Like father, like son: Cokers drive on tradition of giving back

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Like father, like son: Cokers drive on tradition of giving back

Nearly 20 years ago I interviewed Harold Coker, founder of Coker Tire Co. in Chattanooga, Tenn., as he was about to take the reins as president of the National Tire Dealers and Retreaders Association (NTDRA).

Last month I spoke with his son, Joseph "Corky" Coker (in photo), who was recently sworn in as chairman of the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA).

It's obvious the Coker family believes in giving back to the industry in which they've enjoyed much success.

Coker Tire is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year. What Harold started in 1958 as a BFGoodrich dealership emphasizing truck and industrial tire sales has grown into the world's largest supplier of classic and collector car tires.

How did he get into such a niche market? "It was never a problem to sell tires, but it was hard to find them," Harold told me in 1984. So what started out as a quest for tires for his own antique autos grew into the company of today, which employs 50 people in the vintage business alone, sells to 40 countries and has six tractor trailers on the road at all times delivering products. The company recently opened a distribution center in Fresno, Calif., to give quick delivery to West Coast clients.

Yet anniversary celebration preparations have been put on hold, Corky told me, at least until things return to normal at Coker headquarters. In June a tornado ripped the roof off the building, sending five inches of rain down on everything -- including vital computers.

That storm hit while Corky was on the road -- somewhere between Livonia, Mich., and Daytona Beach, Fla. He was driving his 1909 Lozier in "The Great Race" -- a timed endurance rally of 4,400 miles for pre-1959 antique and classic cars.

His vehicle, the oldest in the rally, was navigated by Cameron Coker, Corky's son. Of the 100 autos that started the race, 91 finished. The Cokers won their class.

And now the Cokers own the race, literally. When the race's founder and owner quit after 21 years, Coker Tire joined with some partners to buy the race to ensure its future.

It's just one more thing the Cokers are doing to enhance the image and enjoyment of collector cars. And that's one topic Corky will be stressing as SEMA chairman. And he'll be tracking the burgeoning tuner market, because that's what's attracting today's young car enthusiasts.

Corky considers his two-year commitment as SEMA chairman to be "the pinnacle of my business career. The trade show is healthy and thriving. There are more than 5,000 members and a great staff. It's a great opportunity."

The chairmanship will be a lot of work and take a lot of time. But hard work is nothing new to any of the Cokers.

The company still has a retail outlet in Chattanooga and the vibrant mail order and Web-based business that sells the classic tires, Coker Classic Cycles, flathead motorcycles and collectible memorabilia.

Corky's brother David runs the antique and classic wheel division called Newstalgia Wheel Co., and the company also now owns Honest Charley Speed Shop, which offers replacement parts and accessories for classic El Caminos, Malibus and Monte Carlos. Since the Cokers bought the 55-year-old company, they have seen a doubling of business every year.

Corky hopes all this activity attracts the third generation Coker into the business, but he's not pushing.

"The way you do it is encourage and make it available to them," says Corky. That's how his dad handled it. And things seemed to have worked out just fine.

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