Question on early autos

I’ve just been watching a 1927 movie by Roy del Ruth entitled The First Auto. (The title isn’t descriptive of the first actual automobile, simply the first one to appear in a rural community.)

In one scene the new owner is behind the wheel reading instructions on how to start the car. The intertitle reads:

  1. Open the throttle
  2. Retard the spark
  3. Connect the switch
  4. Crank the engine

OK, opening the throttle and cranking the engine I get. Retarding the spark I assume means pulling the plug towards you but what does ‘connect the switch mean’? (Bear in mind I don’t know much about modern cars either.) Connect what switch?

Retarding the spark (usually with a slider) moves the distributor to make the plugs spark sooner than they do when the engine is running.

Connect the switch was the early way of turning on the ignition - no keys back then.

Anyone with a petrol mower would be familiar with the procedure.

Thank you, bob++, I didn’t know that ignition keys weren’t used then. I’m old enough to remember cars being cranked in England in the 50s.

BTW when I googled for cranking just now to remind myself about the process one of the results was this Wikipedia article on cranking fetish. Apparently some guys get off on watching women crank cars. It’s a strange world we live in. :slight_smile:

Early engines had on the fly ignition timing adjustment …

Don’t you mean make the plugs spark later, bob++? What I’m finding online states that you wanted the engine to fire late, because there wasn’t enough momentum when hand cranking to keep the crankshaft rotating against the force of the explosion and you risked it kicking backwards.

When you had the car running you advanced the spark to the ideal ignition timing, but if you didn’t retard it the first ignition would knock the handle backwards and potentially hurt you.

I’m surprised there isn’t an instruction for setting the choke. Most cars back then had one.

If you look at a Model T it looks like it has the standard control layout of a modern car, but it doesn’t. It has three pedals on the floor, but they aren’t the clutch, brake, and accelerator pedal that you might expect them to be. Instead, the brake is where the accelerator pedal should be, and the other two pedals are the gear selection pedal and the reverse pedal.

Instead of having an accelerator pedal, there’s a throttle lever up by the steering wheel. There’s also a timing lever on the other side of the wheel. As you drive, you adjust the timing and throttle as needed. Timing levers were replaced by an automated vacuum timing advance on carburetor-type cars, and those have been replaced with modern computer-controlled timing. On a Model T, basically, the faster you are going and the harder the engine is working, the more you advance the timing lever. You kinda have to drive it by feel, adjusting the timing to make the engine run best for varying speeds and load conditions (uphill or downhill, for example, or smooth or bumpy roads).

You start a Model T by setting the choke, giving the engine a slow quarter-turn or so to prime the carburetor, then turning the key to either battery or magneto, which determines where the car gets its power for the spark. Retard the timing, set the throttle lever to idle, then pull back on the hand brake to put the car in neutral. Now the fun part. Go to the front of the car and give it a crank, making sure to use your left hand, because it might backfire and if you use your right hand, the angle of your arm and such will make it much more likely that the backfire will break your arm. Later Model Ts were equipped with an electric starter, but could still be hand-cranked for those who wanted to risk broken bones (or had a problem with their starter).

Amazing that today you can just push a button while leaving the key (remote) in your pocket. Compare that to all of the gymnastics engineer_comp_geek outlined above, and which are shown in all their annoying glory here: Secret Life Of Machines - Internal Combustion Engine (Full Length) - YouTube

In one of the Laurel & Hardy films you can see him fiddling with the manual advance and retard while Hardy is peering at the engine - with the inevitable backfire as a result.

Unless it’s warm, you may want to give the motor a few revolutions with ignition off to prime the cylinders.

As bad as all that sounds, they really are not so bad to start up

Given the state of battery tech back then, might want to consider the crank still a necessity and the electric starter a novelty :smiley:

The Volvo I bought new in 1970 still had a hand choke. The first half inch was actually a hand throttle and then it changed the mix. You were advised that you should pull it out when starting especially in cold weather. But then push it back in after a few blocks. And if you forgot you were reminded by the fast idle the first time you stopped at a light.

When I started driving in 1953, there was always a bit of doubt whether your car would start. Unless your battery runs dead, this simply doesn’t happen to modern cars. I never hand cranked a car, so I don’t know what that was like. But our earliest cars had both hand choke and hand throttle.

Gears ? These tension belts on or off their drive wheels.
gears have teeth.

The Model T had a two-speed planetary gear transmission.

To be honest, I’m a little fuzzy on exactly how it worked, but this page goes into great detail about it and even has a nifty animation that you can play with and watch how the pedals and handbrake affect the planetary gear system.

ok , if forward had gears… yeah I should have said “not all was gears back then”.
Model T “reverse” was a belt ? and doubled as a clutch ? Well some of the cars had that.
The instructions for aircraft was “contact”. This is the same as “switch” , it enables spark and other electrics. See, the mechanic may have wanted to prime the cylinders with some fuel, or otherwise adjust or test things, by cranking the engine over knowing there was no spark or glow plug on.

Then when he wanted to actually start the engine, turn on the electrics, and then crank the engine over in a careful fashion to avoid injury that might occur when the engine starts (due to movement of propellor, belts, gears,crank handle…)

I once got a ride in a Model-T. From what I remember the gear selector pedal was towards the driver when released and that was high gear. Push the pedal forward and it’s low gear. Release the pedal and it will automatically go to high. So it was only meant for getting started and you drove around in high.

The clutch was a lever outside the car and it had a ratchet so you would pull it to disengage the clutch and it would stay disengaged until you pushed the release lock.

The distributor was neat as it was in a wooden box inside the car, driven by a shaft coming from the rear of the engine. You could remove the lid while the engine was running and watch it send the spark to the right cylinder.

What surprised me was how quickly the car got up to 40 mph. It could actually keep up with traffic on city streets. Although the owner said it didn’t have much more than 40-45mph in it. I guess you could make it go a little faster than that, but it didn’t like it.

On the topic of manual chokes: I once had a 1987 Peugeot 205. It was still carbureted and had a manual choke. Wasn’t a big deal, pull it before starting it cold, and push it in during the first few minutes of driving. It was a gutless wonder but consistently got 36 mpg city.

Nice descriptions on driving a Model T. Anyone that thinks they could just climb in and start to drive one would be horribly disappointed. I have driven a Model T.

CMIIW but wasn’t the (we’ll say) modern configuration for a car’s basic operation instituted with the Model A?

The Model A had the controls where we expect them now (clutch, brake, accelerator), but I thought it was Cadillac that came up with that configuration.

Off to google!

I was right. It was the Cadillac type 53, introduced in 1916, that was the first car to have the controls in a modern-type layout. It took more than a decade for it to become popular, though.

The Model A was the first Ford to have that layout.

Mazda RX7s with a 12a engine had a manual choke. It did however automatically push in when the engine warmed up.

My parents’ Renault 4 had a hand crank for emergency starts. Same era.

My father’s right arm was broken three times by Model Ts.
I’ve driven many cars with manual chokes and one with hand crank–a 1959 Renault Dauphine. I used it a couple of time just to show off. Properly adjusting electric chokes was quite a chore back in the good-old-days.

I have a 2009 Yamaha motorcycle with a manual choke. IIRC bikes under 280cc are exempt from emissions regulations.