By Timothy Rawles / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ
One of the biggest concepts in Maricopa City is, ironically, perhaps, one of its smallest.
It’s a fleet of classic cars that have been painstakingly reproduced to almost half the size of their original full-scale counterparts. The entire collection can be seen at the Dwarf Car Museum. But before you gas up and head to this unique mini metal menagerie, there’s some history behind it.
About forty years ago, good friends Ernie Adams and Daren Schmaltz challenged each other with a seemingly impossible task. They were avid racing fans and after watching a motorcycle competition, they came up with an idea to design their own vehicles. Little did they know, this idea would later become a part of racing history.
“If you build one, I’ll build one,” Daren told Ernie. From that point on, they rummaged through junk and auto parts to find salvageable pieces of metal and machinery that would go into the steel patchwork masterpieces. What they came up with was a unique concept in the world of auto racing; smaller, or ‘dwarf’ versions of real automobiles that could compete against each other.
They both went with coups for their first builds: Ernie’s was a dwarf 1934 Ford while Darin built a 1935 Dodge. These working scale models were 46” tall and ran on old motorcycle engines. Although the cars were inspired to be racers all along, the men were unsure about doing it at first. Thanks to the public’s encouragement and lots of tweaking, the two friends finally rolled them out for their inaugural race in 1981 at the Arrowhead Speedway in Phoenix.
‘Dwarf car’ racing was born, and it became a phenomenon in American motorsports that is still popular today. A few years after the first race, Ernie decided he would step away from the track. The dwarf car racing part of his life was over but gave way to a new idea: the dwarf car cruiser. These non-competitive actual working vehicles are hyper-realistic 5/8 scale versions of conventional classics. This was an idea that dates back to 1965 when Ernie took nine refrigerators and welded them together.
The cruisers look like toys but aren’t for kids. First to come off the assembly block was a 1939 Chevy two-door sedan, an uncanny replica of Ernie’s full-size original.
People wanted to see more of these mini vehicular doppelgängers which was perfect for Ernie because his inspirations just kept coming. He has said the cars aren’t planned, he just builds what strikes his fancy at the time.
His next project was a 1949 Mercury sedan with handmade chrome detailing and meticulous accuracy both inside and out.
Then came a 46” high 1942 Ford convertible in baby blue, and a whimsical 1939 Ford Hillbilly dwarf car. Although not practical, Ernie’s works continue to draw crowds whenever they appear.
These oddities are now on display at the Dwarf Car Museum in Maricopa City. The property is a rustic roadside attraction. You enter off Warren Road and continue down a long dirt path surrounded by weathered farm equipment and old parts. You end up in what looks like an old gas station and service garage.
It’s inside this structure that people can explore not only the car collection but also can feast their eyes on other vintage auto shop tools and aging ephemera. Like most country garages back then, this one is dusty and well-worn.
It’s still used as the creation point for dwarf cruisers, whether it’s Ernie working on his latest model or helping one of his protégés. It’s not uncommon to hear the high-pitched screech of a metal grinder as you walk through the building.
Another part of the shop is dedicated to vintage toys and trophies. The tin walls are covered in old roadside signage and procured license plates from around the country.
As for the future, Ernie is taking it easy. He works occasionally, but mostly he helps other carmakers in his shop with their projects. Eventually, he would like someone to carry on his dwarf car legacy.
Although the models are small, praise from visitors is big. Of the 69 entries on Tripadvisor, 64 are five-star reviews.
“Quite the unexpected stop on our vacation. Any car enthusiast must see this. It’s hard to fathom ‘til you actually see the amazing craftsmanship,” wrote one visitor.
Whether you know a lot or very little about cars, the Dwarf Car Museum is a fascinating adventure through Ernie’s collection of micro machines and a crash course in Arizona history.
The Dwarf Car Museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
It is located at 52954 West Halfmoon Road, Maricopa. Call 520-424-3158 or visit their website for more information.