Early Car Starters: How Did Old Cars Start?

hand crank car

Lewis Reed hand cranking an old car. The hammer in Lewis Reed’s right hand is for straightening the hand crank. Apparently they can bend when starting big engines. The license plate is MD 10307 dated 1913.

Today, we take the starting of automobiles for granted. Simply place the key in the ignition, turn, and VROOM, the engine starts. Vintage cars from from the 1900s and 1910s were comparatively archaic and limited in their mechanical features. Even starting these old relics was difficult because the process involved a number of complicated steps that the driver had to perform in the correct order.

However, this was not always the case. Hand cranks were the most common type of engine starters in the early days of the automobile. Cars in the early parts of the century had to be started by hand. This was accomplished by turning a crank, usually located in the front of the automobile. The driver would literally “crank the engine” by turning the handle, which would allow the process of internal combustion to begin. After a given number of cranks, the engine would begin to run on its own, and the crank could be removed.

Although hand crank starters were simple and reliable, they suffered from a handful of drawbacks. The main issue with this method of starting an engine is that it is inherently dangerous to the operator. For instance, if an engine kicks back during the cranking process, the operator could get TKO’d by the hand crank. Although many of these cranks used overrun mechanism, there was also a potential for injury if the handle continued to turn after the engine started running.

The other main issue with hand crank starters is that it took a certain degree of physical effort to turn them. That meant anyone who lacked the necessary physical strength or dexterity was incapable of starting a vehicle equipped with this type of starter.

By 1920, nearly all manufacturers were producing cars equipped with starters making it easy for anyone, regardless of physical abilities, to start a car by pressing a button mounted on the dash or floor. An ignition on and starter engage switch operated by a key was introduced by Chrysler in 1949.

1928 Dodge Brothers Standard Six

1928 Dodge Brothers Standard Six had both hand crank and starter. I’m assuming the crank was a backup in case the starter failed. The crank hole cover can be seen just below the front grill. Photo by Reed Brothers Dodge

Several new mechanical innovations were included in the 1946 Dodge Deluxe models. Among them were the introduction of the famous Fluid-Drive, a push-button starter system. The dash-mounted button on the 1946 Dodge Deluxe pictured below activated a solenoid, which in turn engaged the starter. For the first time since 1928 there was no provision made to manually hand crank the engine.

1946 Dodge Deluxe

The push button starter on this 1946 Dodge Deluxe Fluid Drive was located on the far left, below the instrument gauges. Photo by Reed Brothers Dodge.


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About Reed Brothers

I am a co-owner of the former Reed Brothers Dodge in Rockville, Maryland. Lewis Reed, the founder of Reed Brothers Dodge was my grandfather. We were a family-owned and operated car dealership in Rockville for almost a century. I served in the United States Air Force for 30 years before retiring in the top enlisted grade of Chief Master Sergeant in July 2006. In 2016, I received the Arthur M. Wagman Award for Historic Preservation Communication from Peerless Rockville for documenting the history of Reed Brothers Dodge in both blog and book format. This distinguished honor recognizes outstanding achievement by writers, educators, and historians whose work has heightened public awareness of Rockville’s architectural and cultural heritage, growth and development.

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