Danny “The Count” Koker, host of History Channel’s and the owner of Count’s Kustoms in Las Vegas, hasn’t been back to Detroit in more than 20 years, but he’s getting a hero’s welcome at the Detroit auto show.
Turning rusted-out wrecks into gleaming showpieces means the bandana-clad guru of restoration and customization is frequently stopped by adoring gearheads.
“I used to come to the auto show as a kid all the time and coming back as an invited guest blows my mind,” says Koker. “This is really a kind of surreal trip for me. I can’t believe this is happening.
“I think people are recognizing the fact that I truly am a guy who loves cars and I think people are relating to the show.”
But fixing up cars and reselling them is not for the faint of heart. Koker’s labour of love can quickly turn into a money pit.
When the Cleveland-born Count talks cars (the nickname “Count Cool Rider” came from his long-running late night TV gig hosting ), the self-taught mechanic, who first appeared on reality TV series is not too cool to gush.
With most of his extended family working for Ford in Detroit (an uncle was an executive with the company, his grandmother and aunts worked on the line) he’s got deep roots in the Motor City. “It runs in my blood,” he says.
Getting his own set of wheels was a priority from a young age. Working various jobs from the age of 12, Koker saved $5,000 for a used 1979 Z28 Camaro while learning to drive.
The Z28 is the first car he ever customized, and he still owns that first ride.
“She’s highly modified,” he says. “She’s got wide body fender flares on it and the Corvette long-styled L88 hood; custom paint and custom interior. Changed the engine and put a 468 big block — got nitrous on it — it’s absolutely insane.”
Although he did drive the car around the country, he hasn’t had it on the road in awhile. “She’s in really good condition, but I’m hoping in the next year to give it a full restoration.
“It was always such a wonderful car and I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to keep it all this time,” he says. “I’m never going to sell that car. That car is going to stay with me forever.”
There’s one other car he won’t part with: his father’s 1966 Mustang GT350.
“As a 9-year-old kid, seeing that car in the garage and going out there in the nighttime when nobody’s looking and nobody’s paying attention; it was a car that really inspired me a lot,” he says.
When Koker’s father died in 2008, he added the Mustang to his extensive collection of cars.
“My father was the influence on my entire life,” he says. “He taught me so much about everything. Not only cars, and not only motorcycles, but just life itself. He was my best friend and my business partner and I absolutely love him.”
Koker’s other businesses in Las Vegas include a tattoo company and Count’s Vamp’d, a bar and concert venue. He’s also made a name for himself building out-of-this-world choppers in his shop there.
His first motorcycle was much more mundane.
“I was 8 years old and Dad brought home a Honda 100 street bike,” he recalls. “I couldn’t even touch the ground. I had to stand on a crate to get started.
“The first time I hurt myself really good was on that bike, but that got me hooked and I’ve had motorcycles my entire life.”
Koker says building, restoring and modifying cars and bikes appeals to his creative side. “When I get into a project, if it’s a car or a motorcycle, I really get into that project and I will easily blow past budgets and blow past deadlines.”
Koker built a team to ensure he’s kept in check. “If it was just me, I would be flat broke.”
Koker says he hasn’t gotten burned on a project yet, putting it down to recognizing a vehicle “for what it is and the value of it.”
Recalling an era when new cars cost $4,000 to $6,000, vintage car prices can be a shock. But he says the prices reflect their worth.
“The other side of that is that there are not a lot of cars that stir the soul like that anymore, so those cars are getting rarer,” he says. “Vintage vehicles — they do something to people. They connect to your soul, so it (high prices) surprises me and yet it doesn’t surprise me at the same time.”
Koker’s vintage favourites include The 1966 Shelby Cobra 427, a 1972 Lamborghini Miura SV and, because of his love of Cadillacs (his daily driver is a 1965 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, “a townhouse on wheels”), a 1971 Superfly Dunham Coachworks Cadillac Eldorado, which he owns and plans to customize.
But there is one car he would never change: the 1963 split-window Corvette Sting Ray.
“It is something that you would not modify in any way, shape, or form,” he says. “The car is gorgeous as it is and, of course, a lot more valuable in original condition. I think it’s perfect.”
Koker is impressed with the new Corvette Stingray, which was unveiled at the Detroit show.
“The car is absolutely beautiful,” he says. “Some of it is very retro and some of it is very contemporary, but I really like the car a lot.”