Customers go to Dick Barbour Performance, located not far from the Road Atlanta race track, to buy vintage Porsches from the three-time Le Mans winner.
Although their mission is to purchase a classic sports car to drive, many of those customers quickly become sidetracked when they see another kind of car Barber has in his office.
“People come in to look at a $100,000 car and they’ll spend an hour in my office wanting to know about tether cars,” Barber said. “Many people had never heard of them before.”
Tether cars are around 20 inches long, traditionally have gas-powered engines and race at amazing speeds on a circular track while tethered to a central post. They were a popular pastime until World War II erupted and the U.S. government called for people to melt down all sort of metal objects for the war effort.
Remote-control cars replaced tether cars as a post-war hobby, and the tether cars that remained have become collectibles, cherished both for their Art Deco designs and the amazing craftsmanship that went into their construction.
Barbour started collecting them as a child and is selling nearly 100 of them, including a few tether boats, through a Mecum Auctions’ On Time online sale during Monterey Car Week, where Barbour’s collection will be on display.
Barbour was 7 years old in 1947 when his father bought a Dooling Frog tether car and took Dick with him to a track near their home in La Jolla, California.
“I was hooked,” Barbour recalls, adding that he immediately started collecting the cars, buying or trading up in his pursuit of the best examples.
His fascination with tether cars likely led Barbour into his career in auto racing. He built a sports and performance car accessory business, repaired and modified Porsches, became a Porsche/Audi dealer and racer and racing team leader.
In 1978, Barbour, Brian Redman and John Paul drove Barbour’s Porsche 935 to fifth-place overall and first in class in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. A year later, Barbour, Paul Newman and Rolf Stommelen finished second overall and again won their class in the famed French race. Barbour made it three in a row in 1980, co-driving with Redman and John Fitzpatrick to fifth overall and yet another class victory in the race.
Around 2000, Barbour relocated to the Atlanta area and restarted his racing team, winning American Le Mans Series GT and prototype championships.
Whether on the track or in collecting tether cars, Barbour has built on his passion and persistence.
“Tether cars were very popular in the ’30s and ’40s,” he said. “They had nitro-methane-powered engines that ran on a 70-foot long cable at true speeds, not scale, up to 175 mph. The concrete track was 3 feet wide.
“They were made before CNC machines. When you take the top off and look at the hand-filed gears and clutches and front- and rear-wheel drive and the differentials and the workmanship is like a Rolex watch. That’s what fascinates me about tether cars,” Barbour said.
“They have self-contained magnetos and fuel shutoffs. They were built the way they would do the connections and levers in a real race car. People machined the individual parts.”
In addition to the paved tracks, there were a few wooden tracks with slots so special “rail cars” could run four abreast.
“The cars were made out of aluminum and magnesium. More than 99 percent disappeared after the bombing of Pearl Harbor as they were turned into the government for the metals.”
The stars of Barbour’s collection are a 1940 Duesenberg D-1 Indianapolis Speedway car built and raced by Augie Duesenberg, and two Richters, a 1940 Cabin Car and a 1940 Streamliner built by Roy Richter, founder of both Cragar wheels and Bell helmets.
Barbour said he is selling his collection because, as he approaches 80 years of age, he doesn’t want to leave their deaccession to his family.
The online auction runs until the early afternoon (Pacific time) on August 17. For details, visit the Mecum Auctions website.