Visual Arts

Ernie Adams' Dwarf Car Cruisers: 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.

In other words, he's obsessed. "Building these cars is kind of a sickness," Adams says. "You don't want to do anything else."

People come from all over to visit Adams at his 10-acre property in Maricopa, and every day around 4:30 p.m., dozens of neighbors show up to hang out in the garage. So it only makes sense that Adams' son Kevin is building a show room and museum on the property.

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?"

Ernie Adams' Dwarf Car Cruisers can be seen at 52954 W. Halfmoon Road in Maricopa. For more information, call 520-424-3158 or visit