published Monday, July 30th, 2012

Chattanooga's vintage-car cowboy and family are at the center of a new TV show

Corky Coker, 58, leans on a custom built 1932 Ford Highboy in the warehouse at Coker Tire on the Southside. The "double exposure" vehicle brandishes the 1958 founding date for the business on one side, and the 1948 Honest Charlie's logo on the other side.
Corky Coker, 58, leans on a custom built 1932 Ford Highboy in the warehouse at Coker Tire on the Southside. The "double exposure" vehicle brandishes the 1958 founding date for the business on one side, and the 1948 Honest Charlie's logo on the other side.
Photo by Tim Barber.
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Walk into Corky Coker's world — the global headquarters of Coker Tire on a downtown Chattanooga back street — and you'll enter a world of metal and engines and grease monkeys.

It's a place where nostalgia is found and built to the tune of a pretty penny and old men's teenage dreams come back to life with a little spit and shine.

Coker Tire is the world's largest provider of collector car tires, but to Coker, finding, fixing and selling vintage cars and vintage car parts is also a way of life, a kind of frontier that needs a cowboy hero.

He certainly tries to play the part. His uniform is simple: high-waisted, tight blue jeans, ostrich-skin boots and a cowboy-style, blond-gray mustache that he says he's been growing for nearly 40 years. His everyday iron horse is a new Ford F-150 King Ranch "cowboy truck," as he calls it.

He's a rabid Chattanooga supporter — Coker sits on the River City Co. and Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce boards — and is well known as a sort of anti-CEO, wearing what he wants, saying what he wants.

"I'm not driven for the almighty dollar. [But] I do like winning," he said. "One day I might be on a backhoe. Another day I might be meeting the president of the United States."

Now Hollywood has taken notice of the car-minded CEO. This fall, Corky, his father — former Hamilton County Commissioner Harold Coker — his daughter and son-in-law will star in a reality show that follows the Coker family as they try to find and restore old, rare vehicles.

The show, titled "Barn Finds," shows the ins and outs of hunting down treasures such as the 1912 Indian motorcycle that he found in Davenport, Iowa, as little more than a pile of parts. Today it has been reassembled and restored and is proudly displayed.

The first episodes of "Barn Finds" will air on the Travel Channel beginning in August or September.

The shows fits snugly into a growing genre of trash-to-treasure television. "American Pickers" and "Pawn Stars" on History Channel and "Storage Wars" on A&E are just a few of the shows that follow colorful personalities as they pluck valuable discards from obscurity.

Coker, raised in Chattanooga, is a mogul with big-time friends, including late-night TV host and comedian Jay Leno, who has a vintage car collection of more than 100. Coker is also a political booster in his spare time, organizing fundraisers for many Republican candidates.

Leno called the Chattanooga Times Free Press last week to plug his friend. He called him a family man, an honest guy and the epitome of all things Southern. Coker is worthy of the spotlight, Leno said; just take one look at his huge mustache.

"If you told me they are doing a cartoon show about him, that would be perfect," said Leno. "I think he is someone that people would like ... Coker represents everything good about being from the South."

In the vintage car world, Coker is legend. Coker Tire was started by his father in 1958 as a tire and service center, but Harold Coker passed on a passion for old cars and hot rods to his son. When Corky Coker quit college to work at Coker Tire, his father told him to focus on a small niche part — collector tires — which at the time was just 5 percent of their business.

Over the years, Corky Coker searched out and bought the rights to discontinued tire molds from Third World manufacturers and put them back into production. Now collector tires are the main thrust of the family business.

Coker Tire distributes in 40 countries and has more than 1,200 molds in production. People like Leno buy most of the tires for their old-model cars from Coker Tires.

"In our niche, we are rock stars," Coker said.

And Coker Tire is now an umbrella for 10 businesses, including Honest Charley Garage, which is run by his son-in-law, Greg Cunningham, and is the focal point of "Barn Finds."

Coker said he likes the spotlight and feels comfortable with the responsibilities of fame. But the filming days are long, he said. The cameras show up at 7:30 a.m. and stick with him until 7 p.m. Many takes are required. At every find, camera crews must get permission to film from the owners.

But Coker goes in first to grease the skids. His knowledge of cars and easy manner don't get him turned away often.

Coker and crew have been filming for months and so far have gotten enough film for four episodes. On his computer, he proudly plays the intro clip, which shows him driving around the country in a 1953 F-100 Ford truck to a bluegrass tune. That white truck, with the Honest Charley Garage logo on the side, will be the show's calling card.

And no, the show is not scripted, Coker said.

"It's gonna be real or I ain't going to do it," he said. "This show won't be trumped up."

And there won't be family fireworks, either.

He and his father, who is now 83 years old, compete to find the better cars. His dad makes him pay a commission for leads or finds, but the dynamic is more funny than dramatic, Coker said.

"My daughter and dad try to throw me under the bus for buying junk," he said. "My dad envies my collection. He's seeing the sunset, and I'm in the eighth inning."

Even Coker's wife tries to put a hold on his spending, he said. But they had a deal that works in his favor: Every time he buys her a car she likes, he gets to buy five for himself. The purchases, which can range from $500 to $40,000, may seem questionable, but he always has the last laugh about their value, he brags.

Coker said he promised in the show's contract not to reveal what cars he finds in the region until the show airs, but he did say viewers will see everything from old Fords to muscle cars and classics such as the Pierce Arrow and the Packard.

His personal collection boasts cars worth six figures, including a 1910 Mercer, a 1909 Lozier, a 1917 Stutz Bearcat and a Jaguar E-Type Roaster.

"I've got a sixth sense about what's valuable," he said.

Cunningham, who has been in the family for three years and is a thin, meek man with black-rim glasses, said he's starting to get used to Coker's way. But it has taken time.

"He's really dynamic. He adds a certain appeal to the show. ... He knows how to relate to anyone," Cunningham said while his father-in-law was still in earshot.

When Coker walked farther away, Cunningham leaned in to offer further insight.

"He's got about the biggest ego there is," he said, laughing.

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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