October 19, 2014 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For longer than Roger Hartman has been involved in law enforcement, he has loved hot rod cars. So as he taught a driver’s safety class on a recent Sunday morning in Omaha—a class attended mostly by sullen Omahans trying to nullify the impacts of a speeding ticket on their driving record—he couldn’t help but sprinkle in the fact he owns a 1926 Ford T-Bucket.

“It’s fast,” he tells the class. “But I can’t tell you how I know it is fast.”

Sadly, the writer was in this class not as a journalist, but as an unwilling student.

Prodded in a later interrogation, Hartman broke down (actually he’s pretty quick to confess):

He has broken the speed limit several times in his heavily-modified Ford Model T—or T-bucket—perhaps the most iconic of the post-WWII American speedsters. “Highway 2 outside of Nebraska City,” he says like someone recalling halcyon days. “Cruising along on a perfect day. Nobody in sight. Maybe I push it a little bit.”

Under further questioning, the perp sings:

“I’d be lying if I tried to plead the fifth. I mean, I don’t poke the dog on a regular basis. But, well, as far as a ticket? It’s the same for all of us: It’s not a matter of if. It’s more a matter of when.”

While Hartman and his surprisingly effective good cop/gruff cop traffic-safety classes are well-known to a certain segment of Omahans, he has spent most of his law-enforcement career south of the metro. Hartman was a long time police officer in Nebraska City and Independence, Mo. He has also assisted in drug-related investigations in other Nebraska counties and with the Nebraska State Patrol.

Hartman, who graduated high school in 1969, says he has always been in love with American street rods, particularly those made popular in the 1960s. He owned a 1965 Impala Supersport, for one. He is one of those guys that babies his car—perhaps obsesses over them. “You could fry an egg on the manifold and eat it.”

Since high school, he has always had a soft spot for the T-bucket. “It’s the original hotrod,” he says. “Guys coming back from the service could afford to buy some old Model T and have some fun stripping them down and making them their own.” The intricate “Rat Fink” drawings of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth in particular brought the car into the broader culture. Hartman watched a lot of the late 1950s, early ’60s television series 77 Sunset Strip. Guys of a certain age might remember feelings for “Kookie’s car.”

Hartman bought and restored his T-bucket eight years ago. Instead of dropping a cheap Chevy short-block engine into his car (“a Chevy engine in a Ford? Come-on.”), he chose a Ford Mustang Boss 302.

Now, no longer feeling comfortable on a motorcycle and, also, with two ex-wives in the rear-view mirror, Hartman’s T-Bucket is arguably his first love.

And unlike some folks with a beloved car, Hartman likes to take his on dates.

“This isn’t a trailer queen,” he says, referring to show cars that are never driven. “We get out on the road. If it’s warm, I’m out there. It’s just a feeling like no other.”

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