The Fall and Rise of Alan’s Ark
“Cars are cars all over the world” – Paul Simon.
If only he had fancied something more manageable (posh Swiss watches, say) we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Alan Anton Zier was a car guy, alas.
Ah, but what a car guy!
During his motorhead glory days, the Spokane man, who passed away early last year at age 86, collected a hundred-plus classic rides of many makes and models.
Cadillacs and Lincolns. Pontiacs and Plymouths. Dodges and Studebakers.
You name it. Pickups and wagons. Hard tops and convertibles…
Brand loyalty is a big deal to the car guys I know. Not Zier. Whenever he saw something he liked, he’d buy it if he could. Then into his giant shed it would go, perhaps to be restored one day and resold.
Zier built the barnlike structure (180-by-80-feet) on a patch of farmland near Elk, an unincorporated hamlet in northern Spokane County. His four kids (three sons and a daughter) nicknamed the edifice “Alan’s Ark” although there was nothing about the nondescript building that would evoke a second look.
That was by design, of course. Zier wanted to keep his collection safe from the curious or—far worse—rust rustlers.
It worked, too. At least it did until one winter’s day in 1993.
Snows were particularly heavy that year, building layer upon heavy layer on a roof that wasn’t up to the load. Eventually, that fabled tipping point was breached, and.…
Down it all crashed in a random splintered heap, crushing fenders, breaking glass and bending chrome.
Zier was a devoutly religious man who once considered becoming a Lutheran minister. Which explains why his analysis on why his garage came down like the biblical walls of Jericho didn’t involve the most likely culprits: gravity and dubious carpentry.
He instead summed up the collapse as yet another mysterious case of “God’s will.”
Even so, there was no doubting how deeply affected Zier was by what had happened.
“His hair turned gray overnight,” said Lajuanna, Zier’s daughter and the executor of his will. “It broke his heart and he left all that treasure underneath for nearly 30 years—until I had it excavated last month.”
Funny how things that go around sometimes really do come around.
A few years prior to the sinking of Alan’s Ark, I tried my damnedest to get the scoop on Zier’s car collection although I didn’t have a location or even know his name.
Enter Mitch Silver, founder and operator of Silver Collector Car Auctions. He’s been my go-to source for practically every car-guy tale I’ve ever written.
No soap this time. Silver’s lips were zipped tighter than a mafia don facing a Senate subcommittee hearing.
“You hounded me for weeks,” he said with a laugh.
Zier sold cars now and then in Silver’s auctions. He was “totally secretive about this stuff,” added Silver, who accommodated the man’s desire for privacy and anonymity.
I finally gave up, moving on to other column topics to keep the deadline monster sated. And the story faded from memory until Silver called this summer to bring me up to speed on Zier and his legacy.
Maybe Silver figured he owed me. Or maybe he wanted to document the strangest car auction he’s ever been a part of.
Which is saying a lot. For a three-year run, Silver Auctions was “the biggest seller of old cars in the world,” he said. His company once put on 44 events a year. These days, Silver has cut the number back to a more reasonable 10.
But this Zier business? This was more archeological dig than automotive auction.
A call from Lajuanna, a paralegal who lives in Hawaii, had Silver crawling on his hands and knees, peering through the gray mound of busted Ark in an attempt to see what was inside.
Weeks later, the boards had been moved with care to create another sizable pile. The vehicles inside—close to 60 of them—were arranged in rows on another section of the dusty ground.
This was the scene that greeted me when I pulled onto the auction site on a recent Sunday afternoon.
“All the vehicles need to be restored,” Silver explained in an Auctioneer’s Note on the poster advertising the sale. “Some have extensive or isolated body damage from a roof collapse. Some are rusty and some are pretty darn nice!”
It’s a shame I never landed that interview with Zier. He would’ve made a fascinating character study.
According to Lajuanna, her dad was one of those complex, man-among-men individualists who grow scarcer in numbers every day.
Played high school football. Sang in the church choir. Boxed for the U.S. Army when he served his country during the Korean War.
Zier made the paper in 1966 after bagging one of the biggest white tail deer in Washington state history.
But above all, she said, her father was a car guy.
I can relate, sort of. I took my own deluded detour through the American Graffiti wormhole.
Why not? I grew up in the Golden Age of car clubs, muscle cars, drag races and cruising Riverside on Friday nights.
Only I had to tag along with my pals because my parents wouldn’t let me have my own car.
That V-8-sized void in my youth, I believe, probably accounted for what happened one night in the 1980’s while driving home after covering a meeting in Newport.
There, moored on the shoulder of the highway was a barge-sized vision in green and white. A genuine relic from the Eisenhower Administration.
The taped “For Sale” window sign beckoned me like a Siren’s call.
Next day I went back. A signed check made me the proud owner of an exhaust-belching 1956 Buick Century.
A few frustrating days later found me quizzing a mechanic as to why my yachtmobile kept pulling to the right.
“Bad tires?” I asked hopefully.
Wrench jockey put a greasy paw to his chin. He shook his head.
“Nope,” he diagnosed. “Kingpins are shot.”
To which I replied, “Uh, what’s a kingpin?”
This should’ve been the moment of clarity where I realized that mechanically inept fools like me have no business getting involved with well-worn and outmoded forms of transportation.
But did that stop me?
Naw. I sold my ’56 Buick later to buy a ’52 Buick Super Rivera that liked to stall in the middle of intersections. Then there was the ’65 Rambler Ambassador station wagon that needed a new motor and the ’67 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser that got six miles of premium to the gallon, and.…
Oh, the calamity!
The various stages of damage and disrepair made me think of the Zier auction as a sort of smorgasbord for the mechanically minded.
Something for everyone, you know.
Lajuanna served as my good-humored tour guide. She later asked me not to publish any numbers regarding how much money the family took in once the bidding was over.
She added, however, that “Mitch did a super job and I was extremely pleased.”
I saw a few vehicles that, with know-how and time, could be transformed into high-dollar beauties.
The 1964 Lincoln Continental convertible, say. Cars like these are still prized by collectors who’ll pay upwards of $70k for one in mint condition.
Man, dig those crazy “suicide doors!”
Likewise, the ’66 Ford T-bird convertible could be turned into a car worth $50 grand.
The car with the highest potential value had to be the ’59 Cadillac Eldorado ragtop. In pristine condition, it could fetch $200,000 to $300,000 to the right buyer.
My personal favorite, though, was a car that Elvis would have been proud to give to his mother: a gold ’57 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, another convertible.
This baby was Zier’s pride and joy, and I can see why. The car is in good original condition, having been stored in another location when Alan’s Ark went under.
Old cars. They need octane to run, but it’s nostalgia that fuels our fascination with them.
“Every road trip was an opportunity for my father,” recalled Lajuanna. “We’d go for a drive in the country and Dad would suddenly say, ‘Oh, my. Did you see that?’
“Then we’d pull over. Before you knew it, he’d be buying a 1950 Chevy, say, from some farmer.
“He just loved classic cars, loved them his entire life.”
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