The Starter Motor: The No. 1 Aftermarket Part of the 1910s

How a now-standard device was installed as a desired aftermarket accessory

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1913 Ford Model T Roadster
1913 Ford Model T Roadster
Photo: GPS 56/Wikimedia Commons

For most of us, starting our car is (or should be) completely uneventful. You turn a key or press a button, then the engine just starts. However, there was a time when cars had to be manually started. The driver needed to fit a removable handle to the front of an engine’s crankshaft. Then, the handle was turned until the engine began firing.

Hand-cranking an engine was physically demanding, a reason why women were the primary target demographic for early electric cars. It was also dangerous. The motor could backfire and kick the handle back in the starter’s hands. You can just imagine the gruesome injuries that a metal bar thrown at point-blank range by a motor can do to a person. Any alternative was desirable.

While the electric starter motor was first patented in 1911, its adoption was neither immediate nor universal. American manufacturers phased starter motors in as a premium option, and it wouldn’t become standard until the late 1920s. The driving public felt much more enthusiastic about starter motors and wanted to fit them into lower-end models and older vehicles.

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The April 1913 issue of the Horseless Age included a guide to fitting both electric and pneumatic starter motors to those vehicles. The guide’s focus is very general and doesn’t mention any specific vehicle or make. It mainly details the factors and potential difficulties that car owners should consider.

The publication’s first suggestion was for readers not to install starter motors themselves. The author advised that manufacturers should install aftermarket starters at either a factory or a service center. He even noted that models included space in the engine bay and mounting brackets to install a not-yet-invented self-starting device over the past few years. Automotive engineers had the foresight to design vehicles for a potential self-starting device.

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If not able to cooperate with a manufacturer, the author simplistically broke down the preparation process into three steps. Finding space in the engine bay for installation, attaching mounting brackets to the chassis, and devising a mechanical linkage from the starter motor to the crankshaft.

The guide also consistently warns car owners to be wary of not going in over their heads. The allure of standardized starters being seemingly easy to install can quickly hit the reality of trouble installing wiring or fitting a large enough non-standard battery. Even a century later, the reality of car modifications not meeting expectations is still relatable.