The story of the self-starting car began one cold winter in Belle Island, Michigan. While tooling down an icy rode, auto pioneer Byron J. Carter saw a woman struggling to turn the heavy hand crank on her stalled Cadillac.
As an inventor AND owner of the Cartercar Company, Byron J. Carter was just about the most qualified person in the world to troubleshoot car problems. He pulled over and offered to help. Carter clicked the hand crank in the slot below the grill, wrapped his practiced hand around it, and gave it a firm pull.
The engine back-fired fiercely, causing the steel hand crank to reverse its swing in a vicious arc. It was too fast to see, much less stop. Byron J. Carter was just close enough that the hand crank smacked firmly into his jaw, breaking it and knocking him unconscious into the cold road. Although a broken jaw wasn’t necessarily life threatening, the subsequent infection turned into pneumonia. A week after his noble gesture on that Michigan Street, one of the finest minds in automotive history died. A victim of the manual hand crank.
The Dangerous and Deadly Hand Crank Car
Sadly, injuries from hand cranking (or hand starting) a car were fairly common. The tool was necessary. Internal combustion engines require inertia to function, and the cylinders exchange this inertia while running (one cylinder goes up while the other goes down). Vehicles require an initial “shove“ to get this process going. Most vehicles used hand cranks. Larger engines might have wound-spring cranking (your mower or weed trimmer) or even gunpowder cranking (if you’ve ever seen 1965’s Flight of the Phoenix, you’ll recognize that). Hand cranks were inexpensive, easy to use, and reliable. They were also very dangerous.
Most injuries came from incorrect hand positioning. To begin, you insert the hand crank into the designated slot at the front of the engine. Place the handle at a 6 o’clock position, then wrap your fingers AND your thumb under the handle. When you pull the crank, you pull it in a counter-clockwise direction, UP. Never DOWN.
Naturally, our opposable thumbs want to wrap completely around a handle, but if a handle jerks violently or reverses direction in a back-fire, the crank’s force can easily shatter fingers. Turning a hand crank in the wrong direction could cause the crank to slam into your wrist, causing an injury that was so common in the early days of the automobile that it had its own name: chauffeur’s fracture.
The Birth of the Self-Starting Car
Even today, a debate still rages on who exactly invented the self-starting car, but there’s little debate on which automaker incorporated it as a standard feature: Harry M. Leland, the founder of America’s most popular luxury automobiles, Cadillac and Lincoln. Byron Carter and Leland had been close friends. Both men had climbed up the industry in the same way. First, as skilled labor (Leland as a machinist, Carter as a steam engine mechanic). Both graduated to engineers and inventors. Both became industry entrepreneurs.
Distraught over his friend’s death, Henry Leland knew the dangerous automotive hand crank had to be replaced. It wasn’t just vengeance for his friend, either. As car engines became bigger (in ten years, Leland would introduce V12 engines in his Lincolns), hand cranking became more and more dangerous. The force of a Model T’s four-cylinder engine was one thing. A steel crank swinging with the force of a V12 back-fire behind it would pulverize anything in its way. Fatalities, not injuries, would be the norm.
Charles Kettering: Auto Inventor Extraordinaire
Leland worked closely with his engineers on the self-starter. While they could get such a device to work in the lab, installing it on a car was a different story. It had to be portable, cost-effective, and rugged enough to withstand the elements. Leland decided the problem was beyond him, so he sought out engineering genius Charles Kettering. A renaissance man of the auto industry, Kettering had not only excelled at mechanical innovating, but had extraordinary business savvy. Instead of selling his work outright, he founded the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company—DELCO (still a household name in auto parts). He parted out his inventions for a substantial profit
Leland laid his obsession at Kettering’s feet, and Kettering immediately set to work on it. It was a familiar problem. Years earlier, Kettering replaced the awkward hand-operated cash registers with electric versions. Thousands of registers across the country contained his compact electrical motors. He scaffolded off this design. After all, it wasn’t much different. It just needed to be powerful enough to turn over a Cadillac engine.
By 1911, Kettering filed his patent. His success resulted from a very simple revelation: the starter motor could be both compact AND powerful. In a similar auto engine that ran for hours and hours, this couldn’t be done. The necessary voltage to move a vehicle would destroy the engine in minutes. But a starter motor didn’t have to run hours or minutes. Just seconds. Kettering took advantage of that.
In 1912, Cadillac introduced the electrical starter in in its production models. Once the consumer market saw the advantages of this innovation, other makes got onboard. Even Henry Ford, who was notoriously unwilling to change his simple designs, faced facts and began installing those motors on his vehicles in 1920. By the mid-20s, the hand crank was an antiquated tool, used only for well-used or well-broken automobiles. While companies have made numerous modifications of the electrical starter, the motor’s process and purpose has remain relatively unchanged, whether you’re driving a 1920 or a 2020 vehicle.
How Does Your Car Starter Work?
Step #1: You turn your key in the ignition, when sends a signal to the ignition switch, which activates the electrical components of your car, including your starter.
Step #2: A current passes to the solenoid on your starter. This solenoid uses the electrical energy to create a strong magnetic field, pulling a plunger to complete the circuit to the starter itself.
Step #3: The small gear in the car starter meshes with the large gear on your engine’s flywheel. Since each cylinder of an internal combustion engine uses the inertia of another cylinder, your engine’s flywheel gives the cylinders that first push.
Step #4: VROOM.
All of that begins with a twitch of the wrist, instead of breaking the wrist. In many newer cars, it’s accomplished by pressing a button. Or even by Bluetooth.
Is the Carter Story Fact or Fiction?
Many consider the story of Byron Carter’s death and the birth of the self-starter a little too neat to be real. A noble industrialist, a tragic death, a friend and fellow industrialist gathers talent to avenge a wrong. Sounds kind of BS-ish. It is not.
There’s no doubt that innovation and brand marketing prompted Leland’s pursuit of the self-starting car. In those early decades of the 20th century, hundreds of different automakers existed, and companies struggled to discover ways of standing out in the flooded market. The self-starting car certainly did. However, Leland was a close friend of Carter, and Kettering’s perfection of a car starter started just after Carter’s death. The story might have tweaks, but it’s 95% true. Sad, but true
Righting the wrong of Carter’s death might not have been Leland’s only motive, but it certainly was one of them.
*A quick note to mechanics or car aficionados reading this article: I used some broad strokes in explaining the inner-workings of starter motors. I did this because general audiences don’t want to get bogged down in a Haynes manual. They just want their cars to get them front Point A to B.