In California, during the late 1930's, a hobby known as Tether Car Racing began. The idea was to power a model race car with a gas engine, attach the car to a center post using a cord as a tether and go as fast you can. Many of these early model cars were homemade. As such, many family names attached to the cars are now household words for tether car enthusiasts. Names like Dooling, McCoy, Mathews, Barney Korn, Ohlsson & Rice, Cox Tether Models and countless other are still recognized today.
Tom Dooling and his brothers, often referred to collectively as the Dooling Brothers, receive much of the credit for starting the tether car sensation. After building and flying model airplanes, the brothers decided that they could build a car using an airplane engine. It worked, and the Dooling Brothers began building their own tether model cars immediately. The first unofficial tether races were held in an abandoned lot in Los Angeles, Calif., in 1937. In 1939, they held their first official miniature car race in Fresno, Calif., and one year after that they had built a tether car that reached a top speed of about 64 mph (103 km/h). The brothers began building tether car engines and racers to be sold to the public in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They created a famous car design called the Frog, and also a popular engine called the Dooling 61. Manufacturers started to spring up and produced both kit cars and factory built ready-to-race cars. These cars were expensive for the day considering the depression had just recently ended. Most factory built cars sold for around $20 to $30 with the most expensive being the B.B. Korn selling for $53.50 in Magnesium form. Kit cars sold for as low as $10. Prior to the war, cars reached speeds in the mid-70s for Protos and 100 MPH for cable streamliners.
World War II slowed the hobby, but it began again when the troops came home. As the racing matured, so did the tracks. Oval tracks were seen near most major cities in the U.S. Then came the "rail" tracks. These were a slightly elevated track with banked turns. These tracks allowed the several cars to be attached to a rail at the same time and race against each other. By 1948, there were about 2,500 to 3,000 racers nationwide, with about 440 tracks throughout the country.
On the outside, tether cars look a lot like the vehicles that break land-speed records. The cars are narrow and most of the engine parts are enclosed inside the body of the racer. They're comprised of parts similar to a full-size car, including a combustion engine, exhaust pipe, air intake, flywheel, gearbox, driveshaft and wheels. The racers also have a tailskid, located in the back that stabilizes the vehicles at top speeds. The cars are typically about one to two feet (30.5 to 61 centimeters) long, and weigh anywhere from two to six pounds (0.9 to 2.7 kilograms). In the international competitions, there are five different engine sizes that compete. The smallest is the 1.5 cubic centimeter (cc) engine, which has a top speed over 65 miles per hour (104.6 kilometers per hour). The other engine sizes are the 2.5cc, 3.5cc, 5cc and 10cc classes. The 10cc engine class cars are capable of producing speeds over 200 miles per hour (321.9 kilometers per hour). These two-cylinder engines typically run on a fuel mixture of 80 percent methanol and 20 percent castor oil and are capable of producing engine speeds up to 45,000 revolutions per minute.
Drivers can spend hours modifying the cars to squeeze just a little more speed - perhaps a half a mile per hour more out of the engines. In fact, making adjustments and changes to the engine are a huge part of the hobby. One of the main components contributing to the car's speed is the tuning pipe. The tuning pipe not only acts as the exhaust pipe, but it also helps to propel the car.
Each car has a metal bar attached to the body called the panhandle. The panhandle attaches the car to the steel cable and post in the center of the circular track. Official WMCR racetracks are made of flat concrete and are built in two different sizes. The first size is a 70-foot (21.3-meter) diameter track that provides the cars with six laps for a total distance run of one-fourth of a mile (.4 kilometers). Races are won by averaging the speed of eight laps compared to the averages of other drivers. The driver decides when his or her car is at its maximum speed, and then the laps are counted from that point forward. Drivers have three minutes to stop the race if they feel their car isn't performing correctly. Each driver is assisted by up to two helpers to start his or her vehicle. To start the car, the driver or a helper pushes it forward with a stick, turning on the fuel switch. Another helper, called the horser, holds the 33-foot (10.1-meter) long steel cable off of the ground until the car is going fast enough to hold the cable up by its own force, which usually occurs around 80 miles per hour (128.7 kilometers per hour). To stop the tether car, a broom is used to knock the fuel switch down, shutting off the fuel to the engine.
Current racing activity in the U.S. is governed by the American Miniature Racing Car Association with three racetracks in NY, CA and IN. Contemporary cars run at speeds of up to 200+ miles per hour giving them the reputation as fastest model cars in the world. After push-starting the car the driver decides when to take the speed measurement. As soon as he presses a button the time for 8 laps, which equal to 500 meters, is accurately measured by 1/1000s. There are four types of cars: Prototype, Streamliner, Class A and Class B
Some pre-war makes: Alexander, B. B. Korn, Bremer Whirlwind, Bunch, Champion, Dallaire, Dooling, Duesenberg, HCS Track King, Hiller, J. L. Special, Matthews, Morrison, Peerless, Popp, Rexner, Royal, Scat, Shrike, Speed Chief, Speed King, Straightaway King, Synchro, Thunderbolt, Trackmaster, Wasp.
Post-war makes: Challenger, Curly (C & R), Dooling, Edco, Fox, McCoy (Duro-Matic), Melcraft, Papina, Reuhl, Roadrunner, Satan, Speedway, Stevens Indianapolis, Super Sonic, Zak.
What's it worth? Take a look at this Tether Car price guide: sold listings for a value indication.