Chattanoogan: Harold Coker – The Big Wheel Keeps On Turning

Wednesday, October 2, 2013 - by Jen Jeffrey

Business magnate and former county commissioner Harold Coker retired from the family business almost a decade ago, but he has not retired from his community efforts in Chattanooga. At almost 84 years of age, Mr. Coker still serves as chairman of the board of Coker Tire Company, and is on the board at EPB along with other involvements in Chattanooga.

Harold was born in Brasstown, N.C., on Dec. 24, 1929.  “I always apologized to my mother for my coming on Christmas Eve. I’d say, ‘I must have ruined your Christmas’ and she’d say ‘no, we were so poor that I never got a doll and you were my doll.’ She always explained it away and said that she was happy I was born on Christmas Eve. It has always been a difficult having my birthday at Christmas, but a good story came out of it,” he says.

A delightful story-teller, Mr. Coker has many and is still sharp as a tack in remembering them.

He tells, “When Lill and I got married we were poor and I needed a pair of shoes, but I couldn’t afford them. She finally sprang for a pair for Christmas … and my birthday. We had a small tree and she had one box wrapped up in Christmas paper and sat the little tree on top of that box. She had given me my birthday gift the night before and it was just one shoe. Now, I hadn’t been married to her very long, but I knew she was a bright girl - surely she had checked the box for the other size 13 shoe!” he quips. “On Christmas day, she gave me the gift under the tree and it was the other shoe.”

Harold, the older of his two brothers Bob and Bill, tells that they all were ‘infected’ with a passion for cars. Both blue collar workers, Hardy (Pop) and Ethel Corker raised their three boys in Athens Tn., and the boys grew up very modestly.

Harold began working as a teenager in an auto and home supply store for a friend of the family, Mr. List, and attended Tennessee Wesleyan College for two years, then graduated from Tennessee Tech.

Harold met his wife, who he affectionately calls Lill, when he was 23 years old and she was a junior in high school.

“Mr. List sold housewares appliances before he went into the tire business and he would sell his wares at the county fair each year. I had graduated from college and I was assigned to work at the country fair at the end of summer. I saw Lill walking down the causeway between the exhibitors. I had grown up in a very fundamental Christian home and my parents forbid me to dance, go to the movies on Saturday or drink beer. I led a very sheltered life. But when I went to college, they had a course called ‘rhythmic activities’ which was a camouflaged name for ballroom dancing. So I took it and I loved it. I didn’t tell my mother until after I had graduated from college. They concluded the fair with a square dance and I asked Lill if she would like to go to the dance with me. She said I would have to ask her father, so I did. He allowed it and that started our romance,” Harold recalls.

Harold was tall, a little older and with his own car. With his stature, good looks and his wavy dark hair, Mr. Thomas was leery and careful with his daughter and gave her a curfew of 8:30 in the evening while the two courted. “We dated about two and a half years. She was just a beautiful woman and she really is still that beautiful today,” Harold beams. The couple recently celebrated 60 years of marriage.

Lillian knew from the start about her husband’s passion for cars and she was right by his side. Harold says, “My dad had bought a Model T Ford that I liked and that sort of brought my hobby (along with the education I received working at the tire store) together. When I got out of college, I didn’t find a job close by and Lill and I were getting serious. I didn’t want to leave the area so I took a job with BF Goodrich.”

Not just acting on a whim, Harold thought it through and observed others in the retread business have success. Along with his instilled passion for cars and his foresight for business, Harold began his re-treading business in 1958 in Athens.

“As a salesman and district manager for BF Goodrich, my charge was to sell more tires obviously, but this dealership was already established in the area that I represented. I had 28 counties - Western NC, East TN. and North GA. One of my biggest dealers was in my hometown in Athens where Lill and I both grew up. Mr. List wasn’t in the retreading business and after they had persisted that he get into the business, he finally got aggravated and said, ‘I am not going to ever do that – you do it and I will help you,’ and he did,” Harold says.

Harold had a really good year and earned bonus money, but he didn’t have quite enough to start his own business so he talked to his father, but Pop had no money to help him.

“He had lost his job at the mill and got a job in Ohio and he said, ‘Son, the only asset we have in our life is our house and we will sell it to you and loan you the money if that is what you want to do.’ I told him I didn’t know how successful I would be, but if I was successful Lill and I would take care of him and my mom the rest of their life. He sold his house for $4,500 and loaned me all of the money that he had and it worked,” Harold says.

“When we started the business, Mr. List had found a location right next to his store, and that was one of the biggest mistakes he made in helping me, because I had been his salesman since I was 15 years old - everybody knew me and trusted me. When I opened up my tire store right next to him, a lot of the business came to me. After a few years, that didn’t sit well with him and his wife and they wanted me out of town. He bought my business and I moved to Chattanooga. At that point, Goodrich did not have a good representation in Chattanooga and they gave me an exclusive franchise in 1961,” Harold explains.

It worked well for everyone involved as Coker Tire became a successful business. So successful, that he was able to buy his parents three homes.

When Mr. Coker jokes in his Jimmy Stewart manner, he does it with a straight face and you almost miss it.

“Dad lived to be almost 98 and, if I had known he would live so long, I might not have made that hard of a commitment! Every Friday he got a paycheck as long as he lived,” he quips.

Harold’s hobby collecting antique cars grew as his family grew. “I continued to buy cars, not many very early – in fact it got me in trouble with Lill. She knew I was a car collector and when I bought my first roadster we couldn’t eat anything but beans and cornbread - our weekly grocery budget was eight dollars a week,” Harold says.

Over the years, he began to collect more cars than he could store. Though he had an entrepreneurial spirit and a good business mind, when he collected cars – they were his baby and he didn’t sell them very often.

“We had already discussed the fact that we needed to move and buy another house. We found this 41-acre farm with a house built in 1860,” he says. The family worked for weeks in order to move on the Standifer Gap property which they still have today and hold community events in the 7,000-square-foot rebuilt barn.

Harold is much like a woman with her shoes when it comes to keeping track of how many cars he has in inventory. He believes it is around 30-35. And just as a woman may have her ‘comfortable shoes’ and her ‘show off shoes’ so does the collector of his antique cars which he categorizes as ‘touring cars’ and ‘show cars’.

He clarifies, “I fell in love with the Thomas cars. They are big, have lots of room and have lots of brass. I owned about 13 of them, but I think we have eight or nine now. They are wonderful, beautiful cars. I rarely sell them though. I am not a dealer – I am a collector.”

The oldest car he owns is a 1903 Thomas and three years ago he bought Lill a 1903 Columbus electric car which is a little roadster. His favorite show car would probably be a red, 1910 70-hp Thomas.

“It takes a month to clean the darn thing up!” he jokes. “It is a lot of effort to polish and to keep in pristine condition.”

His favorite touring car, which he describes as ‘what the grandkids can ride in’ is a 1950 Pierce-era car with just 30,000 miles on it. “It’s a really fun car and it is dependable. If you are going out on a tour – you want to be sure to get there,” he says. Harold is restoring a 1910 Thomas which is in a shop in Pennsylvania and will be finished sometime next year. He is also restoring a 1912 Thomas roadster with a friend.

Aside from his love for the business and his collection of antique cars, Mr. Coker has been heavily involved in Chattanooga since the day he moved here. Starting in 1982, he was Hamilton County commissioner for 20 years. He retired from the family business in 2004. He had a major influence in our city’s education system. When he started out as county commissioner, the beginning salary for teachers was about $14,000 per year and it is now over $44,000 per year.

“I liked serving as commissioner and had decided to run for Congress in ‘88 against Marilyn Lloyd. I had raised enough money to win, but the timing wasn’t right. She was very popular and I think people liked that she was a female,” he says.

Harold’s eldest son Corky runs the family business - now one of the largest suppliers for collector cars in the world, while his middle son David has his own business called Newstalgia Wheel and his daughter Christy is principal of an academy in Franklin. He served several years on the board of directors of AACA, with many years acting as vice president and was the national president in 1972. Later he served one term on the board of directors of HCCA. Harold has received numerous awards - one of which was the Entrepreneur of the Year Award from UTC.

What he would want people to remember most about him is his service in the community. “I would like for people to say that I that helped make Chattanooga a better place to live. I have had a wonderful opportunity to serve and be a small part in helping Chattanooga be what it is today,” he says in all humility, “but I really take a lot of pride in this city.”

The Cokers stay active and exercise regularly. Harold will sometimes even do a little mowing on the farm. With his youthful mind and spirit, it is important that his body keep up too.

When others speak well of him Harold says, “I’m crusty as a devil on the outside - you can say anything bad about me that you want - I can handle it, but if you start saying something nice about me …I get real soft on the inside – just like a marshmallow.”

jen@jenjeffrey.com


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