NATHAN HAVENNER – Contributor
Visitors to The Coker Museum in downtown Chattanooga can enjoy a mesmerizing display of antique automobiles, motorcycles, neon signs and even airplanes, all collected by one man: Corky Coker.
“It is Corky’s personal collection, It all belongs to him,” facility controller Terry Borden said. “It is more than just the cars and motorcycles. He has a brass monkey out there, he has Coca Cola memorabilia out there, he has got mega signs out there…he has an eye for that kind of stuff.”
Coker is an iconic personality in the world of classic cars, and for decades helmed Coker Tire. Established by Coker’s father Harold Coker in 1958, the company grew to become one of the leading manufacturers of historically accurate reproduction tires for antique and classic cars.
“He was real big on going around and buying up the old molds for all the old car tires,” Borden said. “A lot of them sold all the molds for these old tires, thinking we are never going to do mass tires for these old cars again.”
As Coker Tire grew, so did Corky’s collection.
Located at 1309 Chestnut St., the collection is housed in a historic building that was once a part of the Nyburg Automobile factory, which manufactured cars in Chattanooga between 1912 and 1914.
Today, two antique Nyburg automobiles have returned to be enjoyed by those taking the self-guided tour of more than 160 vehicles.
After stepping into the main showroom, visitors are greeted by a wall of rare antique American motorcycles. Makes range from the well-known Harley Davidson and Indian motorcycles to more obscure manufacturers, such as Excelsior, Henderson, Thor and Pierce.
A 1913 Sears Deluxe finished in red and white with a nickel plated V-twin engine manufactured by the F.W. Spacke Machine Co. of Indianapolis is an example of what could once be ordered through the Sears catalog.
While some collectors are known to enjoy a specific make or era of vehicle, Coker’s collection varies widely. Vehicles range from a 1912 Autocar, known as the oldest surviving vehicle manufacturer in the western hemisphere, to a 1967 Austin Healy and even a 1978 Ferrari 308 GTS. The Ferrari is identical to the one made famous by actor Tom Selleck in the “Magnum P.I.” TV series.
Visitors to The Coker Garage are welcome to enjoy the collection at their own pace – and people do.
“We have people that spend 10 minutes and they are out,” Borden said. “We had a couple of elderly men who spent two-and-a half hours here the other day as they stopped at every car and started talking.”
“Some of the car enthusiasts take a lot of time, and it is great that Corky allows people to come in and view the collection.”
In addition to serving as a museum and event space, the facility also serves as a fully functioning automotive restoration shop.
“We do a little of everything,” Borden said. “Some of these vehicles in here are not ours. We usually have three to six cars sitting, waiting to be worked on or being worked on.”
The Coker Museum also houses a complete restoration shop, including a modern paint booth for body work and a shop that specifically builds wood spoke wheels for antique cars.
“We have a guy that buys old Porsches and enjoys working on them,” Borden said. “He will tear it down and take everything out of it, bring it over here and let us do some bodywork. He’ll take it and put it back together and then bring it back here and we will do the painting and finish the bodywork.”
“It depends on what you need and what you want,” he added.
Borden said every item in the museum tells a story, and he enjoys hearing Coker talk about the history of the different pieces.
“I get to hear Corky telling stories, because he has stuff out there that no one looks at,” Borden said. “I get bits and pieces of the stories and I enjoy going out and talking to people as they are looking at something and I will go up and share that with them.”
Borden said if someone is visiting Chattanooga and they enjoy classic cars and motorcycles, The Coker Museum is a must-see.
“It gives you this little pick me up to see some of these things,” he said. “This stuff, not only is it history, but it is never going to be repeated. We are going a different way, the future is a different way. These cars and the motorcycles were built to last.”
The Coker Museum is open 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, visit www.cokermuseum.com.