Thursday, March 26, 2015

Inside the Coker Tire/Honest Charley Museum

We recently went on a little Spring Break trip to Chattanooga, Tenn. There are lots of fun things to check out there, including restaurants, caves, trains, and scenic mountain views. But for me, one of the highlights was the Coker Tire Museum, which houses the private car collection of vintage tire mogul Corky Coker. This is a pretty serious collection of mostly rare and unusual vehicles on display in an old factory. Oh, and no off-ball tires purchased at the local farm implements store here—everything sits on the perfect-style tire. Former Hot Rod Magazine writer Steve Anderson gave us the grand tour.

This first car is pretty amazing, actually. It’s an exact reproduction of the 1911 Marmon Wasp that Ray Harroun used to win the inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911. They know it’s an exact reproduction, because the actual car still exists in the Indy 500 Hall of Fame Museum. They built this thing from scratch right here in the Coker/Honest Charley shop. Naturally, Coker even reproduced the Firestone tires. The only thing that isn’t completely authentic is the engine, which was out of a fire truck and not an original Marmon. This thing looks like a handful to drive to me. I can’t imagine winning a 500-mile race in it.

This is the “Double Exposure” 1932 Ford hot rod. This car is pretty well-known at this point, as you see it in a lot of magazines and car shows around the country. It was also featured at the SEMA show, and Coker has been known to drive it on long road adventures. The bare metal, flathead-powered roadster gets its name from the numbers on the doors. On the right side, it has a “58,” signifying the year 1958 when Coker Tires was founded. The left side features a “48,” which was the year Honest Charley’s Speed Shop originally opened. Honest Charley was originally in business until 1990, when founder Honest Charley Card called it quits. Coker bought all the rights to the company, and started selling hot rod parts again in 1998.

This ’54 Buick Century was built in the Coker/Honest Charley shops for Coker to use in the 2012 Hot Rod Power Tour. This one was built more for cruising than authenticity, as it rolls on Coker wide whitewall radials and has a touch screen CD player hidden behind the dashboard chrome. The wide steel wheels, bullet lugs and centers, and trim rings look pretty sharp on here. Curious that they chose a small-diameter ’57 Chevy steering wheel, but I’m sure this car is equipped with a sub-frame and power steering, and it does give you more room behind the wheel. Plaid seat inserts are more typical of a ‘40s Chrysler Highlander, but they’re interesting to look at in this Buick.

You might have seen this ’53 Ford F-100 on the Corky Coker-led television show Backroad Gold on the Travel Channel. I remember watching a couple episodes of the show and thinking it was pretty good, but it didn’t last long. Anyway, this is the shop truck look that many guys try and recreate, but most don’t nail as good as this. It’s powered by a hopped-up flathead Ford V8 with two Stromberg carburetors. Does it roll on a nice set of Coker Classic wide whitewalls? Uh, yeah. There’s not a lot of custom work here, but the weathered stock look really seems to suit this truck.

1908 marked the one-and-only running of the Great Race. A 1907 Thomas Flyer won the grueling 22,000 journey from Times Square in New York to Paris. When you consider the lack of passable roads, difficulties in sea travel, and limitations in automotive technology, this was an incredible feat. The actual car that ran the Great Race is on display at the Harrah’s Museum in Reno, Nev., but you get a pretty good idea what that car was like by looking at Coker’s 1910 Thomas Flyer finished in the same colors and style. Coker actually built this car for a planned re-running of the Great Race that never materialized. This car is big and lavish and cool, and it looks like it’s worth a lot of money. It does not, however, look like something I’d want to drive 22,000 miles.

This was a cool museum with lots of great cars to look at. Every car guy dreams of being able to accomplish what the Cokers have, and we all fanaticize about having a collection like this. But for most of us, the museum tour is as close as we’re gonna’ get. Check out the slideshow below, or click this link for a nicer version.


  1. Almost as nice as the Kelsey museum.

    1. I've been to the Kelsey museum! It has a lot of great cars too, but presented in a much different way. I love all these places.

    2. Hasn't the Kelsey Museum closed?

  2. Enjoyed the pics!

  3. Thanks. What great timing-I had just searched on the Web, a few days ago, for photos of the collection, but couldn't really find any!