Kevin Adams, human and normal-size, next to the Rebel Rouser, car that is not.
Kevin Adams, human and normal-size; next to the Rebel Rouser, car that is not.

Dwarf Car Museum

Field review by the editors.

Maricopa, Arizona

Ernie Adams has an unusual passion for a man so noticeably tall. He builds, and drives, pint-size cars.

The only sign advertising the Dwarf Car Museum.
The only sign advertising the Dwarf Car Museum.

Ernie grew up in the farm town of Harvard, Nebraska, across the street from a dump, which he fondly recalled as "a free department store for me." When he was 15 he looked out a window and noticed an old refrigerator in the weeds. Like any artist, young Ernie saw something that others didn't: the streamlined curves of the fridge reminded him of car fenders.

Ten years later, married, Ernie wanted an antique car but couldn't afford one. Remembering the vintage refrigerator, Ernie rounded up nine of them, cut them apart, and -- not having much work space -- used them to build a half-size version of a 1928 Chevy.

"He always liked small cars," said Kevin, Ernie's son. "When he was young he'd put engines on bicycles and tricycles." We asked why Ernie didn't build something more kid-typical, like a gravity-powered Soap Box Derby racer. Kevin pointed out that Ernie lived in Nebraska. "There was no hills."

Ernie Adams built his first dwarf car out of old refrigerators.
Ernie Adams built his first dwarf car out of old refrigerators.

Ernie's life changed significantly after a 1965 visit to Phoenix. "The birds were chirping, the sun was shining, and I drove back home to a blizzard that next day," he told us. "I thought, 'What the hell am I doing back here, when there's a climate like that?'" Ernie moved his family and most of his worldly possessions -- including the Adams outhouse -- to the Arizona desert. The window where he glimpsed that first refrigerator is now proudly displayed in his Dwarf Car Museum, as is the nine-fridge Chevy, still in running condition.

Over the years Ernie slowly built more dwarf cars, each better than the last. They are not the little go-karts that Shriners ride in parades. They are small, nearly-perfect replicas of classic cars, so mechanically sound that they can be driven legally on highways, and so good-looking that they qualify as "cruisers."

Celebrities like to be seen in the dwarf 1942 convertible.
Celebrities like to be seen in the dwarf 1942 convertible.

There's "Rebel Rouser," a 1949 Mercury for which Ernie was once offered $450,000 (He never sells his cruiser cars). A 1934 Ford, the model best-known as the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car, is a favorite of Ernie's - not because of Bonnie and Clyde, but because he never has to wash or polish its rusty body. The 1942 Ford ("Sweet Little Sheila") is popular with celebrity visitors, who sit in it for photos because it has a convertible top. "They want their faces shown," said Ginger Adams, Ernie's daughter-in-law.

The Dwarf Car Museum is part family clubhouse, part working garage. The cars, displayed next to each other, look normal -- until a normal-size person stands next to one. Their interiors are surprisingly roomy, but it would still be a challenge to fold yourself into a front seat and drive all the way to Indiana, which Ernie did with his dwarf 1939 Chevy sedan. It has over 70,000 miles on the odometer.

What can't be emphasized enough is that all of Ernie's cars are built from scratch. The laws of scale make it infeasible to just grind down parts from the make and model of the car that Ernie is dwarfing; everything besides the motor and tires -- usually salvaged from small 1970s Toyotas -- has to be custom-built. Not only are all of the pieces of the car fabricated, many of the tools for fashioning the pieces had to be invented by Ernie. His ingenuity has earned high praise from attendees at car shows, who are some of the fussiest automotive experts on the planet.

It took Ernie three years to build his dwarf 1940 Mercury.
It took Ernie three years to build his dwarf 1940 Mercury.

There are no highway signs directing travelers to the Dwarf Car Museum -- which is really just an extension of the Adams family compound -- but such is Ernie's reputation that thousands of tourists visit every year, including, we were told, an annual "bus full of Swedes." The Adamses are out on their own at the outskirts of Maricopa, on a wide-open patch of desert where dwarf cars are hardly necessary. There is plenty of room to expand, and as Ernie builds more cars, the Adamses plan to build more extensions onto the museum.

Kevin Adams told us that each car takes a minimum of 2,000 hours to build -- roughly three to five years -- so only a handful are on display. Those familiar with the vast collections at most auto museums should remember that their cars were bought, not manufactured on-site out of scraps and sheet metal. "With all of the work that's gone into these, we don't have a hundred cars like a lot of museums do," said Kevin. "But you will never see these cars anywhere else."

Dwarf Car Museum

Address:
52954 West Halfmoon Rd, Maricopa, AZ
Directions:
Near Phoenix on I-10, Exit 164 to AZ-347 south, turn right on W Century Rd, left on N Warren Rd, and right on W Half Moon Rd. It's the first property on the right.
Hours:
Daily 9-4 (call ahead on weekends) (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
520-424-3158
Admission:
Adults $5.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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