About two hundred years ago, if you wanted to go for a drive in your own vehicle, you climbed aboard and, with that subtle communication of touch between horse’s mouth and horseman’s hand, you alerted your horse to expect a command and reminded him—”take notice, horse”—that you were in charge. Then you slackened the reins and made an appropriate sound—maybe “get up, ” or maybe just a barely audible cluck. In response to this the trained beast set his four legs in motion and you were under way. Very, very simple.
Today we slide into our car and turn the key in the switch. The motor roars to life—most times, anyway—and we’re off. Simpler yet? Not really. A look under the hood at all the devices, hoses and wires crammed in there will remind you that this apparent simplicity is actually very, very complex.
In the time intervening between these two contrasts there was an extended period when starting an automobile was a more involved, yet quite standardized, procedure. That period varied in duration with different makes of car. I will confine my reminiscences that follow to the Model T Ford. Fords remained basically unchanged year after year, the longest of any. In my boyhood where I lived there seemed to be more Fords than any other make, hence it was with Fords that I had most experience. The other makes operated similarly at some briefer times in their history.
The way you began was, first, to “give ‘er a little gas.” The inflow of gasoline and the timing of the spark were regulated by two iron levers sliding along two iron quarter-circles mounted on the steering column and notched for calibration. With the gas lever you opened the throttle, say, three notches on the quadrant. You also retarded the spark by moving the other lever down about three notches too, so it would not fire prematurely during the starting process.
Then you left the driver’s seat and moved outside to the front of the vehicle. There you would find a little wire with a ring on its end, protruding near the bottom of the radiator. That controlled the choke. Using it, you closed the choke. Now you were ready to “turn ‘er over.”
The electrical source on the Model T was a magneto, an imposing array of magnets arranged around the perimeter of the flywheel. With a Model T as it came off the assembly line, you were in theory supposed to be able to “start ‘er on the mag, ” meaning that the spark generated by the magneto was expected, all by its sometimes-feeble self, to ignite whatever gasoline mixture entered the sometimes deathly-cold cylinder. Hah! Hah! again, producing “Hah hah!” In fact, you could really do this—under ideal conditions, such as a hot day, a well warmed-up engine, oil free-flowing and gasoline vaporizing instantly. Otherwise, forget it. Sometimes, of course, you could still do it due to those inexplicable, unpredictable whims that were standard equipment on the T-Fords. These whims sometimes made things happen that, by the best of logic and reason, shouldn’t happen. But not often.
While this electrical source produced more or less of a spark, it could not go so far, of course, as to turn over the engine. Human muscle applied to the crank had to do that. So, to get on with starting, you engaged the hand crank with the crankshaft by means of a primitive, spring-loaded toothed clutch. There was a certain way you held the crank, nullifying the opposable aspect of the human thumb so that, in the event of a kick-back your hand would be flung free instead of your arm broken. Everybody knew somebody who’d had a broken arm from cranking a car. First you tried by cranking in quarter-turns. You pulled it through a quarter-turn, then released and reengaged, ratchet-fashion, and so on. Rarely on the first pull, but often after only a few, the engine responded. “Ooh-huck, ooh-huck, ooh-huck” it said a few times. Then the pop of an explosion. You hoped this would be followed by more pops in rapid, steady succession, telling you “she’s running.”
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