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Tiny car fulfills Ariz. man's big dream

10:08 AM, Sep 12, 2013   |    comments
Guiness World Records 9/11/2013 Austin Austin Coulson made it into the "Guinness Book of World Records 2014" with the world's smallest roadworth car.(Photo: Michael Chow, The Arizona Republic)
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PHOENIX -- Hunched over and grinning wildly while crammed into what looks like a toy car, Austin Coulson seems like the world's most ecstatic man for having such little legroom.

That image of Coulson is immortalized in the "Guinness World Records 2014" book, released Thursday. The Phoenix native recently broke the record for building the world's smallest roadworthy car, earning him a spot in the book he has obsessed over since he was a child.

The vehicle - 2 feet 1 inch high, 2 feet 1.75 inches wide and 4 feet 1.75 inches long - is fully drivable, licensed and registered, a requirement of the record. Though constructed in Coulson's north Phoenix shop, the car is registered in Texas (license plate: "IM BIG") because Coulson had moved there for several months to be with his fiancee, Lisa Stoll.

Because the car is classified as a low-speed vehicle, a category designed for golf-cart use in retirement communities, it can only go on local roads marked for up to 25 mph.

Coulson doesn't recommend going much faster in it, anyhow.

"There's no suspension, so it is scary," he said. The car tops out at 33 mph, and then, "it feels like you're going 100."

Coulson and Stoll have since moved back to Phoenix, and they have logged nearly 100 miles on the tiny car - always eliciting bemused stares and jokes about how easy it must be to find parking.

"The Number 1 question everyone asks me is: 'What kind of fuel economy does it get?'" Coulson said. (The answer: 85 miles per gallon.) "What's so silly about it is the tank is only a half-gallon. I think I lose more to evaporation than I do actually driving it."

Coulson, 29, said his proclivity for mechanical tinkering appeared early. As a child, he would ride bicycles with his friends, then go home and remove and add various parts. As soon as Coulson turned 16, he bought an old Bronco that had a blown transmission.

"I bought the repair manual, and I had to learn from scratch how to take everything apart, put it back together," he said. "I've just been building ever since."

It was also around then that his love for the Guinness record book developed.

"We'd have one of those book fairs at my school, and every year, I'd buy the same book," Coulson said. Back then, the book was more of a text-heavy almanac, but he would seek out and pore over the pictures.

Through the years, the book evolved into a yearbook-like tome filled with color photographs and glossy pages, and he was always drawn to its descriptions of unique cars and motorcycles.

"I just loved any automotive record," Coulson said. Even if he didn't have a specific record in mind, the seed had been planted: "How cool would it be to be in the book one day?" he thought.

Two years ago, he spotted a go-kart that had a car's body on it. It looked so silly, like a miniature car, that he wondered whether someone could make it street-legal. But was there such a category in the Guinness book?

Sure enough, there was someone in England who already held the record for the world's smallest roadworthy car.

"I thought, 'I bet I could beat that,'" said Coulson, who by day repairs and maintains pool-truck vehicles for a living. "I just started working on it right then and there."

The easiest part of building the car was refitting an already-street-legal ATV, giving him a working engine and transmission.

The length and width of Coulson's car are comparable with the old record holder's measurements. There wasn't much he could fiddle with on the width and still give his tires room to actually turn. He was similarly limited on adjusting the length of the car.

"I didn't have much to go because if it was any shorter, I'd be hanging off the back of it," Coulson said.

His solution was to make it a convertible, lopping off a considerable amount of height.

The hardest part was trying to fit all the street-legal requirements into such a small package. Coulson fashioned miniature headlights, tail lights and turn signals and even had a 3- by 9-inch custom windshield made of safety glass, complete with federal stamping. The process took nine months.

Once finished, Coulson gathered "a significant amount of evidence" - verified measurements, videos, pictures, paperwork from the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles - and mailed it all to the Guinness record keepers in England.

Then, he waited. And waited.

One morning last December, he woke up and checked his e-mail around 6 a.m. There it was: "Congratulations! You now hold the world record for the smallest roadworthy car."

He said his fiancee, who is not a mechanic, gamely researched the paperwork required to make the car street-legal while also planning a wedding.

"I never really followed Guinness," Stoll said, "so it's been really fun to be on the other end of it."

The actual car currently is in New York, where Coulson and Stoll traveled this week for the launch of the 2014 book. There, they met other record holders, including the world's smallest woman, who, at 2 feet seven-tenths of an inch tall, fits easily into Coulson's car.

Once Guinness ships the vehicle back to Arizona, Coulson plans to take it on a car-show circuit. Ultimately, he hopes to sell it at the Barrett-Jackson car auction in Scottsdale, Ariz., next January.

"That's where I sell most of the creations I make," he said. When he's not working on pool trucks, Coulson is throwing himself into his projects of the moment: restoring a 1955 AC Aceca and building a hot rod that will be powered by an old Army jet engine.

He isn't worried that someone will break his record. "I hope someone does," Coulson said. "That'd be really interesting to see."

Meanwhile, the wheels are already turning in his head for the next Guinness-worthy project.

"It's so much fun," he said. "I've started thinking, 'Hmm, I wonder what other records there are?'"

Car specs

Height: 2 feet 1 inch.

Width: 2 feet 1.75 inches.

Length: 4 feet 1.75 inches.

Engine: 110cc, 1-cylinder engine.

Transmission: CVT (continuously variable transmission).

Top speed: 33 mph, though legally limited to 25 mph.

Fuel efficiency: 85 miles per gallon.

Fuel tank capacity: Half-gallon.

Amy B Wang, The Arizona Republic

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