2 December 2008

Coker Tire: Hub of the Hobby

As Coker Tire celebrates its 50th anniversary, CEO Corky Coker reflects on what makes the business go round.

With his long mustache and wavy graying hair, Corky Coker looks like he walked out of central casting from the brass era, a notion reinforced by the sight of him driving one of his many pre-1920 cars at collector car gatherings around the country.

The affable Corky is the CEO of Coker Tire, the Chattanooga, Tennessee-based company that’s top of mind whenever the subject of collector car wheels and tires is raised. The company not only sells the widest range of collector car tires and sizes in the world, but also has been instrumental in discovering long-forgotten molds from defunct tire companies and commissioning their remanufacture under license. Coker Tire also sells many collector car tires from companies still in existence, such as Michelin, Firestone, Dunlop and Goodyear. Coker Tire has always been a family affair. Corky’s father, Harold, founded the company in 1958. And Harold was introduced to collector cars by his father, Pop, who died years ago at the age of 97. “Pop Coker was a wonderful mechanic with a tremendous number of abilities,” Corky says. “It was said that he could lean against a Model A Ford and make it run better.”

Inspired by Pop, Harold joined a small-but- growing group of car collectors. In doing so, he discovered that many people couldn’t find wheels and tires for the cars they were restoring. “They would have their cars all done sitting on jack stands waiting on tires,” Corky says.

So Harold Coker decided to start up a business that specialized in collector car tires. He began in Athens, Tennessee, and moved to Chattanooga in 1961. Corky got involved after graduating from college in 1974. “We took it to the next level,” he says. “We went to a tremendous number of shows all over the world and developed distributors in up to 30 countries.”

Coker Tire does construction designs, development engineering and build drawings, and has partners in Indiana, Pennsylvania and Warren, Ohio, that do the manufacturing for them. It then distributes these tires through its network.

The company also manufactures rims. “We’ve got close to 1,000 model numbers in production,” Corky says.

A born detective

Corky spent much of the early part of his career searching the world for original production tire molds. It has become an important part of the Coker Tire business.

“I actually saw a tire with a tread design I recognized on an antique fire truck,” Corky says. “It had Spanish writing on it, but it appeared to be a B.F. Goodrich tread design. So I contacted this factory down in Montevideo, Uruguay, and they said that the mold had long since been gone.

“So I flew down to Montevideo with an interpreter, since I didn’t speak Spanish, and spoke with the plant manager. He told me that the mold had been scrapped, so I asked if we could go into the mold shop and look around. Inside, we found several stacks of molds, including the one I was looking for. So I brought it back, put it in production. Now there are American LaFrance Fire Trucks rolling on the roads of America today because we found that mold.”

Corky has also visited New Zealand and Costa Rica in search of molds. “We’ve been on a quest to find original tires,” he says. “We also have access to the original drawings, so if we don’t find an original mold, we can build one like the original tire.”

When recreating a tire, Coker Tire takes some liberties with the internal construction to help produce a safer version. “There’s a whole new segment of collector car owners that never learned to drive on bias-ply tires,” Corky says. “So in the ’80s, we started looking at and designing a radial tire with a wide flat wall. We were the first in the world to provide that product when we introduced it in the ’90s, and, consequently, collector car owners now have the ability to drive their cars instead of the cars driving them. They track true and have the technology of the radial with the look of the bias-ply tire.”

From a hobby to an industry

As a vital cog in the collector car world, Corky is still surprised by the growth of the hobby in recent years. “I don’t think anyone could have imagined that this hobby would be as strong and far-reaching as it is,” he says. “Now it’s a multibillion-dollar industry. When you love something and it’s your hobby, too, you’re always pushing for it to grow.

“When you ride down the road in a collector car, people usually look at you, smile and give you thumbs-up. Collector cars make people happy. It reminds them of a time gone by, their youth, their grandparents or parents, or, maybe, the girlfriend that they necked with in the back of a ’65 GTO. Collector cars make you smile.”

What’s in Corky’s personal stable? “I’m into brass cars, British cars, motorcycles, buses and commercial vehicles,” he says. “I’ve got antique buses, two Yellowstone buses and a ’36 convertible. I also have a 1939 Mack, muscle cars, a number of GTOs, flathead Fords, two Rat Rods and my bikes. Lately, I’ve been heavy into collector bikes – mostly American pre-1930s. I probably have close to 20 Excelsior bikes from 1907 (the first year) to 1931 (the last year). And I love them all.”

The collection, currently housed in several locations, is being moved into a restored 18,000-square-foot warehouse in downtown Chattanooga.

Corky knows the hobby faces some challenges ahead. “We need to bring young people into it so we don’t just die off,” he says. “We also need to be responsive to environmental challenges such as clean air and Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.”

Given the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that has propelled Coker Tires to its preeminent position in the market, we can bet that Corky will be right there on the front lines.
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Winter 2008 issue of Hagerty magazine.

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