Ask Pop: Car History—When were keys first used to start a car?

Erwin A. Thompson, author of Thompson Western Series and Folk Treasure
Erwin A. Thompson, answer man


When did automobiles first get a keyed start? Were they keyed in 1919, the year of my current novel? Was it a crank, a push button? I have scoured the internet and while there is info abounding on the classic cars, the keyed start seems of no interest to anyone but me. Can anyone help?

Spring Warren
(Look for “TURPENTINE!” coming out September 10th)


First we need to find out what you mean by a “keyed start.” There are two things that you might mean, and the answers are totally different.

1. The fact that a key was needed to energize the sparking system so that the spark plugs will fire and thus propel the machine.

2. The present day system of turning the key and having that energize the starting motor which in turn rotates the engine, compresses the gasoline in the cylinders and ends up with the engine running .

I am 92. My experience with early cars dates back to an International truck that my Grandfather owned that I believe was said to be a 1908 model. I can’t say about the key. Wheels were as big as wagon wheels, with two inch thick solid rubber tires. Two cylinder gasoline engine, belt driven to power it. In later years I saw one like it in the Warp Museum in Minden Nebraska, by far the best museum of old cars that I ever saw.

Model T. Ford, 1915. I knew this machine from early childhood. I drove it in later years. So far as I know it always had a key to energize the spark system. This was a unique arrangement, with a separate coil for each cylinder. If the tension on the coil was not perfect, or if the contcts wer corroded that cylinder would not fire. Take the contacts apart and brighten them up with anything from a small file to scraping them with a pocket knife.

The Ford switch had two settings. One setting was to get the energy from the battery. This was used in the starting cycle. There was a system of magnets and coils in the transmission system that produced electricity after the engine got up to a certain speed. Then you turned the switch over to the magnito setting and used that electricity, thus saving the drain on the battery. I am not sure that the real early models even had a generator. They did not have a starter. No, they didn’t have a generator! I remember, now, there were four dry cell batteries, one for each of the coils described here. I remember the day my Grandfather took his into the Ford place and had the electric starter installed.

They would have then installed the generator and the battery as we know them today and done away with the dry cells.

I can see these things in my mind as I write. I hope that you can see them jump out at you from the screen!

Did you know that the Model T Ford clutch was the basis for the modern automatic transmission?

Having the turning of the key energize the starter probably started sometime in the late sixties. I remember using the foot powered starters on our 1955 model.

To start any of the older models one used the crank. An electric started may have been an option on the 1915 Fords but it was not standard. Another way to start cars on cold mornings was to push them to a hill and energize the gears as they went down it. This turned the engine and hopefully by the time it got to the bottom of the hill the engine had decided to run. Hitching a team of mules to the car was a big help. I used that method many times.

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