in with 'glass, leaving a streamlined vertical hole for fresh air intake.
The headlights remain in the recommended position; Earl suggested using Prowler headlights as an alternative to match the teardrop bubble on the hood. The bubble is built from the TP hood scoop, closed up with fiberglass, once again to accent the car's streamlined profile. An inexpensive half tonneau cover adds a dramatic sporty appearance, and the single Brookland-style windscreen, possibly made from plexiglass, continues the European sports cars feel, and can be fastened from underneath the dash with clevis pins. Double windscreens or a full-width windshield would work too. The finishing touch is the rear fairing, an eye-catching detail that doesn't necessarily have to cost a lot, and could be built from a piece of sculptured foam, or fabricated from two fenders, sectioned and fastened together, which Earl told us is how they used to do it. Motorcycle, aircraft, and antique speedboat Web sites may be a good Internet source for parts, or for instructions on building your own. The engine choice is a simple small-block Chevrolet.
This little blue roadster takes its cues from hot rods of the late '50s to early '60s. There's a little more money in this variation, but it could still be a fairly inexpensive build. The color scheme is a combination of Pantera or Boss Mustang blue and cream. The cream goes from the upholstery to the steel wheels and back into the cockpit, where cream-colored gauges pop against the blue dash. Baby Moon caps over smoothies have been dressed up with chrome spinners made from cabinet hardware from the cabinet store or bathroom supply shop.
Screw them through the rear of the cover or simply epoxy them in place. The windshield is crowned for a little extra style, and held in place with chrome posts. The headlight buckets and front end components are also chromed. An alternative to the scaled-down '40 Ford steering wheel would be a Cal Custom flat wheel shot with vinyl paint or upholstered.
This rear view (on above illustration) shows the frenched license plate and Moon gas cap, both embellished with a lip around the perimeters. Angled taillights from a mid-'60s Corvette are easy to find and fit right in place. A small-block Chevy is imagined under the hood. The extended side pipes are modeled after the pipes on Earl's own T-bucket. Earl went to a tractor-trailer parts store and bought a pair of extension pipes, approximately 3 1/2 inches in diameter.
They slid right onto the header pipes and fit perfectly inside the rear tires as shown. He added stock hot rod mufflers, which come in different lengths.