Corky Coker: Get your vintage cars out and drive them video

MARJORIE COOK/stuff.co.nz

Corky Coker chats about his visit to Wanaka to speak with local car collectors at Warbirds & Wheels.

Corky Coker says he's been blessed.

That means, the US philanthropist, television identity and vintage car enthusiast says, he has a responsibility to make a difference.

"We have a saying: To whom much is given, much is expected," Coker said, during his visit to Wanaka on Monday.

Corky Coker, chief executive officer of Coker Group, with a Lincoln 1933 K-series car owned by Wanaka man, Garth Hogan.
MARJORIE COOK/FAIRFAX NZ

Corky Coker, chief executive officer of Coker Group, with a Lincoln 1933 K-series car owned by Wanaka man, Garth Hogan.

The Coker Group manufactures and sells vintage-style cars and tyre brands and Coker is the company's chief executive, with a personal collection of over 120 cars and 100 motorcycles. He and his son Cameron Coker have just wrapped up their first trip to New Zealand to attend Dunedin's International Festival of Vintage Motoring. They also talked with car collectors at a function at Warbirds & Wheels in Wanaka.

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"I do believe I have been lucky. I have been blessed. So it is my responsibility in my life to support others," he said in an earlier interview.

Corky Coker talks at Warbirds & Wheels in Wanaka.
CAMERON COKER

Corky Coker talks at Warbirds & Wheels in Wanaka.

Coker wants to encourage other car enthusiasts to think about their own lives and what they could do better. On the vintage car collecting front, that could mean acknowledging a passion for history, understanding where their car came from and sharing its story.

Coker acknowledged it could take "a bit of money" to collect and restore cars, and noted pre-sale estimates at a Sotheby's auction listed cars valued in the many millions. But supporting, sharing and making a difference did not have to cost a lot.

"With our efforts with vintage car clubs, we would just encourage them to get their folks to get their cars out, drive them and create a family and community atmosphere.

US philanthropist and car collector Corky Coker (centre, in the Duesenberg) with Wanaka car enthusiasts Robert Duncan, ...
CAMERON COKER

US philanthropist and car collector Corky Coker (centre, in the Duesenberg) with Wanaka car enthusiasts Robert Duncan, left, George Wallis, and Garth Hogan.

"Your readers might notice - they see a person or family driving in a vintage car through an area and it always creates a smile. Because it takes you back to a simpler time.

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"A lot of people want a car that might have meant something to them when they were younger, such as it was their first car or the car they had when they got married. [Wanaka man] Garth [Hogan] has a little English Ford that his father gave him when he was 15...

"We're all looking for fulfillment, happiness and peace and if you feel these things by looking back, then [do it]. Being a forward-thinking businessman, how can I know where I can go unless I know solidly where I have been? Why we are and who we are - I think that helps us to be progressive and solutions-based," Coker said. 

NEW STORIES TO BE TOLD

Coker anchors his approach to life and business in his faith in God and his desire to live a simpler life with his family. He has been heading his family's multi-million dollar company since his father, Harold, handed over in 1974. Harold Coker died in 2014 aged 84.

Even while talking technical details of vehicles and manufacturing methods, he easily diverts his thoughts to deeper reflections about home on his "gentleman's farm" in Wildwood, Georgia, on the outskirts of Chattanooga.

He knew lot about New Zealand before his visit because of demand for Coker products. He was also interested in Dunedin and Wanaka because of the Chorus company's "gig competition" in 2014. Dunedin won and Wanaka was runner-up.

While dining with Dunedin mayor Dave Cull recently, he was interested to discover how much was known in the south about what Chattanooga had done with "the gig".

"Since becoming a fastest internet city in the US, we've increased that effort. It's now a 10 gig city. We have got a lot of business from that. If not doing business on the internet, you are not doing business," he said.

But a bigger drawcard for his visit down under was knowing New Zealand had the highest pro-capita ownership of vintage cars in the world. That spoke volumes about the craftsmanship of people in the automobile trade and meant there were new stories to be told, he said.

"New Zealand has been so far removed from the world that inventive people had to make do and repair things and invent them for themselves," he said.

Coker said examples of that craftsmanship continued today. He'd just recently visited a workshop in Christchurch where a vintage 1933 Alfa Romeo had been built from scratch.

VINTAGE CARS 'EVERYWHERE'

Coker also does business in New Zealand, another reason to make the trip.

"We buy from a company in Christchurch, from a gentleman called Brian Black, who has developed technology to make new rims for all vintage cars. His products are the best in the world. We ship container loads of steel rims for vintage cars from Christchurch, New Zealand all the way to Chattanooga, Tennessee... and we are in the process of developing a Duesenberg wire wheel with Blacks," he said.

But business is not Coker's be all and end all. He loves telling stories, and does so frequently through his TV show, Backroad Gold. That came to be around the time he realised he wanted to spend more time with his wife, Theresa, his children and grandchildren -  "and that also meant rejuvenating my relationship with my maker".

"I worked for 40 years, building businesses. I had proposed to my family that I was doing it for them. But we humans tend to fool ourselves that we are doing it for others when we are really doing it for ourselves... So anyway, a few years ago I was approached by a travel channel about finding vintage cars lost in the back roads of America. That turned into a successful show that included my 83-year-old father and my family," he said.

He and family members would drive around searching for old barns and then seek permission to look inside.

"Some people say it's a bad habit. My wife thinks it is a disgrace and it is better for me not to drive because my eyes are wandering all over," he said.

He was surprised to find vintage cars "everywhere" and some he was lucky enough to buy. The show then tells the story of the car while the Cokers restore it through the Honest Charlie Garage, getting it ready for the big reveal.

'DO THE RIGHT THING'

With more than 200 vehicles in his collection, Coker has many stories to tell but concedes if he tried to get through all of them, "we would have to lay out cots for everyone to take a nap".

But one of his favourite stories is about a 1947 Chrysler Town and Country with wooden sides, a beautiful car owned by an elderly widow who wanted to give it to him. When Coker inspected it, he could not in good conscience take it, even though it needed restoration. So he paid for it.

He later discovered his own father had restored the car four decades previously, as well as paperwork showing his father legally had first right of refusal to buy the car. So after restoring it again, he decided he must give it to him.

"I gave the key to my father and he almost cried. It is always the right thing to do the right thing," Coker said.

"I've got it now, but I was paid back for that good deed. I didn't intend for that to happen... and indeed he could have done what he liked with that car. What I would say is: Corky Coker is about rejuvenation, renewal, doing the right thing and doing it with passion."

That passion also sees Coker supporting several philanthropic organisations and charities. One he is particularly proud of is With Open Eyes, which trains ministers to go into the African bush to provide for the economic and spiritual needs of tribes people.

The organisation, among other things, also provides the ministers with motorbikes and is, Coker says, "the new age circuit rider in Africa". (Early US frontier circuit ministers commonly rode by horseback).

In the end, all his passions are really about creating stories and building a community.

"Sometimes, you really can just do something for somebody by just showing up and being a friend. So I hope, by encouraging car collectors, some of these new friends, they will think about their own lives, to what they can do better. When we encourage others, we can make a difference.

"One person can make a difference in a group. And my final message, if I may have just one more, saying: "If one person can rise the level of the water in the bay, the rising tide raises all ships'."

 - Stuff

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