Starting cars used to be an art

The way we start cars has changed a lot over the last century. Take a look at how we’ve evolved from hand cranks to keys you don’t even have to take out of your pocket.

28. 3. 2023

The Laurin & Klement Voiturette A from 1905, the first car made in Mladá Boleslav, had a massive crank on the front under the brass radiator, referred to by the German word “Kurbel”. It might seem like a rudimentary device, but in practice it was tricky, even insidious, to use. The following video shows an engine that is over a hundred years old being crank-started. Will it start up on the first try?

There was a lot more to the starting process than simply turning the crank. First, you had to open the brass petrol tap, then move the electric spark plug advance lever on the steering wheel to the start position, then adjust the hand throttle, check that the gear lever was in neutral (to prevent the car from “kangarooing” forwards or backwards), and then turn a key to switch on the electric circuit.

You would have trouble finding an ignition key on the “dashboard” of the L&K BSC sports car - it was crank-started.

Push-start motorcycle

The company based in Mladá Boleslav produced its first motor vehicles way back in 1899. These Slavia motorcycles were originally push-started. That’s because they had a fixed rear-wheel drive system using a leather belt. The option of a clutch only came later, and cost extra. When you wanted the engine to start turning, you had to push the motorbike.

After this ritual, the driver had to walk to the front of the car and bend down to grab the crank. While turning it slowly, he had to guess the correct point to give the crank a sudden yank, based on the resistance from the engine in the compression phase of the cycle. For this to work at all, the crank first had to be pushed towards the engine. The process required both strength and a knack.

Crank-started L&K BSC from 1908

Once the engine was turning over, the driver went back to the steering wheel to keep the still-cold two-cylinder from stalling. It’s a good thing early 20th century engines had low compression ratios and didn’t put up much resistance when revved. As you can see in the video, a properly tuned L&K BSC sports car from 1908 starts on the first try. At the end of your journey, all you had to do was break the electrical ignition circuit by turning the key on the wooden dashboard.

How not to dislocate your thumb

If you’re thinking about buying a truly ancient vintage car, with a crank start, here’s a tip learnt from a painful experience. The crank of a car like this is connected to the pistons via the crankshaft and connecting rods, so when the electric ignition – primitive by today’s standards – backfired and the engine turned the wrong way when the crank was turned hard, the recoil could dislocate or even tear off your thumb. The rule is simple: the thumb must not grasp the crank in opposition to the other fingers, even though this is the natural gripping position for human hands. If your fingers and thumbs are all facing the same direction when you grip the handle, the palm will open on its own in the event of a recoil and shouldn’t suffer much damage.

The arrival of the starter

Around a hundred years ago, electric starters began to be used to a greater extent in cars hailing from Mladá Boleslav. As early as the turn of the 1920s and 1930s, a button was available on L&K cars that fed an electric current into the “toggle starter”. The toggle starter’s pinion was clutched to the toothed ring of the engine flywheel. A later innovation was that the pinion disengaged on the longitudinal axis of the starter. This movement was most reliably activated by a mechanical device, usually a pedal on the floor. This was the case with the pre-war Škoda Rapid or the “Tudor”, the nickname for the Škoda 1101/1102 from the 1940s.

The pre-war Škoda Rapid and the “Tudor” were started with a small pedal to the right of the accelerator.

Pressing down the pedal also closed the electric circuit, so the starter motor started turning. When the pedal was released, a return spring disengaged it and the circuit was broken again. The Tudor’s successor, a popular predecessor to the Octavia nicknamed the “Spartak” (the Škoda 440 of the mid-1950s), used a rod under the steering wheel instead of a pedal.

Transformation of starter systems after the war - here in a Spartak model.

More luxurious cars, though, had pre-engaged starters from the 1920s onwards. One real rarity is the Škoda Hispano-Suiza, the first of which was used by the Czechoslovak president T. G. Masaryk for ten years. The “Hispano” was equipped with two batteries, and each of the independent electrical circuits had its own button on the dashboard. The driver could choose which one to press. If the batteries were weak, he activated both simultaneously.

Crank tricks

Cranks didn’t disappear with the arrival of electric starters in the 1920s. In fact, they remained as a backup option for the next forty years. Experienced motorists would use it first to turn the engine over, especially in winter, only then activating the electric starter. This was done to help out the battery that was weakened by the cold. But there was another trick the crank was good for. If a careless driver ended up in a ditch at the side of the road and there was nobody around to give him a push or tow him out, the trick was to put the car in first, unscrew the spark plugs so there would be no resistance from the compressor, and turn and turn the crank until the car started to crawl forwards, or backwards if in reverse.

Just turn the key!

A real starter milestone in the history of Škoda cars came with the Š 1000/1100 MB model produced from 1964 on. The driver pulled a pair of keys out of his pocket, unlocked the doors with one of them and inserted the other into the ignition lock cylinder, which was now located on the steering column. Turning the key to the next position activated the starter. A simple motion, and one you never forget.

The Škoda 1000/1000 MB ushered in the ignition key in the first half of the 1960s.

The rear-engined Škoda concept produced up to the early 1990s also put the choke in an unusual position – on the floor. This made for a straight-line connection between the choke lever and the carburettor, either by a cable or a steel string. An automatic choke, which put an end to the previously routine procedure for cold starts, appeared briefly on the Š 1000 MB, reappearing again on the Favorit model, i.e. after 1987. 

The keys themselves also underwent a profound evolution. Initially they were simple and therefore easily forged and interchangeable. The flat keys were also a good stand-in for a screwdriver in an emergency. Later, a single-sided key was used, so in the dark drivers had to use their fingertips to feel which way up it should be inserted into the ignition. Double-sided keys made a comeback in the 1990s, and these were much more secure. Starting with the Felicia (1994), the key included an immobiliser, an electronic device that prevented the engine from starting when the wrong key was inserted. One very practical innovation in 1999 was the switch to fold-away keys for the Fabia, which no longer made a hole in your pocket.

Dream start

That brings us into the 21st century. Today’s popular KESSY keyless system first saw the light of day in 2010 as part of the Škoda Superb, the brand’s flagship of the day. The key never has to leave the driver’s pocket – the starter button recognises it wirelessly, so all the driver has to do is press the button. In this way the Superb followed in the footsteps of its homonymous predecessor from the 1930s and ‘40s, which was also started by pressing a button.

Another milestone along the starter systems road - Enyaq iV electric cars.

The latest step on the road to ideal starting is found in Enyaq iV electric cars. The driver doesn’t even have to press a button – he just gets in, puts on his seatbelt, moves the selector to the D position and the car sets off.