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Starting Handle

A car accessory which could make a comeback!

A car starting handle is/was a mechanical crank handle by which a person may manually turn the engine of a car, so as to start the engine even if the battery is flat and/or the starter motor has failed. The practicality of this approach and the handiness with which it can get you out of the predicament of being stuck and in need of calling for the breakdown recovery services are undeniable. So, it seems strange to think that starting handles have been obsoleted by car manufacturers. When something's a good idea, it deserves better than to be forsaken.

If you don't know what a starting handle is, and you've never heard of this idea, take a look at old silent movies where vintage cars can be seen started up. The driver would prime the engine, then get out and go round to the front, turn the handle to start the engine, and then get back into the driving seat.

In later times, cars of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s had a starter-motor, so could be started by pressing a button on the dashboard. However, good design being what it was, they still had a starting handle as a backup, just in case the battery was flat. It was only later that car manufacturers decided to cease having starting handles supplied as standard. Maybe they thought it looked oldfashioned, or made the car look as if it wasn't reliable. It's a bit like the idea of lifeboats. A while ago, it was decided that ships were now so reliable that they didn't need so many lifeboats. However, after the sinking of the Titanic, the "no backup plan" idea was dropped, and all ships had lifeboats. In the same way that no ships are regarded as "unsinkable", cars should not be regarded as so reliable that they'll never fail.

There is no shame in a new car design including a starting handle. It makes good sense, and recognises the practical facts of the situation of car reliability and failsafe. Some day, some brave designer will re-invent the starting handle on a car, and it will become the new marketing plan. It's sort of "We're not so arrogant as to assume you'll never need a starting handle".

When does a car need a starting handle?

Typically what happens is the battery goes flat. Either the battery has failed, or frost has got to it, or the alternator hasn't managed to generate enough electricity to keep it charged up, or the fanbelt has failed, etc. There are a variety of mechanical situations which can occur, and they DO occur, just as they always did. The fact is that to start a car engine electrically requires a lot of power, and starter motors are hard-pushed to do the job. The battery is also typically well under-size to provide such power. Add to that any further problem, and it's not going to start. This is where the driver may consider resorting to the traditional solutions of bump-start, where a set of willing volunteers push the vehicle until it's going fast enough to engage the clutch and start the engine. (Automatics can't be bump-started). In absence of being lucky enough to have stalled on a downward hill, there is a situation of powerlessness, and it would be handy to give the engine a turn manually.

Difficulties with use of a starting handle

In a practical sense, there is an issue of human strength versus engine size. A person of average strength can start a small car engine with a starting handle. However, the bigger the engine, the more strength is required.

Another issue, which is important, is the safety aspect. If you are going to turn a car engine with a handle, you should have your thumb on the same side of the handle as your fingers. This doesn't feel natural to anyone with an opposing-thumb, but honestly it's the correct procedure. The reason is this: If the engine backfires, you can be injured if you've got your thumb and fingers on the opposite sides of the handle. If you've got them on the same side, then even if the engine backfires, the handle will push harmlessly out of the way. (You also have to make sure you're in neutral and that the handbrake is on (so you don't get run over), and on very early cars there was also a special mode for starting, as distinct from driving).

The starting handle would usually fit through a hole in the front of the vehicle body, and onto a special fitment on the front of the engine. This was of the form of a one-way rotation fitting, with a pair of pins like a bayonet-fit. So, if the engine started, it would release the handle.

If this all sounds dangerous, then how about the way some aeroplanes have to have the propeller spun manually and the word "CONTACT!" shouted at the right moment?!

More things like this can be seen at Revivo and Considerate Design

Also see Manual Preheat for diesel engines.