Alpha Stories

Published on Friday, March 16, 2012

Alex Harrah’s Art Cars Help Him Cope with Alpha-1

Alex Harrah’s Art Cars Help Him Cope with Alpha-1

Alex Harrah is a lover of art and cars, but he is particularly a fan of fixing up old cars and adding flare, turning them into works of art.

You can hear it in Harrah’s voice when he talks about building his most recent “Art Car,” an extremely detailed piece that took him seven years. Using the body of a 1951 Nash Statesman and the frame of a 1978 Lincoln Mark V, Harrah created a vehicle that exemplifies both creative passion and the fervor of a guy fighting something more: Alpha-1.

Harrah used to be a heavy smoker, but quit in 1987 when his mother passed away from emphysema. He also used to get sick often with severe bronchitis. After his last bout left him struggling to breathe, Harrah decided to see a lung specialist. That’s when the pieces began to fit together. In 1991 Harrah was diagnosed with Alpha-1. His doctor told Harrah he only had three more years left to live. Harrah changed doctors.

It was around the time of his diagnosis that Harrah got involved with the art car movement. Even though his health made the physical work of building an art car difficult (he had to use oxygen to complete the last half of his car) it gave him great joy and a sense of accomplishment. It was also a helpful way of dealing with his Alpha-1. “It was quite a chore to huff and puff and build it,” Harrah says, “but it gave me a purpose and got my mind off Alpha-1. Plus I like to make things and be creative.”

Harrah also got involved with his local support group in Houston, TX and eventually met AlphaNet Coordinator Mary Pierce. Harrah went to Alpha-1 conferences and was even involved in an augmentation study in Texas, which taught him a lot about his condition. He also rode in a bike trek from Houston to San Antonio with Alpha-1 Foundation President and CEO John W. Walsh.


His breathing has gradually worsened over the 16 years since his diagnosis (never mind the three-year prediction, doctor). He can’t ride a bike as he did when he was first diagnosed. He uses a motorized wheelchair-scooter – which he also turned into a work of art – to get around and tries to be careful to avoid germs. He has joined the campaign against smoking. In fact, he created a sculpture he calls “Home Grown Terror,”
at right, about the “War on Tobacco” in America.

Harrah feels he’s ready for a lung transplant. His doctors say he is a great candidate but needs to lose some weight. He plans to start weightlifting, but says even vacuuming is tough these days, so he’ll have to take it slow.

He also plans another art car. It won’t be as elaborate as his first one, but he just purchased a 1968 Cadillac hearse that could use a few creative touches. “Once you have one (art car), you can’t stand to be without one,” Harrah says.