Roy Exum: Honest Charley’s Thunderbird

Saturday, November 10, 2012 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

When the boys at Honest Charley’s garage got on a plane bound for Los Angeles, they had no idea what kind of car they would be getting for the nationally-televised “Car Wars” competition but they were bound by an unshakeable faith in one another. This week they got their grand prize.

“Car Wars” is a reality TV show where two teams of true craftsmen are pitted against one another to completely renovate and customize a vintage automobile in a very short, 48-hour window. The producers interview the mechanics, designers and “automotive geniuses,” – if you please – and then, under the harsh glare of Hollywood lights, the two teams take two identical cars and see which can out-do the other.

Greg Cunningham, who is the foreman of the Honest Charley’s Garage, knew before his team ever left Chattanooga his team would win for owner Corky Coker. “We restore some of the most beautiful cars in the world but they pale to the camaraderie, the teamwork and the deep respect we have for one another. I’ve got guys who can do anything with a car … and they’ll tell you the same thing about each other.”

When the two cars, only painted in primer, were introduced minutes before the competition was to begin, Greg’s heart sank when he saw the matching 1961 Ford Thunderbirds. “There isn’t as much space to work under the hoods or around the car, but we had to make very quick decisions and – relying on each other – it was the most fun thing any of us had ever done in our lives.”

The Honest Charleys were pitted against a team from Kalamazoo, Mich., and earned their pick of two high-performance engines by winning a race to take the old engine out of their car in less than 11 minutes. “We took a 351-cubic inch Cleveland block, because we knew we could get more horsepower,” he said as he started the winning car with deafening results. “That’s 475 horsepower and this car will fly!”

Unfortunately, a 351 engine is taller than a 302 cubic inch and the Honest Charleys didn’t realize until the last minutes when it came time to rebolt the hood. “So we cut a hole big enough for the breather plate and it made the car look even cooler.”

Corky’s team also had nobody who could work a sewing machine for the interior so they quickly installed an aluminum interior with candy-apple finish that wowed the judges. “We knew a way to give it a wood-grained look and then used the same bright green metal flake paint to customize the exterior after we painted the main car black.”

The result is so stunning Coker’s Honest Charley team won the big prize – they got to keep the car they completely customized! This week the beautiful 48-hour miracle was delivered to the Coker Auto Museum on Chestnut Street and the glossy machine has brought raves. “The show had an impressive parts warehouse, where you could get what you needed, but we had to design and machine a lot of parts. That’s where we had an edge because we do the same thing nearly every day.”

Honest Charley’s Garage, part of Coker’s automotive group, does about 50 percent in-house restorations and 50 percent for customers and is quickly becoming a well-known shop with a great reputation. “We have a waiting list of up to a year – depending on the work request – because older cars are so labor intensive,”  Cunningham explained.

“Most of what we do is on cars and trucks from 1970 – or better, 1950 – and older. We can do everything but … well, to give you an example,” he paused to point to a decaying 1956 Chevrolet, “if we did that car from top to bottom, you’re looking at $60,000 and upwards.”

Corky Coker, the gregarious owner of the group that includes a garage, speed shop, museum, antique tire maker, bicycle manufacturer and goodness knows what else, is launching a new TV series called “Barn Finds” and has already collected a surprising numbers of cars that have actually been in somebody’s barn for many years.

“That is a project that has all of us excited,” said Cunningham. “We are going to show the cars exactly the way we found them and give them a new life. You would be amazed at what we’ve found. The film company has done two pilots but the CEO, after watching the first shows, has already ordered a full season with filming starting in January.”

“As far as my crew is concerned, we are doing the stuff you dreamed about when you were growing up as a little boy so every day around here is an adventure. We have people who can design, who can fabricate wooden shells to cover in sheet metal, fix any engine under the sun … but they key is that every one of them enjoys and trusts in the other. That’s prettier – and means more to Corky -- than any car we’ve ever finished,” said the lanky Oklahoman, “and we’re pretty proud of it, too.”

Two cars out of the garage won national awards last year – a 1936 American Underslung and a 1955 Buick – and with the forthcoming TV exposure, Cunningham feels Honest Charley’s Garage is on the rise. “I had three calls this morning from people I had to turn down because we hardly have time for what we have in-house. Corky’s vision is  perfect – he wants to grow the shop but wants to do it in the right way.

“When we won the ‘Car Wars’ with the Thunderbird, it proved we were doing things the right way,” said Cunningham. “When we can do that, and have the most fun we’ve ever had, that’s a day well spent.”

Members of Honest Charley’s Garage are shown with the car the renovated in just 48 hours for the TV show “Car Wars.” Shown, from left to right, are Delton Scott, Hal Everett, Jonathan Miren (kneeling), foreman Greg Cunningham, Richard Marter, and Keith Brown.
Members of Honest Charley’s Garage are shown with the car the renovated in just 48 hours for the TV show “Car Wars.” Shown, from left to right, are Delton Scott, Hal Everett, Jonathan Miren (kneeling), foreman Greg Cunningham, Richard Marter, and Keith Brown.

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