There are many ways to judge a vehicle—how wide its panel gaps are, the sheen of its paint and trim, the possession or lack of numbers-matching parts. But we as hot rodders are kidding ourselves if we think that wheels play a small part in this formula.
As one of the foremost authorities on classic rubber, Coker Tire has proven itself a major force in the restoration and custom markets, providing builders and owners with high-quality replicas and styles that call to mind the golden age of automobiles. The success in this area is part and parcel of what spurred the company to try its hand at its newest venture: wheels.
To do this, the company opened the doors to a new facility in the City of Industry here in Southern California. Massive in size and decked to the brim with state-of-the-art machinery and tooling for wheel manufacturing operations, the plant was more than just a statement; it was a stake planted in contested territory, challenging others to “come and try us.”
We got the opportunity to speak with the President and Chief Operating Officer of Coker Group, Wade Kawasaki, to better understand how it was that the sixty-year-plus company made its foray into volume production of wheels. Business as usual is, “anything but” when it comes to Coker, as we learned.
Sixty-Six Years And Counting
The year was 1958. Harold Coker, a man born and raised with two brothers and a father who adored all things mechanical, was going into business as founder of Coker Tire in Athens, Tennessee. With a donation and blessing from his dad, Harold had seen a ripe chance to become an entrepreneur in the market of vintage tires, which up to that point had been sorely lacking.
Buying up discontinued moulds from all over the planet, the man was able to bring some of the most popular and demanded designs into the Coker fold. “In some cases,” Kawasaki told us, “Harold would find the moulds he wanted were too worn out or otherwise useless, and would instead have the moulds remade to the original specifications.”
Harold saw to the company’s continued progress all the way until 1974, when his son (now CEO) Corky took over and brought about massive changes to the company’s vintage tire division, expanding its manufacturing, marketing, and distribution. “From then on, the division flourished, becoming the world’s largest supplier of vintage tires,” said Kawasaki.
The wheel side of the business, however, was another story. “Originally, Coker was only producing tires, while the wheels themselves were purchased from third party manufacturers,” explained Kawasaki. “Many times, the manufacturers were not able to keep up with the volumes needed to meet the demands of Coker.”
“Sometimes, a customer’s tire purchase was dependent upon the wheels they would receive. Therefore, it was critical for Coker Tire to control the wheel business a little bit more than it had in the past; this began the acquisition of wheel companies.”
This was the point at which Kawasaki was brought on to the Coker team, “initially as a consultant for these acquisitions,” he said. “This was around 2009.” The company’s then-headquarters for wheel manufacturing was in Fresno, over 200 miles away from his key business partners down in the City of Angels.
The relatively cheap costs of doing business in central California were not enough to offset the advantages of moving down south, and in late 2011, Coker (the man) sold the Fresno operation. “Our company decided to open up a West Coast wheel manufacturing and tire distribution facility [in the City of Industry.] We relocated the wheel manufacturers from all over the place–Chicago, Portland, Fresno, and so on, and centralized them at the new plant.”
From a business standpoint, this step was the most critical, as it allowed for the previously disparate companies to come together under one dome “sharing resources and not duplicating effort, thus making our economy of scale highly effective and efficient while improving the quality of our products,” said Kawasaki.
The facility is a sight to behold: at over 100,000 square feet, it not only houses all the manufacturing essentials, but also includes a showroom featuring collectible cars and motorcycles. It makes for an interesting afternoon tour when you can mix business and pleasure right after the other.
The grand opening back in January garnered the attention of those attending MPMC in Santa Ana, while also courting the hot rod crowd who were in town for the Grand National Roadster Show. And now, almost eight months since its opening, you won’t find any signs of slowing down.
Real Steel Wheels
Big as the City of Industry facility is, however, it’s important to remember that Coker still handles a portion of its wheel-making operation back in Tennessee. The company gave us a good look behind the scenes of the Chattanooga facility this year, and we’re excited to bring you the experience here as we explore, start-to-finish, the manufacturing process for a set of wheels.
It begins with steel that gets shipped into the building parts entrance, stacked up and checked to make sure they are the correct gauge and quality. A select number of billets then makes its way to the shear, where they will be cut into thin strips to coincide with the type of wheel they will end up as.
After the length is measured out by hand, a technician makes a mark on where the billet strip is to be cut on both ends, whereupon it will head back to the cutter to be squared off lengthwise. A final check-up on a straightedge determines whether or not the metal piece has the correct angles to match up perfectly for the next phase: hooping.
A hydraulic roller is fed with the steel, which in turn curls the metal into its intended shape. A welder gives the unbound ring of metal a secure link on both ends, completing the wheel’s circle. The ring then gets taken to a bench, where the weld is smoothed off with a grinder, both inside and out, and annealed (that is, cooled slowly) to help strengthen the joint.
Now came the fun part: spinning. Resting in a system of four rotating assemblies, things start to take shape as the barrel is formed in mere seconds. After it cools off, the wheel is left to hang until it gets its center inserted and welded on. Finally, a slick powder coat is applied to each and every wheel to give it a protected finish that stays shining for years. And just like that, another wheel is made.
Following completion of the wheel, the team will then add on the appropriate tire before mounting and balancing as the last step in the process, pumping them with nitrogen for peak performance. From start to finish, the two halves are made whole, in-house and under the watchful eye of trained technicians who oversee every step.
A Practical Example
One wheel that has proven to be a popular choice amongst hot rodders is the Artillery wheel. Available in three different styles–Primed, Chrome, and Primed Center/Chromed Outer–the steel wheels make for that extra touch of vintage class to any kustom project. We talked with Coker’s Multi-Media Content Producer, Tommy Lee Byrd, to find out how these rims came to be.
As it turns out, artillery wheels were just that: wheels used on artillery pieces and other military applications, which were able to handle both the rough terrain and the intense force of muzzle blasts far better than the spoke-and-hub designs of years past. Similarly, wire-spoke wheels on early cars were notoriously fragile, especially at high speed, and therefore were a poor option for high-performance hot rods.
“The Artillery wheels came and went, but have made a resurgence in recent years,” said Byrd. “With our three available finishes, we offer hot rodders a say in how the wheels appear when they arrive at their doorstep, and make it possible to customize to their liking with powder coat primer.”
The wheels can not only be painted for a lasting impression, but can also be ordered in a variety of popular bolt patterns. “The four major five-lug bolt patterns–5 on 4.5, 5 on 4.75, 5 on 5.0, 5 on 5.5–are covered, as are the 6 on 5.5 bolt patterns found on larger trucks,” said Byrd. What’s more, Mopar, GM, and Ford hubcaps can be swapped in to any of these wheels to complete the authentic look.
Keeping Things Rolling Forward
The passion for innovation and advancement never rests at Coker, as the company looks ahead toward the future for better variety and techniques to help make them the best in the business. “There’s always a risk, putting up a tremendous amount of money to acquire a building and fitting it for our specific uses,” said Kawasaki. “Those are all investments in the future of the automotive aftermarket, and they’ve paid dividends not just for Coker Group, but for our fans as well.”
Kawasaki was able to share little about what’s planned, but told us to keep an eye out for this year’s SEMA Show: “I’m not at liberty to go into detail about what we have planned, but suffice it to say, we’ll have three new designs that we’ll be debuting in Las Vegas this November. One is for trucks, and the other two are for hot rods.”
With the epic aftermarket extravaganza just weeks away, we’ll be able to bring the news to you in no time at all, delivering up-to-the-minute coverage of what’s to come in 2015. In the meantime, we invite you to roll on over to Coker’s website and see for yourself what sort of rims catch your fancy.