There's good reason why his friends call him the Indiana Jones of the tire business. That's because until Corky Coker came along, collector car enthusiasts were in a real pickle. With big-name tire manufacturers having long abandoned the vintage car market, enthusiasts had nowhere to go to get tires for their restoration projects. Corky recognized this void, and began expanding his company's antique tire division in 1974. After convincing large tire companies, such as Firestone and Michelin, that reproducing vintage tires was a good idea, Corky obtained the licensing rights necessary to start manufacturing them. Due to the global nature of the tire business, Corky literally traveled the world hunting down antique tire molds. The hard work paid off, and today Coker Tire has over 1,000 different part numbers, and has grown from a 500-square-foot shop into a 100,000-square-foot empire in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Interestingly, although Coker's reproduction tires resemble their old-school counterparts, they feature the latest in modern tire innovations. To find out more about what goes into designing everything from whitewalls for street rods to bias-plies for muscle cars, Corky was kind enough to let us pick his brain. During our talk, we even covered some of the most basic yet commonly misunderstood aspects of tire design as well.
"Coker Tire Company was founded by my father, Harold Coker, in 1958. Harold dreamt of making rare and obsolete tires commercially available to antique car collectors. Having collected and restored cars for years, Harold recognized the need for this specialty area that his fellow hobbyists had so often demanded. I took over the responsibilities of the antique tire division in 1974. At the time, antique tire sales represented only 5 percent of the company's total business. Much of what we did over the next 20 years or so would actually define the vintage tire industry. The first obstacle was figuring out how to produce tires that were no longer being manufactured or supplied, which sizes would be most popular, and how to market and distribute them. We realized early on that we'd have to be our own best source of vintage treads. We bought molds from original tire makers if they still had them, and literally searched the world for old tire molds. Furthermore, we brokered deals with major tire producers that secured Coker Tire the worldwide licensing agreements and exclusive distributorships to big-name vintage brands including BFGoodrich, Firestone, Michelin, and U.S. Royal. To grow our customer base in an industry with no recognized method of distribution, we went straight to our customers. On the weekends, we loaded up a small van with tires, and worked car shows across the country, sleeping in the back to save money. Show travel became, and still is, the mainstay of Coker's commitment to its customers.
"As the era of mail order came into full bloom, aggressive advertising efforts targeted to car collectors and enthusiasts put the company's catalog in the hands of thousands of new potential customers. Perhaps the key component to Coker's success lies in the mail order aspect of the business that emphasizes customer service. We established the 'No Sweat' return policy that simply states that the customer is always right. Coker Tire's antique tire division started with one employee in 1974, and today has grown to more than 50. The company's web page is now a full e-commerce site with complete online ordering capability. All inventory has recently been consolidated to a separate 100,000-square-foot warehouse in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Our restoration shop and private museum opened in 2008 at the company's Chestnut Street headquarters."
Old Meets New
Although Coker's line of classic car tires-such as bias-plies for period-correct muscle car restorations and whitewalls for street rods-may look similar to tires produced back in the '30s, they feature the latest in modern tire design. According to Corky, tire technology has evolved tremendously through the decades, and Coker's designs resemble the originals in appearance only. All of the company's products are designed from the ground up to be classic car tires. "We don't take a modern tire, grind up the sidewall, and cure a whitewall on it. They're designed from the start to be classic tires," Corky explains. "Even when we make a bias-ply tire for a '65 Chevelle that needs to look just like the original tire, we use the most modern compounds, cord angles, and carcass designs. Likewise, treads stock today are much better than they were in the '60s. With traditional looks and modern technology, it really is the best of both worlds."