It started with a ’66 Mustang GT 350, aggressive, lean and icy white, with lapis lazuli racing stripes that glowed as if James Cameron had overpaid a post-production team to touch them up. That’s the car Daniel Koker Sr. bought in 1973 when his son, Danny “Count” Koker, was 9 years old. It changed the kid forever.
The next step in young Danny’s four-wheel love affair was a trip to visit family in Detroit, where his uncle Peter was a Ford executive who kept the best kind of toys—scooters, motorcycles and hot rods—lying around. Danny grew up to be a restoration and customization whiz, and now, 15 years after founding Count’s Kustoms, he’s the central figure in Counting Cars, the third in the History Channel’s trilogy of Las Vegas-based reality shows.
Piggybacking on Koker’s appearances on Pawn Stars, Counting Cars debuted Aug. 13 to an audience of 4.3 million, the biggest-ever unveiling for a History Channel series. “That was just … I don’t even know what the word is,” Koker says.
“Little bit of pee came out?” Mike Henry—the show’s “Horny Mike”—prods.
The History Channel has already signed the series for a 26-episode order covering Seasons 2 and 3. Season 2 shooting is expected to start early in November with an eye on a February premiere.
The show’s effect on Koker’s business was instantaneous. From his first appearance on Pawn Stars, it was like throwing steaks into a roomful of velociraptors.
“People tell you, ‘Oh yeah, Pawn Stars. That’s the No. 1 show on the No. 1 network.’ Well, you don’t really realize what that is until you’re on it,” he says. “Then all of a sudden, hundreds of phone calls, hundreds of e-mails. I never have to spend another advertising dollar on this place. I’ve got at least 30 customer vehicles sitting there waiting their turn. Every day the e-mails keep coming in.”
In that first rush of business, Koker expanded from nine guys in the shop to 15. Today he has 25, but as he moves through the warren of shops and warehouses in his Highland Avenue complex, he flashes the heavy-metal horns, pats everyone on the shoulder and gruffly calls them all “brother,” like a gearhead Hulk Hogan.
It’s not just the omnipresent bandana that makes you think of the comparison, either. Like Hogan at his ’80s apex, Koker is unflinchingly, almost cartoonishly positive. After a career spent both working on cars and working in television (he was a production manager, show host and co-owner at Channel 33 after his father bought the station in 1990), he credits his success to prayer, treating people right and divine intervention. “God’s timing is perfect,” he says. “Mine is all over the place.” The production team initially wanted more conflict in the show, so Koker had to yell at his guys and apologize after each take. The powers that be in New York vetoed that angle because it didn’t fit with Koker’s nice-guy persona.
It would have been tough to pass Koker off as a hardass. Amid the El Caminos, Chevelle Super Sports and Camaros in his shop, there’s a late-model Honda on one of the lifts—just a regular-guy car brought in by a regular guy looking for a little help. Koker runs into people all the time who grouse about shady mechanics, so he gives them a card and tells them to bring in their vehicles for brake jobs and oil changes.
But the bread and butter of the business is the obsessive customizer, looking for that shiny, big-ticket toy.
The wild spike in interest since his Pawn Stars debut two years ago has meant customers have had to deal with longer waits to have their cars done in the shop. A big project can take six months to a year, and the line is more than 15 deep right now.
Koker has been working on a 1940 Chevy for a year and a half already. It sits in his fabrication shop, along with four other skeletal car frames in various states of repair. Right now, the ’40 is just clean steel and exposed rivets. It looks like the kind of thing other cars would tell each other ghost stories about.
The car has been sandblasted, damaged steel has been replaced and repaired, running boards were added and the whole thing was chopped. It’s scheduled for a Corvette LS1 motor and 4L 65 E transmission; it’s like putting the Terminator’s relentless metal heart inside Rita Hayworth’s body.
From there, it goes to the body shop for fine tuning, on to the paint department, then cutting and buffing. Finally, it will go to the interior department for its final month before being released into the wild.
If that sounds involved, imagine the scene in the shop during filming, when the team turned around 26 cars and five motorcycles in three and a half months.
“We were living here 24 hours. It looked like a zombie movie in here. People just walked around out of their minds,” Koker says.
It leaves little time for personal projects such as the ’71 Cadillac Eldorado convertible he’s working on—a car that had been featured in several blaxploitation flicks. He’s getting that one ready in metallic gold on the outside and gold-tone fur on the inside. (“It’s so pimp it’s disgusting,” Koker says. “It’s going to be like the inside of Barry White’s coat.”)
The shop has even made its own small dent in the Vegas tourist trade, with out-of-towners now making it a point to stop by the unsuspecting complex in an obscure part of town known more for its strip clubs than television personalities.
One Wednesday in early September, a family from Kansas walked through Koker’s showroom of 30 tricked-out whips—an ’83 Lamborghini Countach Super Quattro here, a ’66 Shelby Cobra there, a ’32 Ford hot rod around the corner—and tried to snap a surreptitious picture. Koker went right up and insisted on posing with them while he chatted amiably about the show. An hour later, it was a 74-year-old cancer patient named Elaine who wanted an autographed glossy for her birthday. By 7 p.m., with the shop closed, a lone minivan with New Mexico plates parked out front so the driver could hop out and snap a shot of the front door before pulling away.