Class and Color in the Maricopa Desert
“Dwarf cars” sound like something Snow White’s vertically-challenged friends might drive, but they’re really miniature versions of full-size automobiles that are surprisingly roomy inside. They may be only waist-high, but they hold their own on both race tracks and roads — just ask the man who invented them, Maricopa resident Ernie Adams.
Adams built the first dwarf car in 1965. It’s a replica of a 1928 Chevy 2-door sedan constructed from nine refrigerators, a chair frame, an 18 horsepower Wisconsin motor, and the transmission from a 1964 mail cart. He’s built several more dwarf cars over the past 46 years, and gained a reputation in the auto world as a totally hands-on, detail-oriented designer who spends 12 hours a day in his garage.
Ernie Adams moved to Arizona from Iowa in 1971, and built his reputation with dwarf race cars. The first Demolition Derby and Dwarf Car Races were held in Prescott, Arizona in 1983. Adams still has the first dwarf race car ever built in his garage (and it still runs), but he sold his race car jigs to Brunson Miller Davis years ago. He builds dwarf cruisers exclusively now, three of which are street-legal.
Adams, 70, either recycles or makes all the car parts himself, right down to the door knobs. He takes a photo of a classic American car, calculates measurements, welds a car frame together, and begins to fabricate everything from scrap metal. It’s generally a five-year process from start to finish, and to say he’s a stickler for details is an understatement. When he shows a photo of the front grill on a 1949 Mercury, he names the exact number of bars in the grill, and points to some subtle curves in the chrome at the top and a tiny little divot at the bottom. All of those things must be exact on the dwarf version, and the design must be 100 percent true to the original model. No custom crap.
The dwarf cars currently in Adams’ garage have as much character as their creator. There’s a sky blue 1942 Ford convertible named “Sweet Little Sheila” that runs on a drive train and motor from a Toyota Corolla. It received the Editor’s Choice Award from Rod and Custom Magazine. There’s also the 1929 “Ford Hillbilly,” a rust-covered wonder decorated witty sayings, kitschy knick-knacks like a fake dinosaur egg and a fully functional stove; and Adams’ favorite, a sleek black 1939 Chevy sedan named “Precious Memory.”
“If you take this to a car show and put it next to a Corvette, the Corvette will probably get up and leave,” Adams says.
He’s been offered as much as $50,000 for one of his dwarf cars, but Adams refuses to sell them. “If I sold a car for $50,000, I’d average $12 an hour for labor,” Adams says. “Besides, what would I do, bring $50,000 to a car show and show it?”
1939 Chevy Sedan
After leaving the Dwarf Race Cars, Ernie had learned a lot about bending and shaping metal. He loved to see heads turn in admiration of the Dwarf Race Cars while being towed down the highway. Ernie knew it was time to change and put his metal shaping skills to the test. Now he wanted a fully dressed Dwarf Car with fenders, chrome, finished interior and most of all street legal. Ernie remembered a ’39 Chevy Saturday night cruiser in his hometown of Harvard, Nebraska. The car was dressed with moon hubcaps, fender skirts and venetian blinds in the rear window. He decided to build himself a Dwarf replica of this car. Ernie’s only fabricating tools were a torch and a wire feed welder. He put together a few homemade benders along with a bead roller that he used for putting the print in the body. Ernie started with photos taken from a full-sized ’39 Chevy 2 door sedan. He took pictures of the front, rear, both sides and everything in between. All measurements needed were taken off these pictures. Ernie looked for a donor car with 12-inch wheels. He found a ’72 Toyota in an alleyway and was able to get it for free. By using the Toyotas complete drive train, all parts remained compatible. Ernie began construction in 1990. He spent two and a half years from start to finish. This car is a solid 1770 lbs. and will cruise at highway speeds with ease. Ernie’s ’39 Chevy Dwarf has been on the road for sixteen years and has 54,000 miles on it to date.
1949 Mercury “Rebel Rouser”
The ’49 Mercury is an all time American favorite, made popular by James Dean’s movie, “Rebel Without A Cause.” The ‘49 Mercury had been one of Ernie’s favorites as well. He loved the new full-bodied styles rolling out in ’49 and the early 50’s. Ernie admired the ’49 Mercury for its eye catching front grill, three-piece rear window and beautiful dash that brought class to the car. He thought the ’49 Mercury was much more striking than the ’50 and ’51 models. Ernie began construction on the Mercury Dwarf in September 2004. This car challenged his fabricating skills more so than the ‘39 Chevy and ’42 Ford Dwarfs. Ernie learned more and more about shaping steel with each car he built. The car is all hand-crafted and is as solid as the real thing. Just as the ’39 Chevy and ’42 Ford Dwarfs, the Mercury has many attractive features such as baby moon hubcaps with beauty rings, fender skirts, two spotlights, front disc brakes, roll up windows and a bench seat. This car is “Nose-and-Decked,” sporting a Fulton-style sun visor and Lakes pipes. Ernie used a 1290cc Toyota motor with a Toyota drive train. This low riding ’49 Dwarf goes by the name “Rebel Rouser,” taken from Duane Eddie’s instrumental. Caribbean Turquoise is the color of choice.
1934 Ford Sedan
Bonnie is Ernie Adams version of a 1934 Ford 2 door sedan. Not named after the notorious Bonnie Parker but often associated with the 1930’s outlaw couple, Bonnie & Clyde.
Ernie’s scaled Dwarf ’34 Ford tells a story of it’s own. The rustic look of the bare steel body coated with light rust gives the car a look as if it had been tucked away in a barn for the past 70 years. Although the body appears natural and rustic, the beautiful chrome shines out to highlight all the handsome features of the car.
Ernie tells the story of the reason he built the Dwarf 34 Ford. “I met a man in Lincoln, Nebraska at the Americruise car show. He had a ’34 Ford 2 door sedan. It was total rust, nice motor, and it just looked good that way,” said Ernie. He stopped the man and said to him, “I hope you don’t finish this car.” The man gave a smile and replied, ” It is finished.” Ernie added, “The car was beautiful that way.”
Ernie has always been fond of the ’34 Ford sedans. “I think the ’34 has one of the most beautiful bodies of any car,” he comments. Ernie likes the look of the suicide doors and the overall shape of the louvered pattern in the hood. One chrome horn rest upon each front fender like jewelry along the sides of the long slanted grill. The hood ornament is a 1935 Auburn flying lady. The rollout windshield allows for nice airflow threw the car. “The rusted spoke wheels match the overall looks of the body more than any fancy wheels would,” said Ernie. The engine is a 4KE Toyota w/5 speed transmission. Like all of Ernie’s Dwarf Cars this car is completely hand made of steel and is street legal.
This Dwarf Cruiser has features such as roll up windows, hand crank rollout windshield, a bench seat, a louvered fold up hood and hand made spoke wheels with the V8 hubcaps.
Like a pendulum swinging in perpetual motion, Ernie continues to move forward. Persistent at what he loves to do, Ernie is already planning his next Dwarf Cruiser.