They often say one must think small to make it big, but for Ernie Adams it’s better to think big to make it small.
“I don’t want to start building another one because I’m 78 years old. My health might go bad anytime in the middle of one. I don’t want somebody else finishing something I started.” — Ernie Adams
Adams, now 78, has turned nine old, discarded refrigerators into an amazing life. Adams, who lives south of Maricopa, is the creator of eight street-legal dwarf classic cars. He’s also the inventor of Dwarf Car Racing, now called Legends Racing, which has become a national phenomenon.
The street-legal dwarf cars he builds are nearly perfect replicas of the original classic cars but at a fraction of the size. They drive well and are fully functioning.
They were so adored by car aficionados that Adams opened the Dwarf Car Museum at his home in the countryside south of Maricopa on Half Moon Road. The Dwarf Car Museum is a very popular destination for car folks from across the nation. It’s even been featured on several national shows, including Jay Leno’s show.
One car will take Adams about 3,000 hours of hard work to create.
“That can be two-and-a-half to five years, depending on how much time I get to work on it,” Adams said. “Most of the time, we have to come out and work in the evenings because there are so many people here in the daytime.”
The Dwarf Car Museum has become very popular and it hosts 100 to 250 people a day, seven days a week, including holidays. Even bus tours stop by to look around at the dwarfs. It’s so busy that Adams and his car building friend Gene Tweedy can do little more that talk with visitors and show off their little automotive gems during the day.
“We’re open seven days a week, holidays and all, 8-4,” he said. “This is a working shop, so people can see them built from scratch.”
The museum is closed June 15 to July 8.
Adams grew up in Harvard, Nebraska, a small town about 20 miles east of Hastings.
“My mother bought our home place in 1944 and it was a full city block,” Adams said. “The city dump was less than a half-mile from us. There was nothing between us and the dump but a cornfield and a railroad right of way. At that time, they were taking gas motors off washing machines and putting electric ones on them. I was bringing those old motors home and getting them running. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was actually learning my trade.”
Adams became a car mechanic and was married in 1962.
“By 1965, I was wanting an old, antique car and I couldn’t afford one,” he said. “I lived in a trailer park and I also didn’t have room for one. I remembered when I was a kid, looking out the window, I saw an old refrigerator laying in the weeds. It had a black tire swing by it. It looked like a miniature white touring car with a black fender, so I built a car out of nine refrigerators.”
After his first car, he also created “the first Dwarf Racecar.” Many more dwarf race cars followed from a shop in Tempe but only eight street-legal dwarfs have been built by Adams.
The first two Dwarf Race Cars were built in December 1979 and early 1980. The Dwarf Race Car idea came about after Adams and Daren Schmaltz had attended motorcycle side hack races in Phoenix. During the drive home, Adams expressed concern that three-wheeled racers were too slow in the corners. He said they could improve considerably by adding a fourth wheel to help through the corners. He suggested adding a car body would also help spectator appeal.
“I didn’t know anything about bending metal and, after doing that for about 10 years with a real crude process, I decided I’d pick up a piece of metal and I could make anything I want out of it,” Adams said. “So, I built the first street-legal car. Which is that little ‘39 Chevy. From then on, it was just one after the other.”
Adams said he never went to college.
“No, I’m a 10th-grade dropout. I’ve been lucky from that city dump learning my trade. I never had trouble getting a job. I could go anywhere I wanted to and get a job. There’s a job anywhere you’re looking for one,” Adams said, adding that as a mechanic he’s had “on-the-job training since he was 16.”
Building a dwarf car
The process of building a dwarf car starts with the decision of what car they want to recreate. Then very detailed photographs are taken of an original car.
“I’ll take all kinds of pictures. Where the chrome starts and where it stops. Front view, rear view, side view, interior view, all the trim and the dash. Everything we can get a picture of what we will have to build,” Adams said.
After the photos are taken, Adams said the ratio of the dwarf to the real car is determined, so each item can be calculated in mini-size.
“We just measure the pictures and build what we see one piece at a time,” he said. “All I have are homemade tools. I even built the bead roller that I put the print into the metal with. I built another bead roller to put all the stainless trim on. I have a homemade English wheel. I didn’t make it, but it’s a nice big one.”
An accidental encounter with a Toyota has helped him on his journey.
“I got lucky one time, when I built the first small street-legal car. I was concerned about finding a car with 12-inch wheels. It ended up being a 1972 Toyota. Once I got that car, after it was sitting out in an alley full of trees and tree limbs, I tore it apart to get the wheels off. I realized I could shorten the rear end and I could shorten the driveline. I could use the steering sector and the wheels. The front brakes were disc brakes, so I cut the spindles off the struts and I made the homemade front axle and welded them spindles on it. Everything fit into my car – the door latches, the window mechanisms, the windshield wiper mechanism, the heater – everything came out of that Toyota. Now, I build the bodies so they accept Toyota parts.”
To make a “street-legal” dwarf car, Adams said every receipt for every piece made for the car has to be saved. The amount of the receipts is totaled together and that becomes the tax value of the vehicle when the car is licensed.
“We don’t use the body or frame of another car. The MVD (Motor Vehicle Department) said they don’t care what car parts I use. There’s no problem getting them street legal,” he said.
After making just eight street-legal dwarf cars, his last one is almost done.
“That’s probably all I will build,” Adams said. “I don’t want to start building another one because I’m 78 years old. My health might go bad anytime in the middle of one. I don’t want somebody else finishing something I started. I don’t want it sitting around here half-finished because they look pretty crude when they’re half-finished.”
Just in case he might get bored after he stops building dwarfs, he has a side project already planned.
A lady gave him a rare 1904 Oldsmobile Pie Wagon that “an old fellow started, and he died before he got it done.” The man’s sister asked Adams if he would take it, finish it and place it into his museum.
“I will do that, but I will shrink that car quite a few inches and make it fit in here,” Adams said.
His last planned creation is nearing completion in the back shop. It is a 1932 Ford 3-window coupe in turquoise blue paint.
“I hope to have it done in a couple of months, so I can take it back to the ’50s car show. My friend Gene is building a ’64 Chevy Impala SS convertible,” he said.
With the high-quality design of the dwarf cars, Adams could make a lot of money out of his creations but they’re simply not for sale.
“I wouldn’t dream of selling one,” he said. “I’ve had astronomical amounts offered for them, but I just won’t sell them. There is no point in me selling them. We talked about it one time. I would rather have the car and meet people. If I just had money in the bank, it wouldn’t do me any good. I wouldn’t meet anybody with that.”
Jay Leno was at the Dwarf Car Museum in January for his show” Jay Leno’s Garage,” and Dennis Gage filmed a segment in the museum for his show “My Classic Car.”
Adams’ partner in building Dwarf cars is Gene Tweedy. Tweedy, 76, has completed one car, a 1954 Chevy, and he’s working on his second, a 1964 Chevy Impala SS Convertible.
He said he picked the Impala, “because I have the full-sized one. I started this in January of 2017. I have pretty much everything done on the outside except for the deck lid and the hood. I have to make my inner fenders on the front.”
After the body is together, Tweedy said he will then work on the interior and build a convertible top for it.
“Compared to Ernie, I’m real new to it. It is right down my alley,” Tweedy said. “Ernie is a pretty good guy. He is cool, calm and he doesn’t get rattled very often. He just won’t steer you wrong. I couldn’t have found a better teacher.”
Tweedy was living in Mesa but after his wife died he moved just three miles away from Adams to be closer to the Dwarf Museum and ease his ability to build his new car.
He lived in Mesa during the construction of the ‘54 Chevy and drove back and forth daily.
“I found a place out here, so I wouldn’t have so far to run back and forth. It was 115-mile round trip every day. It adds a bit to the price of the car,” Tweedy said.
He said he’s not sure how much money he might have invested in the Impala when it’s completed, because he doesn’t tally his receipts until its finished.
He invested $10,000 into the construction of the 54 Chevy over a 10-year period.
“$1,000 a year is a pretty cheap hobby,” Tweedy said. “I have something that I am proud of. This is probably going to be my last one.”
Street-Legal Dwarf Cars Made by Adams and Tweedy
1928 Grandpa Dwarf by Ernie Adams
1939 Chevy Sedan by Ernie Adams
1942 Ford Convertible by Ernie Adams
1929 Ford Hillbilly by Ernie Adams
1949 Mercury by Ernie Adams
1934 Ford Sedan by Ernie Adams
1940 Mercury Sedan by Ernie Adams
1954 Chevy BelAir by Gene Tweedy
Dwarf Cars in Production
1932 Ford 3-window coupe by Ernie Adams
1964 Chevy Impala SS Convertible by Gene Tweedy
52954 W. Half Moon Road
This story appears in the April issue of InMaricopa.