With all of the electronic automotive conveniences we have today, it’s hard to believe that electric starting and lighting debuted 104 years ago on the 1912 Cadillac. In those days, the ritual of starting an automobile required patience, finesse, strength, and agility.
Let me describe the process. First, check that the transmission is in neutral. Second, make sure the ignition is off. Third, retard the spark lever on the right-hand side of the steering wheel and advance the throttle lever on the left-hand side of the steering wheel to an extent known only after experience. Fourth, move to the front of the auto and prime the engine by cranking two half-turns from the 6 to 12 o’clock positions. Fifth, go back and turn the ignition on. Sixth, properly grasp the crank with the thumb overlapping the first fingers to prevent an injury from back-firing and crank the engine one or two turns. If your luck is good, the engine starts. Lastly, quickly spring to the controls, advance the spark and retard the throttle before the engine dies. Whew, I’m tired already.
Even though this routine might be carefully followed, the hazard remains of the engine back-firing with the consequent backward kick of the crank causing injury.
Here’s an example. On a December day in 1910, a lone woman drove through Belle Isle Park in Detroit, Michigan. She took an incline too slowly and stalled the engine. Byron T. Carter of the Carter Car Co. stopped to help by cranking the motor for her. Not realizing that the spark had not been retarded, he turned the crank and the engine back-fired. Lashing back, the crank broke his arm and smashed his face and jaw. Although Mr. Carter’s broken jaw and arm did not seem to be serious, he died within a few weeks from complications caused by pneumonia.
Upon hearing of this incident, Henry M. Leland, general manager of the Cadillac Division of General Motors Corporation, felt that no other automotive improvement was more urgent than a mechanical starter. He proclaimed to his engineering staff. “The Cadillac car will kill no more men if we can help it. Lay all the other projects aside. We are going to develop a fool-proof device for starting Cadillac motors.”
Cadillac engineers worked with fury to design a suitable system for their car, but were unable to devise a starter motor small enough to fit under the hood of their car. Then, Earl C. Howard, Cadillac assistant sales-manager, recalled Charles F. Kettering of Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, later known as Delco. Kettering had previously designed a high-torque motor with an over-running clutch for cash registers.
Kettering was summoned to Detroit to review Cadillac engineering developments. He then returned to Dayton, Ohio, to develop a suitable starter motor and clutch. Cadillac engineers and Kettering assembled back in Detroit on February 27, 1911, when their systems were installed. The ignition switch was thrown, and the engine throbbed instantly to life.
Perfecting the system took more experimentation and testing. Formal announcement of the 1912 Cadillac with the new electric starting and lighting system was August 20, 1911. Contractually Cadillac had exclusive right to the system for one year. In 1913, Cole, Hudson, Jackson, Oakland, Oldsmobile, and Packard all used the system. Other manufacturers quickly followed.
So, the next time you instantly start your car with automatic lighting systems, your might think back to the days before the innovation of electric starting and lighting on the 1912 Cadillac. Happy motoring.