In the sagebrush of southern Arizona, Ernie Adams has spent more than five decades building a platoon of miniature vehicles from nothing more than junk and his own hands. Dubbed Dwarf cars, they're the result of a lifetime of tinkering and using materials others had thrown away — an approach that's made Adams the godfather of an entire racing subculture, and a singular American craftsman.
A mechanic by trade, Adams, 72, says he began building things as a boy in Harvard, Neb., where his family lived near a landfill, and ever since has kept an eye out for metals and parts and supplies that he could make use of where others could not. (His son Kevin tells in the video below of how his father would give him a bicycle: "We'd have a huge pile of bicycle parts in the backyard, and Dad would point to it and say 'there's your new bike.'")
As a kid, Adams would occasionally putter around with salvaged motors, cobbling an engine onto a bicycle at age 11. But it wasn't until 1962 that he first started tinkering with the idea of building a car from scratch — a replica of a 1928 Chevy, reduced to roughly five-eights scale. After a few years of scrounging, Adams began building in 1965 with three tools: a chisel, a hammer and a homeade hacksaw. Since Adams had little experience in bending steel nor the proper tools for doing it, he grabbed metal panels from nine old refrigerators for the body — and set to work, using nothing but his eyes and hands for measurements.
Since then, Adams has finished six other Dwarf cars, all street legal, all careful recreations of classic models built only from photographs for reference. Take his 1949 turquoise Mercury sedan, which he calls the "Rebel Rouser." The engine comes from an old Toyota; the grille, body and fenders were all fashioned over a hand-built tube frame; the rear window was taken from the windshield of a '66 Chevy pickup. The dash — which has all the standard functions, including radio, dashboard lights and defroster — came from a refrigerator door, as it has in all of his cars.
"I built everything inside and out," he told one spectator, "everything except the mirrors and spotlight."
From the '49 Merc to the '39 Chevy, a '42 Ford convertible and his most recent creation, a '34 Ford sedan with suicide doors that's a recreation of Bonnie & Clyde's getaway car, Adams designs his cars for driving. While the six-foot Adams looks a bit squished behind the wheel, he's put tens of thousands of miles on several of them, and regularly drives them on cross-country trips.
While he kept puttering with the mini-Chevy over the years, it was in the late 1970s in Arizona where Adams found an outlet for his hobby. He and pal Daren Schmaltz had been to a side-hack motorcycle race — where the bikes come with sidecars and an additional rider who throws his weight around in turns. Both agreed the sport looked both slow and dangerous; Adams wondered if it just wouldn't be easier to add a fourth wheel, and run the races on ovals so more people could watch. And if they had miniature car bodies, all the better for entertainment.
In late 1979 and 1980, the two finished the first Dwarf race cars from scrap parts, powered by motorcycle engines under replicas of a '32 Ford body. The idea caught on, and the first full race of 11 Dwarf cars was held in September 1983, with Adams placing second in his "Big Bad Wolf." Today, there are dozens of dwarf-car leagues around the United States, thanks in no small part to Adams' junkyard ethos that make such vehicles the least-expensive way to go fast around a track.
That first Dwarf race car and all of Adams' other creations reside at his Dwarf Car Museum in Maricopa, Ariz. While a couple of them sport a natural rusty patina, that's only by choice; otherwise, the detail and finish looks as if the cars emerged from a wee factory. "When I go to a car show, people seem to gather around and get a look," says Adams. Odd cars can always get a first glance; it's a testament to Adams' talent that the more people look, the more amazing his Dwarf cars become.