Classic Cars

A Pastime Paved with Memories


For two Chattanooga collectors, the best way to share their passion is to share the stories that make each automobile unique.

Restoring old cars is a pastime paved with patience and memories. For some, it’s the thrill of the hunt – the rush of excitement when a vintage make and model shows up in an old barn, covered in dust or overgrown with weeds. For others, it’s tinkering with mechanics, remembering what their grandfather or father taught them. For still others, it’s the nostalgia of youth. A first kiss. Family road trips to Florida along U.S. Hwy 41. Standing in line to take the driver’s license test at 16 years old, dreaming of the freedom of the road. For Chattanooga’s Kayo Erwin and Corky Coker, it’s the story each car tells that makes each find irreplaceable.


By Camille Platt  |  Photography by Rich Smith


1965 Ford Mustang

Named for the P-51 Mustang fighter plane, the Ford Mustang debuted with a long hood, a short deck, a large engine, and a midsize interior that made the pony car a class of its own. The original Mustang was actually named the 1964 1/2. Introduced at the 1964 World’s Fair five months before the 1965 production year began, the first run was manufactured at the same time as the 1964 Ford Falcon. Once the cars were in full production, Ford switched out the generators with alternators for the late ’65s.

After driving a few clunkers at 16 and 17 years old, Erwin bought his first 1965 Ford Mustang once he was old enough to finance a car. It was ivy green, and he was young and single. He drove around hunting for people to drag race and would show off Smokey-and-the-Bandit-style. When Erwin joined the military, his father sold the car at his request because he feared it would deteriorate during his deployment. In the late 1990s, Erwin found one on eBay that looked just like the one he owned in his youth. He struck a deal with its California-based owner over the telephone, and once he got the car to Chattanooga, he took it completely apart. Erwin replaced the bias-ply tires with radial tires. He put in new wiring and new windows. He put insulation under the floorboards to keep out road noise and regulate the temperature inside the cab. Erwin also upgraded the steering box to one that operates with neoprene bushings and suspension parts. It still looks just like his original ’65, but now drives like a modern Mustang.

The 1960 Chevrolet Impala

Originally a high-end Bel Air, the Impala – named after midsize African antelopes – was celebrated for being a long, wide, and luxurious family sedan. While it left the “cat eye” teardrop tail lights from the previous year behind, the 1960 model had accent stripes that stretched the length of the quarter panels, tipped with chrome rockets hinting at its slogan “Space, Spirit, Splendor.” The front and rear wheel openings were squared off instead of arced, and three bullet-shaped tail lamps flanked either side. Features also included a rear grille, an electric clock, back-up lights, an electric brake parking light, and optional power brakes.

The 1960 Chevrolet Impala Convertible was Erwin’s family car when he was a boy. His mother drove it for a number of years, and after the family let it go, Erwin says his father always regretted the sale. Today, Erwin’s father Louis is 92 years old and a veteran of World War II. He survived the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, which delivered the first operational atomic bomb to the island of Tinian in July 1945, before being sunk by two torpedoes fired by a Japanese submarine. Last year, Erwin surprised his father with a newly restored 1960 Impala as he walked out of a local hospital following a chemotherapy treatment. Purchased in Chicago, it needed a few cosmetic repairs, but was otherwise in decent condition. Erwin rebuilt the engine and transmission, replaced the floorboards and glass, and had a custom blue convertible top built so it looked exactly like the car from his youth. He removed all the chrome and sent it off to be restored. He stripped the paint and replaced it with its original color, Horizon Blue. It took 3,600 man-hours to complete the job, but it was time well-spent to honor Erwin’s father and surprise him with the car he’s always loved.

1912 Nyberg Roadster

There are only three known Nyberg automobiles in existence, making Chattanooga’s Roadster one of the rarest finds in antique car circles. Founded in 1910 in Anderson, Indiana, Nyberg Automobile Works was run by Swedish-born Henry Nyberg, who specialized in passenger cars, trucks, and fire engines. Period advertisements touted his designs as “a master mechanic’s masterpiece,” offering 45 and 60 horsepower engines in the Nyberg Seven Passenger, Tourabout, Five Passenger, and Roadster. Each model had a 138-inch wheelbase, a Warner transmission, and an electric start. The company dissolved by 1914, leaving very few cars and parts behind.

Coker’s Nyberg is truly a product of Chattanooga’s passion for classics and restoration. Coker’s father Harold Coker purchased the car in the early 1970s, knowing that the Nyberg Automobile Works Southern plant had been located here in the Scenic City. Three generations of the Coker family committed to the restoration alongside friend and restoration mentor Pop Rice of Harriman, Tennessee. WDEF’s Luther Masingill, also a collector, often hosted Harold Coker on the radio as morning show listeners called in with tips and resources used in the restoration, including a complete blueprint of the original car. The 1912 Nyberg features a four cylinder Rutember engine, wooden spoke wheels, a Remy magneto ignition, and reproduced Goodrich Silvertown Cord tires. The widows of the Nyberg Automobile Works’ plant engineer and plant manager were present at the unveiling of this car when the restoration was completed in 1977.


1957 Chevrolet Bel Air

When the second generation of the Chevy Bel Air was released onto roads in 1955, it was well on its way to becoming an iconic American car. General Motors had given the model a chrome headliner band (for hard tops), chrome fender spears, chrome window moldings, interior carpet, and a Ferrari-inspired grille. The most popular of the Tri-Five Family by 1957, the Chevrolet Bel Air’s grille had stretched beyond the front turn indicators to touch both fenders, and the 265 c.i. displacement engine had been increased to 283 c.i. The air ducts were relocated to the headlight pods, the dashboard was redesigned, and the “Super Turbo Fire V8” option produced 283 horsepower with the help of a continuous (closed loop) mechanical fuel injection system. The last of the lightweight frames for Chevrolet, it was a favorite among drag racers.

Just a boy in the sock hop era, Erwin grew up reading magazines full of photographs of West Coast hot rods. The 1957 Chevrolet – with the flare on the sides – had always been a favorite. His favorite paint color was turquoise. It was longer and lower than earlier models. When Erwin purchased the car locally in 1999, it was already updated with modern amenities. The resto-mod has a 350 c.i. engine, disc brakes, power steering, radial tires, and a late model transmission. One of General Motors’ most popular models of all time, Erwin says anywhere he takes the car – whether he’s cruising locally with his wife or at an invitational car show in Detroit – it draws a crowd.

1914 Stutz Bearcat

The Bearcat was the premier sports car from about 1910 to 1920. It was nimble, fast, and could beat anything on the road in its age class. A shorter and lighter version of the Stutz Motor Company passenger car, its high performance design made it more expensive and less practical for general transportation, but it still made an impact among young drivers. Dubbed a “man’s car” because it took so much force to operate the clutch and mechanical brakes, it was powered by a four-cylinder “Wisconsin” T-head engine and reached 80 miles per hour in stock form. Stutz had a competitive performance in the 1913 and 1915 Indy 500.

Coker has memories of his father owning a 1915 Stutz Bearcat when he was just 16 years old. It was so nicely restored that the family never drove it, and his father eventually sold the car to a collector in Florida. The profit allowed the family to make headway on their list of car restoration projects, but for Coker, the memory of the Bearcat remained. He found his own in Auburn, Indiana, and once in Chattanooga, Coker made sure everything on the car was period correct. Fun to drive because it can reach regular freeway speeds regardless of its age, today the car features a three-speed manual transmission, wire spoke racing wheels, and rear-only drum brakes. Coker and his wife Theresa recently took the Bearcat to a car show in Amelia Island, dressed in period clothing. Theresa donned Amelia Earhart-esque rally driving jodhpurs, boots, and a scarf.

1968 Jaguar E-Type Roadster Series II

Also known as the XK-E, Jaguar produced the E-Type from 1961 to 1975. It stayed in production so long because it was simply way ahead of its time in styling and performance. The 1968 model rode on Dayton wire wheels and Michelin XAS 165R15 tires. It had a 4.2-liter inline six-cylinder engine, which could produce 246 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque. It was completely restored before it came to Chattanooga, so all Coker did was put on a new set of tires.

For Coker, the body type of the Jaguar E-Type Roadster is one of the most artistic designs of a production automobile in history. His father owned one in the 1970s – in the same British Racing Green – but he sold it because he was tired of spending $300 for every repair, no matter how large or small the work seemed. Need a fuel pump? $300. Need a gas cap? $300.

As a collector, Coker says, the hunter often becomes the hunted. When a friend from Knoxville came through Chattanooga asking if he wanted to buy his Jag, he couldn’t pass up on the memories it evoked and the chance to cruise in the roadster. Confession: he got a speeding ticket on the way home from purchasing it.

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