Coker Tire Museum
Traveling Through Time
America’s landscape is laced with “pockets of discovery,” places that reveal treasures that all too often fall below the radar. Case in point is a city many consider to be the Crown Jewel of the South—Chattanooga, Tennessee. Nestled along the banks of the Tennessee River, which cuts and winds through the bucolic highlands of the Volunteer State, Chattanooga hosts several treasures that will make the automotive, truck, and motorcycle aficionado cry bonanza. One is the Coker Tire museum.
The understated sign that marks the Coker Tire Museum may initially lead one to believe this is just another place to buy tires, but nothing could be further from the truth. No, it’s much more than that. Opened by Harold Coker in 1958, Coker Tire operated as a modern-day tire and service center. In the ’70s, Harold’s son “Corky” Coker saw a niche market not being filled (as all successful entrepreneurs do) and “drove a truck through it.” Purchasing old, retired tire molds from tiremakers like Firestone and B.F. Goodrich dating back to the 1900s that were no longer being manufactured, Coker opened his own aftermarket antique tire manufacturing facility. Today, this operation includes several thousand antique tire molds Coker uses to make original equipment tires for vintage automobiles. Coker refurbishes the original molds purchased from the tire manufacturers and builds antique tires to the original specs of yesteryear, using the latest tire materials. Another huge part of this operation is the manufacturing of both vintage and current-design wheels.
However, the Coker Tire vintage tire manufacturing operation is just the tip of a huge and unbelievable iceberg. Corky is and always has been a vintage car aficionado, and after you’ve encountered his world at 1317 Chestnut Street, you will leave with your head spinning. While you can order vintage tires from Coker’s warehouse and even have them installed in its on-site tire center, it’s the collection of priceless vintage autos, trucks, motorcycles, and auto equipment that separates this place from all others.
Inside the lobby, you’ll find a 1912 Nyberg (an automobile that was built right here in Chattanooga) and a re-creation of the Thomas Flyer, the automobile that won the Great American Race between New York and Paris in 1908. It’s awesome to see just how advanced the automobile was even during its infant stages and to think that an automobile actually drove around the world! Run from New York to San Francisco using mostly railroad beds, the six participating vehicles were then shipped by boat via Alaska and Japan to Russia where they were off-loaded and then driven across Asia and Europe to Paris. The race was completed by the Thomas Flyer in 169 days. This all happened just five years after Henry Ford formed the Ford Motor Company in 1903. This is amazing stuff!
As you move through the front lobby, you enter an area that houses nothing but engines of every ilk and from every era. Of course, there is the legendary Ford flathead V-8 that powered Ford vehicles for a quarter of a century up until 1954. Lining the list of engines on exhibit are a four-cylinder Model A flathead Ford, a Packard V-12, a Packard Straight-8, a 32hp T-Head four-cylinder engine used to power the 1913 Apperson Jack Rabbit, and a Spanish Hispano-Suiza engine. The museum also houes a Lencki six-cylinder that made its debut in the 1939 Indy 500. This is an engine that, through engineering enhancements, is still offered today and can be ordered from Coker.
Passing the machine shop on the left, you will see huge lathes and rollers that take raw steel and create wheels of every kind. From the gallery on the right, you can look down and see Coker craftsmen building wooden-spoke wheels for vintage automobiles. Next is a huge shop where antique vehicles are being rebuilt and worked on and where tires purchased at Coker Tire are installed. All of this would be enough to make it feel as though your visit is complete, but the best is yet to come.
Moving through a heavy door, you enter a world that is truly awesome. The showroom consists of thousands of square feet of floor space, with the walls stacked three high from floor to ceiling with vintage motorcycles. Vehicles of every kind, including a two-cylinder 1912 Auto Car, stand at parade rest in lines that weave back and forth across the huge exhibit area.
There are row upon row of beautiful, original, restored vintage automobiles, trucks, coaches, and utility vehicles that many will recognize, and many so exotic and vintage that you have to read the placard to discover what you’re looking at. The motorcycle collection has to be one of the most complete in the country, with machines dating back to the first decade of the 20th century, when a motorcycle had to be peddled and the clutch popped to get started. Excelsior Auto Cycles, Harley-Davidson, Indians Motorcycle, Reading Standard Motorsports—the list goes on and on. Take one of Coker Tire’s guided tours and give yourself a good chunk of time to take in everything there is to see and understand. Daily tours are conducted at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Friday. The tour is free and takes about an hour. The story Coker Tire has to tell is a really good one!
Coker TireChattanooga, TN 37402