Le Mans-winning racer selling his collection of tether cars

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Dick Barbour's tether car collection is being offered through an online Mecum auction | Dick Barbour photo

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.”

Among the stars of the collection is this 1940 Duesenberg D-1 built and raced by Augie Duesenberg himself | Mecum Auctions photos

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. 

Barbour’s business is selling vintage Porsches

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.”

Tether cars on display in Barbour’s office

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.

1940 Miss America VI tether boat for racing on water
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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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