What does every 10-year-old kid need in their life? A miniature race car with a fully operating internal combustion engine that can reach speeds over 200 mph. What could go wrong? It would be tethered to a post and could only move in a fixed circle, nothing to worry about.
Believe it or not, from the 1930s to the 1960s, tether cars were technically considered toys—what a time to be a kid. Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz stumbled across some in an episode of “American Pickers” a few years ago.
During a Season 17 episode of the show titled “Hot Rod Hero,” Mike and Frank find themselves in the garage of a Tennessee collector with pickings aplenty. Mike Wolfe’s trained eye quickly spotted a prized collectible for car enthusiasts the world over. It was a genuine tether car from the late 1930s. Even though it didn’t have an engine in it, it was still a major find. Mike and the collector got to haggling right away.
“It’s a nice old car. It’s got the original paint, everything but the engine,” said the collector. “Nice though, innit?”
The man said he picked it up from Shelbyville, Tennessee, no more than 15 miles from where they stood. Unable to resist the nostalgia and obvious value in front of him, the “American Pickers” star made an offer. He came in at $700 and was met with a quick counter of $1,000.
“I know you’s only kiddin’ about the $700. Be serious and tell me,” the owner joked. He pulled out two more old tether cars to sweeten the deal, pricing the bundle at $1,000. After Wolfe discovered an old memory jug that appealed to him, the two finally settled on $1,100 for all four items together.
Not a bad price for some toys. Or was it? Some have sold for $10,000.
What Sets the American in ‘American Pickers’ Apart
Mike Wolfe has made a fortune as a result of his success on “American Pickers.” Of course, he wasn’t doing badly before the show took off either. But at the end of the day, his real passion is in the stories behind the antiques.
What’s interesting is how young America is as a nation compared to much of the world. Yes, things date back to pre-Revolutionary times. But Wolfe has a thing for Americana. In a blog post he wrote on the Antique Archaeology website in 2015, he recalled an encounter with a Portuguese woman living in the United States. She couldn’t understand why 100-year old antiques were so valuable, as she came from a place considered one of the oldest in Europe. It forced him to reflect on this crazy and wonderful American experiment in which we all get to take part.
“I guess sometimes the perspective of someone who wasn’t born here is all we really need. Our American story, our progress, it’s unique, and the junk that tells that story, that shows that progress… well, it’s just priceless!” the “American Pickers” star wrote.
The tether cars are a fascinating little piece of that progress.