Tether Cars: Big Thrills in Small Scale
25 artifacts in this set
Colonel Alexander designed and built full-size race cars before moving into the world of miniatures in 1936. His front-wheel drive models, based on Indianapolis 500 cars, came in three varieties: the basic "flat-tail" with no headrest, the "Super Deluxe" with a more elaborate grille (seen here), and the "Baby Alexander," similar to a standard-size model but with a one-inch shorter wheelbase.
Standard tether cars were built to 1/6 or 1/8 scale. Engine size typically was .60 cubic inches, and overall length was between 14 and 24 inches. "Mite" cars were about half the size of standard models, and their lower price made them increasingly popular. This Hornet Mite was powered by a .199 cubic inch engine.
"Cabin car" models featured enclosed cockpits. Their designs were more concerned with speed than fidelity to full-size racing cars. While an open cockpit tether car might hit 40-50 miles per hour, a cabin car's aerodynamic shape allowed it to reach 70 miles per hour or more. Olsen Machine Works, which sold fully assembled models, was based in Venice, California.
Streamliner tether cars were the next step, after cabin cars, in the quest for speed. Resemblance to real cars was abandoned in pursuit of a purely aerodynamic, bullet-like shape. With improved motors, streamliner models could break 100 miles per hour. The Matthews Foundry was owned and operated by Percy Matthews, an avid tether car racer himself.
The typical tether car was powered by a .60 cubic inch (10 cubic centimeter) gas-powered motor. The single-cylinder, two-stroke engine might produce up to 1.5 horsepower at 16,000 r.p.m. Fins surrounding the cylinder helped to draw heat away from the air-cooled motor. McCoy "Super 60" engines were particularly successful in competition in the mid-1940s.
Two-stroke tether car engines generally were fueled by a mixture of white gasoline, alcohol or methanol, and motor or castor oil. The fuel in this kit is designed for use with glow plugs. Though they require an external battery for warm-up, glow plugs retain enough heat from each ignition to continue the operating cycle without further electricity.
As their name suggests, tether cars initially were raced one at a time while tethered to a pole. As the hobby grew, elaborate board tracks were built to allow cars to race against each other. Guide wheels on the cars fit onto metal rails mounted to the track. This replica section suggests the scale of a complete tether car track.
A tether car racer had to carry everything she might need to a competition. Boxes like this one held the car -- easily accessed through the drop-front door -- along with fuel, oil, tools and spare parts. This box belonged to Rose Allen, who raced throughout northern California in the mid-1940s. Tether car racing appealed to women and men alike.
For all of their charm, tether cars were not toys. The total cost of a car, an engine, fuel, tools and accessories might run close to $100 -- at a time when a real Ford started around $500. Resourceful racers built their own cars from scratch. This model was fashioned in part from an empty can of Mobil motor oil.
Dooling Brothers has been called the "General Motors of tether car manufacturers." Dooling was among the first companies to sell complete, ready-to-run cars, and its product line included all styles of standard and mite-size models. Founders Tom, Hank and Russ Dooling were all accomplished tether car racers, so it's no surprise that Dooling models dominated competitions everywhere.
While later tether car engines used simple glow plugs for ignition, earlier models relied on scaled-down versions of the spark plugs found in full-size cars. The tiny spark plugs were fired by a timing system consisting of points activated by a cam lobe on the crankshaft. Real-car supplier Champion produced Type V plugs for use in tether car engines.
Many tether car engines relied on glow plugs for ignition. An external battery warmed the plug to start the cycle but, once the engine was running, the battery was disconnected. Each ignition kept the glow plug hot enough to cause the next explosion. This battery holder's long handle let the operator push start a car without bending over.
Stanley Hiller, Jr., built his tether car business on the principle of selling inexpensive but effective mass-produced models. Hiller started serious production of his cars at the tender age of 17. While the tether car's popularity waned, Hiller's other interest -- the helicopter -- endured. Hiller abandoned tether cars and devoted his energies to his experimental XH-44 "Hiller-Copter" during World War II.
While some racers might build their tether cars from scratch, or put them together from kits, those who were eager to get to the track could purchase fully assembled models. Racer and designer Dick McCoy produced a variety of successful kits and complete cars. At $24.95, McCoy's midget racer -- sold complete with engine -- was a relatively inexpensive entry-level car.
Few craftsmen were as talented as Barney Korn, who combined a machinist’s skill with an artist's eye. His standard-size "Indianapolis" cars were considered some of the most beautiful models in the hobby. Unfortunately, Korn's attention to detail came at a cost -- in weight and money. The heavy cars weren't fast, and they often cost twice as much as other models.
Barney Korn's talent was apparent from an early age. He built a working, water-cooled overhead-valve model engine in his high school shop class. In 1924, Korn went to work as a machinist for Howard Hughes. Later in his career, Korn built elaborate model cars, boats and airplanes for movies made by Disney, Universal and other Hollywood studios.
Barney Korn's eye for detail extended beyond a model car's appearance. Korn built this fully functional dynamometer to measure the power output of the engines in his cars. The clever device was adjustable for both front and rear-wheel drive tether cars. Unfortunately, Korn's cars were never big sellers. They were too slow for serious racers, and too expensive for amateurs.
After World War II, tether car makers took inspiration from hot rods in addition to race cars. Like "real" hot rodders, model builders favored the lines of the 1932 Ford V-8. Most hot rod tether cars were hand-built one-offs, though some manufacturers produced them in kits. Details on this model include faux carburetor velocity stacks poking out through the hood.
The Matthews Foundry used this mold to make bodies for its model tether cars. Molten aluminum was poured into the mold to form the needed components. When the aluminum cooled and solidified, a car body was produced. Mass production techniques allowed Matthews "Silver Streak" Indianapolis-style cars to be sold fully assembled at reasonable prices.
The Matthews Foundry created rubber tires for its tether cars with this mold. A rubber disk was placed in each half of the mold, with the removable steel disk -- seen here inside the bottom half -- sandwiched in between. When the mold was heated in a furnace, a hollow tire was produced. Without the steel disk, solid tires could be made.
Propeller pusher tether cars were simple to make, as they eliminated the need for conventional friction or gear driveline systems. The propeller simply pushed the model on its way. But propellers weren't nearly as efficient as gears, and pusher cars like this "Prop Rod" model from Cox never fared well in competition.
The standard-size tether car measured about 18 inches long, weighed between 6 and 9 pounds, and used a single-cylinder, two-stroke .60 cubic inch (10 cubic centimeter) engine. Fins around the cylinder drew heat away from the air-cooled motor, and a miniature spark plug -- later, a glow plug -- provided ignition. Some builders experimented with multi-cylinder engines, but they were never competitive.
Tether car racers made the case for an official sanctioning body in the pages of Model Craftsman magazine through 1939 and 1940. Everyone agreed that a formal organization was needed to legitimize competition results and verify speed records. The American Miniature Racing Car Association was established to govern the hobby in 1940. It awarded this trophy to Frank Robertson in 1947.
Frank Robertson's Snuffy II Gas-Powered Racing Tether Car, Winner of the 1947 AMRCA Championship, 1947
Tether car racing was administered by the American Miniature Racing Car Association, established in 1940. The organization's rules split all tether cars into two competition classes: Class A for engines displacing .000 to .360 cubic inches, and Class B for those displacing .361 to .625. Frank Robertson's Class B "Snuffy II" car won him the 1947 AMRCA championship.
The "golden age" of tether cars was over by the mid-1950s, but the hobby never fully disappeared. By the mid-1970s, racers were competing with sophisticated aerodynamic models equipped with ever more powerful engines. Some of these cars could run faster than 200 miles per hour -- actual miles, not scale! Meanwhile, vintage cars of the 1930s-1940s became prized collectibles.