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How do you start this thing?

I thought this might evoke some nostalgia, and at least provide some entertainment. I received a call today from a friend, a young lady in her 40’s. She just bought a new car and was excited to tell me it doesn’t use a key to start, but rather a push button. I informed her that up through 1949, all Chrysler products activated the starter with a button on the dashboard. When Chrysler introduced ignition key starting in 1950 it was noted as a big deal! I further told her that many GM products of the late 1940’s and very early 1950’s started with a foot pedal. I continued on with the topic, explaining that in many cases in the 1950’s you needed to look in the owners manual to learn how to start the car. Some more examples: Buick from 1950-1959 started by pressing the accelerator more than 70%. There was a switch on the carburetor to accomplish this. Some years of Studebaker started by pushing the clutch pedal to the floor. I don’t know how they started automatic cars. In 1956, Nash’s starter was activated by lifting the hydramatic selector lever. The final one I remember was the 1957 Chrysler which activated the starter by pushing the Neutral button past a detent. Does anyone know of others?

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Heh, heh. What’s this thing called a “choke”? Still got one on my lawn mower and snow blower which can be baffling to some. Pull choke out, pump the gas a couple times, clutch in, step on starter, and listen to the weak 6 volt motor turn the engine over. When it’s 20 below out though, you’d better do it right 'cause you only get one shot of about 10 seconds and that’s it.

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How 'bout the 1951 Hoffman?

See that thing by the driver’s right hip that you were thinking is a seatbelt? Nope. That’s the starter.


1950s MGs had a T handle in the center of the dash connected to a cable that operated the mechanical starter switch mounted on the right fender well. The switch had 3/8" copper contacts that could be filed when pitting caused problems. And like so many cars of that time the starter would operate without the key being turned on. There was a hand crank in the trunk if needed.

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I seem to recall our family’s late 1950’s Chrysler Windsor cranked by pressing a button on the floorboard with your left foot. I’ve got my 90’s Corolla set so I press a button on the dashboard to crank it.

Well, you left out the hand crank, my stepfather had a 29 Model A that the starter went on, he saw no reason to spend money on a starter when he was feeding a ravenous 6 ft 200 lb. twelve year old (me). Every day before the school bus picked me up I would start him on the way to work where he parked on a hill.

The first day, I used the hand crank, which promptly gave me a terrible whack in the forearm. After that I told him I would just push him to a start on the driveway.

Fast forward 4 years and at sixteen I was a 6’ 3" 225 part time helper on a furniture and appliance delivery truck. The truck was a 16’ box om a F500 ford chassis. The starter went on that and there I was again , pushing something to a start. When the boss dropped me at home, I told him that if he didn’t have a new starter in it tomorrow, not to pick me up.

I left out the handcrank as I was most fascinated by 1950’s gadgetry. I also neglected the Startix device by Bendix, wch automatically restarted the engine in the event of a stall. It was available both OEM and as an aftermarket accessory in the 1930’s.

I think the Fords from 1940 and possibly earlier through 1946 were ahead of the times. There was a pushbutton starter. There was an off/on toggle switch on the steering column. When you used the key to lock the ignition switch, you also locked the steering column. Ford dropped this system in 1947, but years later, cars had to be equipped with steering column locks.
My 1947 Pontiac and my 1950 Chevrolet pickup had starters activated by floor pedal. Depressing the pedal pushed the starter pinion into the flywheel and closed the starter switch. There were no starter solenoids or relays to go bad.

@Triedaq Do you recall when GM gave up this arrangement?

@old_mopar_guy. The Chevrolet and Pontiac went to a pushbutton to activate the starter in 1949. I think the Chevrolet truck had a foot pedal operator through 1954. All GM cars except Buick went to a combination ignition switch and starter switch in 1953. Buick held onto the accelerator activated starter through the 1960 models, then for 1961 had the combination starter switch and ignition switch.
Chrysler corporation pioneered the combined ignition switch and starter switch in 1949. My dad had a 1949 Dodge with this feature.
One interesting note: the 1948 Pontiac with the Hydramatic automatic transmission had a lever system that shoved the gear selector into neutral when the starter pedal was depressed. The early Hydramatic had no park position. One put the selector in reverse when the car was parked.
I know that the 1947 Oldsmobile had a pushbutton to activate the starter. Also, the 1940 Hudson activated the starter by pulling a knob on the dashboard.
One reason was the floor pedal starter system was abandoned was that it was difficult to adapt the system to an automatic transmission where a neutral safety switch is needed. I am not sure what provisions GMC made for its Hydramatic equipped pickups in 1953 or Chevrolet made for Hydramatic equipped pickups in 1954.
The Dodge pickups still had a foot pedal starter in 1951. Dodge did offer fluid drive on the pickups but the fluid drive retained the clutch pedal.

It was also fun finding out how to fill the gas tank in some of those cars from the late 50’s.

Yes, Chevy did a good job hiding the fillers in 56, 57, & 58. Caddy frequently hid them under a tail light during the 50’s.

I’m not going to tell the story again about my Mom borrowing my 59 VW and my Uncle at the gas station, but the gas tank was under the hood (front luggage compartment). So you had to open the hood to find the tank and the gas cap. And you shouldn’t store stuff in there you didn’t want your mother to see.

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Continuing the discussion from How do you start this thing?:

I had a 1954 Ford. Blue with one red door.
Yu started it by rolling down a hill r getting someone t push you.
Who needs a starter?

My wife’s 1924 Overland has a starter button on the floor under her feet. You need to turn on the ignition key. When you step on the button a fork pushes the Bendix gear into the flywheel gear and the starter cranks. When the engine fires the gear is pushed back out of the flywheel gear. My 1930 Studebaker has a pedal on the floor. You must first turn on the ignition key. You push the pedal to the floor which engages the starter gear into the flywheel and pushes the button to supply electricity to the starter. When the engine fires you pull your foot off the starter pedal. My 1937 Chevy had a starterator. You pushed the started pedal to the floor like in the Studie. It engaged the Bendix gear into the flywheel teeth and pushed the electric button to supply power to the starter motor just like the Studie. When the engine fired a vacuum system in the carb cut the starter power. My 1958 Buick had the electrical switch in the carb like the Chevy but you pushed the gas pedal to the floor.

And if you flooded the engine you held the accelerator pedal to the floor and cranked the engine.

My family’s '39 Plymouth was started by depressing a fourth floor pedal located to the left of the clutch. It also had vacuum operated wiper motors mounted above the split windshields, waiting engage your forehead and a speedometer whose illumination color varied from green to yellow to red with speed.

Our '51 Chevy had an always hot starter pushbutton at the lower left dash position as did my grandfather’s '50 Pontiac, later to be my college car. On my 5th birthday my grandfather and dad briefly left me alone while purchasing ice cream - I slipped behind the wheel with the fantasy of driving it, pushed the starter and jumped a curb just as they were emerging from the store. I wasn’t allowed behind the wheel for the next 10 yrs.

Off topic but we had the vacuum wipers in our 60 Falcon. Step on the gas and the wipers would stop. Kinda had to be careful in a storm. I like the idea of the changing colors on the dash. My Pontiac is always red. I told the salesman I didn’t like red instruments but he said I’d get used to it. I did and I like it now for some reason.

My dad had a 1940 Chrysler Royal, bottom of the line model. It had a pushbutton starter as opposed to a floor pedal starter as a Pontiac had. The Chrysler had electric wipers. My 1968 Javelin still had vacuum wipers.
Many cars did have a vacuum booster section which did keep the wipers going under acceleration, but it seems to me that set up would be as expensive as electric wipers and a fuel pump with no vacuum booster section.
The only reason I can think of that manufacturers stuck with vacuum wipers is that the electrical system didn’t have the capacity to handle electric wipers.