The usual method of starting was, give her two or three quarter turns at full choke and then spin her as fast as you could. If you were lucky it would start and continue to run until you could get in, behind the wheel and advance the “spark”. They didn’t have automatic ignition advance at that time, in fact it was not ignition; it was “spark”.
There was no accelerator pedal on the floor, the lever on the right side of the steering column took care of that function. The more expensive cars probably had such things, but not the Model T. Actually, the Model T was probably the most practical automobile that has ever been built. They didn’t have anything that was not absolutely necessary, to perform the task that autos were meant to perform. That was to get you from one place to another, with no regard for comfort, safety or convenience.

I could go to great lengths to explain the ignition system of the Model T, but suffice to say that the electromotive force originated in the back-end of the engine housing. There were several permanent magnets located in close proximity to several field coils. Now, according to someone’s theory, if you pass an electrical conductor through a magnetic field, or a magnetic field past an electrical conductor, it will cause a current to flow in the conductor. And by golly, do you know, that is just what happened. That is, it happened that way until the main bearings in the engine became worn so much that it allowed excessive end-play of the crankshaft. When that happened, the gap between the magnets and the field coils became so great that the magnets were just cutting air, splashing oil and not cutting enough lines of force to generate a voltage, high enough to make her fire.

There were, however, ways to circumvent this low voltage problem.

  1. A Hot Shot Battery
  2. Jack up a rear wheel
  3. Either tow it or push it down a hill

Method number (1): The hot shot battery was made up of four 1-1/2 volt, dry cell batteries. These were not the kind of dry batteries that you get in the drug store today. Each of the cells was about 2-1/2 inches in diameter and six or seven inches long. The combination of the four cells provided an EMF of six volts. When Henry designed those cars, he must have recognized the need for the hot-shot batteries, because he put a double throw switch on the dash. To the right was on the magneto and to he left was on the battery. I think that most everyone used a hot-shot, because they were handy, they provided ample power and they fit very nicely, at the end of the gasoline tank. In most cases, if all systems were “go”, the hot-shot was probably the most reliable method to get one started.

The starting procedure for one of those machines was to turn the switch to the battery position (left), get her started and then turn the switch over to the magneto (right). That was the correct method, however, once in a great while, when you turned the switch to battery and then pushed the spark lever up, the darned thing would start up all by itself, with no help from the crank. Now there is a sound, scientific reason for that. One of the few things that the Model T did that there was any reason for, at all.

The reason for this involuntary, unassisted, start-up was very simple for a Model T, but virtually impossible for any other car to perform. Each cylinder had it’s own spark coil that was made up of a set of vibrating points, a transformer and a condenser. When a voltage was impressed on the coil it would cause the points to make and break very rapidly, which impressed an interrupted direct current on the primary winding of the transformer, causing it to deliver a high voltage to the spark plug of the cylinder that the timer had scheduled to fire next. Now if the engine had just recently been shut down and the piston of the cylinder due to fire next was just past top dead center, when you put her on battery and pushed the spark lever up, it would make contact in the timer, the coil would buzz, and if there was any gas vapor in the combustion chamber, she would take off.

Method number (2): In case the hot-shot battery was not available, the “jacked up rear wheel was probably the next, most effective solution for getting things under way. It should be remembered that I have previously made mention of the excessive main bearing wear and the clearance between the magnets and the field coils in the magneto. Incidentally, this was not really a magneto, it was actually a very crude, alternating current generator. But back to the jacked up rear wheel.

One of the intricacies of the operating system was that when you released the hand break lever and let it all of the way forward, it compressed the discs of the planetary transmission, and put the drive train into the high drive mode. This pressure, on the clutch plates would also put a forward thrust on the crankshaft, and close up the excessive gap between the magnets and the field coils. The trouble here was that you were now in high gear so you didn’t dare to try to crank it, it would run over you, so you would jack up one of the rear wheels and block the other one. You then cranked it up and if it started, you got in, pulled the spark lever down to a predetermined point, and pulled the brake lever all the way up. This would put the transmission in neutral and stop the spinning, jacked up, rear wheel. You would then get out again, let the jack down, and you were ready to go. I remember that I went through that exact start-up procedure with my 1917 Model T, on one of the main streets, (Burdick) in down town Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Method number (3): The push-her-down-hill method had essentially the same effect as the jacked-up rear wheel method except that you stayed inside, out of harms way. However, if it didn’t start by the time that you reached the bottom of the hill, you then activated plan Method number (2).

I think that it was about 1918 when they first put starters and generators on Model Ts, and equipped them with storage batteries.