Vintage dealer: Coker Tire goes to the ends of the earth for classic molds
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (Feb. 21, 2003)—When Joseph “Corky” Coker traveled to Uruguay recently, it wasn't for adventure, or the tropical weather or even some R&R.
It was for an elusive, 38x7 original BFGoodrich tire mold that would crank out tires for American LaFrance, Mack and White vintage trucks from the 1910s and 1920s.
“We have really traveled all over the world and expended money to find original molds,” Mr. Coker said.
Coker Tire Co. is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year. But the company, which started out as a regular BFGoodrich dealership and grew into a vintage tire supplier, has faced more than the usual obstacles for a small family business.
Mr. Coker's father, Harold Coker, founded the business as a BFGoodrich dealership in Athens, Tenn., later moving to Chattanooga. At the time, the classic car enthusiast established a small section for vintage tires at the back of the showroom. Vintage tires then accounted for about 1 percent of the company's business.
In 1974, Joseph Coker took over the vintage division. Twenty-nine years later, the vintage segment now accounts for 99 percent of Coker Tire's business, he said. The company still operates Coker Tire and Auto Service, a Michelin and BFGoodrich dealership, in Chattanooga in addition to its 85,000 square feet of vintage-tire space.
But in the time Mr. Coker was expanding the vintage tire unit, several key obstacles arose. Specifically, the dealership had to find a way to source the tires that weren't in mass production anymore.
“When (manufacturers) phase that tread out, all those molds are in the way,” he said.
To piece together the vintage treads, Coker Tire has licensing agreements with Michelin, BFGoodrich, Firestone, Ford and U.S. Royal.
“They're helpful with whatever records they have, which is limited,” he said.
If all else fails, classic car collectors may be the ones to piece together how a specific tire should look to be historically accurate.
But once the company finds its design for a tire, manufacturing it is the next big hurdle.
Coker Tire has agreements with a few specialty tire manufacturers, but the company has to buy an entire production line after buying the mold. So, Mr. Coker said, the company shells out around $30,000 for a mold only to have a chunk of its warehouse tied up with one specific tire.
“It's inventory intensive,” he said.
After the company acquires that large inventory, the next step is to move it. With its niche market of customers spread out geographically, Coker Tire has relied on its mail-order catalog and attendance at classic car shows to get its name into collectors' circles.
“We have to stand in front of the customers,” Mr. Coker said.
To improve distribution in the West, Coker Tire plans to open a new distribution center in Fresno, Calif., by April 1, Mr. Coker said. The 12,000-sq.-ft. facility will serve several western states, including California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Idaho and others.
But as the company's sales and reputation grow, Mr. Coker said his basic enjoyment with the company stays the same.
“It's my hobby, too, so I can play in my hobby every day,” he said.
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