For Sale: Wonderland.
Mike Hall’s 400-car collection and all the land it sits on can be yours if you dare to dream the same dream.
I’m sitting in my rental car outside of JP’s Diner in Salmon Arm, British Columbia, because JP very reasonably doesn’t open his doors before 7 AM. There’s a chill in the air as winter gives way to spring here in BC’s interior, with snow still visible on the mountains that ring the town. I’d driven up here before dawn from Kelowna, with Okanagan Lake’s 85 miles of shoreline my near constant companion just off the right shoulder, the sun creeping through the morning mist that until only a few moments ago shrouded the valley’s rocky peaks.
My contemplation of Canada’s weather patterns is broken by the sudden screech of tires and the insistent thumping of lumpy cam. A voice calls out to me from the entrance to the parking lot, a hearty ‘hey, is that you?’ emanating from the driver’s seat of a burgundy ’68 Chevelle SS. I look over at the clump of blonde dreads hanging out the window of the straight-piped muscle machine and smile. Mike’s here, and he’s now laying twenty feet of rubber on his way to the parking spot beside me.
I couldn’t have asked for a more accurate introduction to the barely contained ball of cerebro-kinetic energy that is Mike Hall. Now contemplating the other side of 60, Hall has barely slowed down in any area of his life. Alternately known ‘the Rusty Rasta,’ and ‘the Rasta Blasta,’ he still scales the cliff faces he’s been climbing since he was a teen, leading his team as they blast away dangerous chunks of rock before they can flatten tourists and locals on highways and rail lines below. With explosives. Lots of explosives. He still drives his 396 Chevelle SS with his foot flat to the floor, and he’s still buying automobiles by the bushel.
This last character trait is a bit of an issue, you see, because Mike’s in the middle of trying to unload western Canada’s largest treasure trove of cars, trucks, and parts. Spread across three yards (and the contents of one museum) are well more than 350 of Hall’s personally-selected vintage machines, a gamut of rides that ranges from 40s-era domestics and European imports, to blistering 60s muscle, to a penchant for Sunbeam Alpines (of which he owns five).
The catch? He’s keen on selling everything, all at once, including the land and the buildings that sit on it, rather than wasting his time trying to deal the vehicles piecemeal to hundreds of potential online tirekickers. The asking price is a cool $1.4 million Canadian (just over $1 million in Yankee bucks), and it’s been nine months since the listing went live. I didn’t have a million of anything, really, but I did have a camera, and I was determined to walk it through the gates of Mike’s Northwestern wonderland before they closed forever.
It’s our first meeting in person after a few weeks of phone calls, and after shaking hands and waiting for the rest of Mike’s crew to join us, we walk into the diner and pick a table near the middle of the establishment. Plopping down beside Mike at breakfast is Felix, who confirms the Hall has done little to temper his habit in the face of the impending divestment. Along with his partner, Olivier, seated to my left, the two have traveled all the way to B.C. from Switzerland, where Felix’s custom car shop (Cars and Bikes Schaffhausen) is based. They have spent the last five days taking a serious inventory of Mike’s properties and vehicles with an eye towards buying the entire kit and caboodle.
‘Mike, how many cars did you buy even during the short time that we have been here?’ Felix asks, cajoling his new friend. At first, Hall denies having expanded the collection, but before long Felix, bright-eyed and quick to laugh behind his wild beard, has reminded him of the at least four cars Mike picked up, sight-unseen, over the phone while the duo were in earshot.
‘I’ve actually bought about 40 cars, total, since I first listed everything last year,’ Hall finally admits. ‘It’s the same old story: if I see something I want, I buy it and cart it home, no questions asked.’
It’s this take-no-prisoners approach to automotive accumulation that has landed Mike in his current predicament: what to do with so many projects, and a finite amount of time to get them all done. We’re not talking about mid-life malaise, either, although that has played no small part in Hall reconsidering his approach to car collecting. ‘A friend of mine who was in a similar situation – he spent his inheritance on a car collection – died at 65, and his wife sold everything off at pennies on the dollar. It really made me think that if I drop dead tomorrow, I don’t want to be that guy. My own wife would curse me for leaving her with that burden.’
More immediately, it’s largely about the fact that the man spends the vast majority of his time out on the road with his rock scaling business, leaving him few spare moments to restore any of the vehicles he has dragged home.
‘It’s all I ever did, since I was 18 – hang on ropes, blow shit up,’ he told me over a plate of eggs and hash browns. ‘Try not to fall – a four letter word, only happens once,’ he said, with the gallows chuckle of anyone who’s ever had to square away the realities of a dangerous job with the confidence and competence required to get it done, day in, day out.
The entire time we’re talking – shooting the breeze with Felix and Ollie about the classic car market in Switzerland (Mustangs, Camaros, and Mopars, although Felix just finished a $100k C-body restoration for a client), pointing out the framed photos on the wall of the diner of cars that Mike himself brought back to life – Hall is showing me pictures of recent acquisitions and projects-in-progress on his phone. ‘I’ve got ADD,’ he tells me, ‘so it’s easy for me to get distracted.’
That unrestrained enthusiasm for everything (especially if it’s got four wheels) shines through in the comprehensive nature of what Mike’s ended up collecting over the years. When I ask him what he thinks he has the most of, his buddy Avery, who has also joined us for breakfast, chimes in with a resounding ‘JUNK!’ There’s a roar of laughter from the group, who by now are standing in JB’s parking lot getting ready to make the 15 minute drive up to Mike’s.
By the time we get to the yard, however, my rental car panting and foaming at the mouth trying to keep up with Hall’s SS, I can easily see that Avery’s crack simply isn’t true. From the road, row upon row of Mopars, Fords, Buicks, and Oldsmobiles gleam alongside the White Post Auto Museum that abuts the most recent location for Hall’s armada, but that’s not our first stop. Instead, Mike wheels his Chevelle up the dirt path that leads up behind the museum, past two rows of shops, and into a yard framed by shipping containers on the left, and a garage on the right.
‘Welcome to the overflow yard,’ Mike says to me with an expansive sweep of his arms. This is where his latest acquisitions stop to catch their breath before being sorted and moved to a more permanent resting place, and in a word, it’s glorious. My eye darts from the late-60’s Cutlass hardtop to the pair of 67 Dodge Charger 383s sitting side-by-each, to the patina-ed Ford pickup with the bullet hole in the windshield. There’s a mid-50s two-door Chevy wagon facing off against a Pontiac of similar vintage, cuddled up to a three-door, late-60s three-door Suburban and a two-door former GMC ambulance with an air conditioner carved into the side. In short, it’s a (somewhat) moveable feast for the eyes, sitting proud in the B.C. mud.
‘It started with Novas,’ he tells me as we walk through the muddy puddles that separate the machines. ‘My first car was a ’51 International, but really it was the next one, my ’61 Alpine that got things started for me. After I ran that into the side of a mountain at about a hundred miles an hour – it had a V6 Capri motor in it – I ended up buying six or seven little 62-65 Novas, and eventually a ’67 with an L79 that I traded for my Chevelle.’ The SS has its own unique back-story, of course. ‘I sold the car to a buddy, but regretted it and bought it back 15 years later. Turns out he’d never processed the paperwork, so it was titled in my name that entire time. Technically, I’ve owned it for almost 25 years now.’
I asked him when, exactly, the tipping point occurred: the moment in time where ‘six or seven Novas’ became a living, breathing car collection? ‘Probably when it had grown to 30 cars and I had to move it the first time, then it was 60 and I had to move it the second time, then it was 200 and I came home and the gate on my farm was locked and my wife put her foot down and said “get this shit off my farm,” and then it was almost 400 and I’m like “what the fuck have I done?”‘ he replies, laughing.
We maneuver through the overflow and into the body shop, where Mike’s working on restoring a Plymouth Sport Satellite ragtop with a big block – one of the growing numbers of Mopars that he’s added to the fleet in recent years. I ask him how he decides what to buy. ‘My tastes have changed as I’ve evolved over the years, but I still like all kinds of cars,’ he says to me, pointing out the firewall tag on the car that’s hanging, rotisserie-style, awaiting paint. ‘I’ve got 59 through 61 Buick Invicta bubbletops, 60 and 61 Olds bubbletops, just picked up a 61 Cadillac bubbletop. I just love the design, that back window, man, that skinny little back B-pillar, you roll the windows down and there’s eight feet of air. Super cool!’
The Mopar angle has lead him to some interesting places, with a number of low-production Dodges and Plymouths now haunting the grounds. ‘I’ve got another one of these Sport Satellite rags, a numbers-matching 60 Road Runner 383 four-speed, two 70 Super B’s, a 70 Coronet wagon, a ’67 Formula S, a few Demons, and a Duster 340 four-speed Go-Wing car, although that one’s just a shell,’ he tells me as we walk down the dirt road from the overflow paddock to the museum. He wants to take me inside and show me some of his finished projects, which are mixed in on the floor with cars belonging to the White Post’s owners, Vance and Keri Tierney. I see an Alpine, Chevs, rods, a Model T, but the real show-stopper is a 1946 Mercury Ute – probably the only one in the country, and perhaps the only example left in North America. Originally built in Canada as a coupe, and shipped Down Under to be finished, at the time the pickup bed at the back of the Ute was the largest automotive stamping in the world. Most were Fords, but somehow, this one’s a Merc, and I’ll never see another one in my lifetime.
This Canada-by-way-of-Australia-only specimen is one of over a dozen Canuck-specific cars in the collection. Right outside the museum’s side-door is the highway-facing lot that houses the attention-grabbers in the collection, the cars that cause people to pull over, pull in, and start kicking tires. Mixed in with the Dodge and Plymouth crew are Javelins, AMXs, and a gang of Pontiac Beaumont Sport Deluxes, with the latter never having been offered south of the border. Sprouted from the forehead of the Acadian – Canada’s maple-coated Chevy II – Beaumonts were intended to tickle the premium fancies of the moderately well-to-do, becoming their own model line in 1966 and even offering big block power in Sport Deluxe trim (which also featured full consoles and bucket seats), making them kissing cousins to the Chevelle SS. The full-size Pontiac Parisienne (Canada’s B-platform, top-of-line sedan with vague links to both the Bonneville and the Chevrolet Caprice, only…different) is also represented.
Mike’s all-encompassing automotive tastes are reflected everywhere you look: a 1976 Ford Courier pickup sits in a line of retired American iron, a two-door 59 Chevy Brookwood wagon juts its fins out in a row of Invictas, a 66 Mercury Comet Caliente poses beside a Galaxie 500 fastback. At the back, along a fence, sits a wide array of trucks – a ’26 Chevrolet, an Austin panel, and wreckers from the 50s, 60s, and 70s – nestled behind a gathering of Alpines, panel vans, and a single Opel GT.
To describe each and every vehicle that I’m seeing would require an encyclopedic knowledge of the automotive landscape, but not only does Mike instantly identify, without exception, the make, model, and options offered by each of the cars in the yard, he also has their complete back-stories readily available to him via some fantastical mental Rolodex that has tracked the provenance of every purchase he’s ever made for the past four decades. The fount of knowledge and insight that pours from his mouth, without hesitation, is overwhelming as he gives me a guided tour through his ensemble of classic metal. This is no accidental accumulation, nor the tortured self-made prison popularized by a hundred Discovery Channel hoarders, but the conscious realization of a passion that has consumed most of the man’s life.
‘Every car in the yard I thought, ‘I’m going to restore that one day,’ Mike says as we pile into his Chevelle for a quick trip down the road to the field that holds the remainder – or is that motherlode? – of his collection. ‘And then you wake up one morning and you’re 60 fucking years old and you realize, ‘I’m not going to live long enough.’ You’ve have to be 300 to get it done, and you still might not make it.’
After a full-throttle run down the road, where Hall demonstrates the vibration the SS has picked up above 4,000 rpm in third and fourth gear – ‘I think it’s the driveshaft, at this point’ – we arrive at the gate to the last piece of his empire. Consisting of a restoration shop, a small house, and about 200 more cars sitting in the field just a short walk downhill from driveway, it’s where a mix of the less-common, but still solid pieces of his collection live.
‘I’m not really a car restorer, I’m just learning with these projects,’ he tells me on a quick tour of the shop.’ ‘I like buying them, but I’m going to pick easier ones to do from now on. Some of the cars I’ve done in the past should have been crushed, they were in such a sorry state when we started. But I didn’t know that, and I pushed through and restored them anyway – like that Challenger up on the wall of the diner. It was a 318 car, and we did a 340, and I lost 10k on it after I sold it. I had 400 hours of sheet metal work getting the rust out of it, and there was just no money to be made afterward.’
By now we’re picking our way down the hill – the one that made Mike quit smoking several years ago, he tells me – and I’m getting a full view of the field ahead. It’s the kind of eclectic mix you’ll never find in a salvage yard, because it takes heart, not an accountants beady eye, to gather these vehicles together and then take care of them for close to 40 years. My own peepers pick out a pair of FJ40 Land Cruisers, a Studebaker Lark Wagonaire and sedan, a mid-size Mercedes-Benz and of course another Alpine. Old drag cars, their livery faded but still boastful, sit beside a clump of Corvairs, GM pickups, and even a Simca. I’m blown away, but somehow not surprised when Mike reveals yet another piece of Canadian history – a Meteor Ranchero – that counts only 299 original brothers and sisters, with who knows how few remaining.
It’s the automotive equivalent of ‘Field of Dreams,’ only instead of corn, Iowa, and Kevin Costner, we’ve got mountains, metal, and a far more engaging leading man. I stand there in the spring silence for a few moments, gazing out at the cars carefully organized in front of me. Their doting caretaker stands beside me in a rare still moment of his own, a man whose mind is never far from this hallowed ground no matter how far his work takes him into the interior of Canada’s western-most province. For those few, fleeting seconds, I feel like I’ve tapped into that same, calming peace Mike finds here among his treasures.
We drive back to the main yard, the Chevy’s exhaust roaring and the tires squealing away from every stop. There’s more than one kind of Zen to be had out here amongst these machines, and I’m perfectly willing to accept big block bluster as an equally-restorative form of automotive therapy. On the way, Mike reflects on the magnitude of what he has to offer buyers like Felix and Ollie.
‘It’s a pretty tough sell,’ he admits. ‘Someone’s got to be as stupid as me, or as crazy as me to actually see the potential. If you picked 30 cars, restored them, you could sell the other 350 or so to fund the projects. There are a couple of huge shop buildings sitting on the land here in pieces, that could be put up to add another half a million or so to the property’s value.’
‘One guy can’t do all of this,’ he continues, a realization that he’s had for quite some time. ‘You need a team. Someone who can figure out what to part out, someone who can go online and connect with buyers. I don’t part anything – if I buy something for the shell, 30 years later, it’s still the same shell. If I buy it compete, 30 years later it’s still complete, save for a few four-doors that I’m willing to strip.’ It’s not boasting if it’s true, and I’ve just seen how much effort Hall has put into keeping his cars together, intact, and safe from the tin worm while in his care.
The truth is, there aren’t very many individuals like Mike left in the world. The stream of stories about big yards run by equally out-sized personalities has slowed to a trickle, and will eventually dry up completely as land values continue to climb and the number of people with the savvy and resources to maintain these sprawling collections dwindles away. With big-buck auctions brainwashing the masses into believing the only worthwhile classic is a 100-point restoration that doubles as a stand-in for your 401k, interest in drivers or complete, restorable cars as anything other than parts donors is at an all-time low.
Hall knows it, too. We say our good-byes just outside the overflow yard, and as I thanked him profusely for his time and generosity – I’d just been given a half-day guided tour through automotive history – he tells me how as part of the surge in attention his sale had gotten, he had been interviewed by Carol Ott on the CBC Radio 1’s stalwart ‘As It Happens.’
‘She asked me, Mike, how are you going to feel when they’re all gone,’ he says. ‘I’m sitting there in the shop looking out at all those cars, and I just started to cry.’ He pauses. ‘I realized it was like her asking me ‘how would you feel if we killed your kids right in front of you?’
For a moment his face loses the mischievous spark that’s been in his eyes ever since we met that morning. Then, almost as quickly, it’s back, and he smiles, laughs, shakes my hand again. He turns on his heel and walks back to the yard. After all, there are things to do, parts to order, phone calls to make – and children to take care of.