published Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Chattanooga businessman Corky Coker’s TV series 'Backroad Gold' to debut Wednesday

  • photo
    A new Travel Channel series, "Backroad Gold," features Corky Coker, right, on his travels to find vintage cars, trucks, motorcycles and “interesting stuff.” Coker's father, Harold Coker, left, also appears in the series. The series begins Wednesday night at 9:30.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

If Corky Coker wasn't the subject of a new Travel Channel series about finding treasures along the back roads of the United States, he'd be -- well -- finding treasures along the back roads of the United States.

"It's what I've done all my life," he said. "It's what I love."

"Backroad Gold," which debuts Wednesday at 9:30 p.m., finds the chief executive officer of the Coker Group piloting a white 1953 Ford F-100 along roads where barns and sheds hide rusted signs, 1962 Ford Galaxie 500s and sightseeing tour buses.

With enough car-related shows on cable TV to fill a dealership lot, Coker's show could be just one more. But the man who calls himself "a folksy cowboy with a cowboy mustache" said his show will be different.

"I really am who I am," Coker, 59, said, eschewing any idea of a put-on demeanor for the show. "I'm a real guy. I'm approachable. I love cars, I love where I am, I love what I do. I think folks will have a good time watching it."

Eight episodes of "Backroad Gold," produced by Brentwood Communications International Inc., an independent television and film studio in North Hills, Calif., are in the can and set to be shown. Another reality show with Coker, "Barn Finds," filmed a pilot two years ago but never was picked up for a full season. And while the new series could end after the episodes air, he doesn't think it will. He believes viewers will click with his "downhome country boy" style, his family, the hobby of collecting cars and "the coolest guys in the world -- car guys."

While he does discover vintage cars, trucks, motorcycles and "interesting stuff," and at least one car per episode is restored in his Honest Charley's Garage, what's more important are the stories behind the stuff. And that's what will keep people coming back, he said.

"We tell the history -- the people and places," Coker said.

The viewer, seeing him find a 1956 Chevy, might remember the 1956 Chevy in which the viewer's family took U.S. Highway 41 to Florida in the years before interstate travel, or was the location of a first kiss, or was the viewer's first secondhand car.

"It brings you back," Coker said.

And, "we're not snorting tequila, not getting bleeped." In other words, kids can tune in.

He will be joined on the series by his daughter, Casey, who is in the administration end of Honest Charley's SpeedShop, his son-in-law, Greg Cunningham, who accompanies him on the back roads and oversees the car restorations, and his dad, Harold, the former Hamilton County commissioner, who "just likes to bust my chops."

"We're a family," he said, "and we're a good bunch of people."

Casey, who met and married Greg after her dad recruited him to Chattanooga to help restore cars, said the dynamic of the unscripted show has her being "a smarty pants" with Coker -- just as he does with his father.

"But it's not only our family. It's the cars and the people who owned them. Every car has a story," she said.

Cunningham said he feels like he's "cheated the system" with Coker and his wife, Theresa, as in-laws. And having restored cars more than half his life, helping Coker find and restore cars is "living the dream."

"I'm doing what car guys dream of," he said.

"BARN FINDS" TO "BACKROAD GOLD"

In 2012, the Travel Channel ordered a pilot for "Barn Finds," which had basically the same format. The pilot aired about 50 times on the Speed Channel, he said, but that's it. The cable network returned to him last year and suggested a similar series with the "Backroad Gold" name.

Although the Travel Channel slotted the show for broadcast, unlike some car shows on various cable networks, Coker will foot the bills for the cars he purchases.

"It's all my money," he said. "They don't tell me what to buy or what not to buy."

Coker said he'll buy as many as four cars per episode. While at least one is restored, some are put in line to be restored later or, perhaps, sold down the road.

"Nothing really gets trashed," he said.

His travels already have paid off for the future, too, he said. He now has a database of 250 possible leads for cars he might seek along the back roads, whether or not the series is extended.

"That's the fun part for me," he said. "That is pure gold."

TOP OF HIS GAME

Coker said he's been buying -- and flipping -- vintage cars since he was a teen in the 1970s when he had to take out 90-day loans from banker and fellow church member D.L. Hill. Coker didn't finish college, and eventually took over his dad's tire business, growing the vintage tire end of it to become the world's largest provider of tires for collector automobiles.

Now, Coker said, there are 12 businesses employing 150 people, many of which are clumped together on nearly a block of buildings he owns along Chestnut Street.

From 2003 to 2005, he was national chairman of the board of the Specialty Equipment Market Association, where he met with economic leaders of large countries such as China and Brazil, and is in the association's hall of fame.

"I may talk slow," Coker said, "but I think real fast."

He's also dipped his toe -- maybe both feet -- into politics, running former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp's unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1992 and his subsequent successful bid in 1994. And last week, Weston Wamp, Zach Wamp's son, announced that the budding car show star would be part of his campaign staff and leadership team for his second U.S. House try.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

The success or failure of "Backroad Gold" won't change him, said Coker, who wears jeans and cowboy shirts in the series as well as in his Lookout Mountain-view downtown office. If the network fails to renew the show, it will miss out on something good, he asserted.

Like seeing the brown, leather riding pants, steel helmet and sweater with block letters once worn by a 1940s motorcycle rider -- he has a photo of the guy to prove it -- that he has hanging in his office. Or pieces from the "General Lee" (think "Dukes of Hazzard"). Or some of the coolest cars from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

"I'm good with cars," Coker said. "I don't make mistakes with cars."

Show or no show, he'll still be hitting the road in search of more back-road gold.

"I have a good feeling," he said. "It's going to be a blast."

Contact Clint Cooper at ccooper@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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