Detroit, Michigan – The self-starter, a Cadillac invention that helped motorists easily start their cars, has turned 100 years old. The electric starter debuted in the 1912 Cadillac Touring Edition.
Prior to the self-starter’s introduction, gasoline cars had to have their crankshafts hand-cranked. “Hand-cranking was the number-one injury risk in those early days of the automobile,” said Greg Wallace, director of the General Motors Heritage Center. If the crank handle kicked back, it could break an arm or worse. As engines grew larger, it was difficult to crank them, which gave rise to the term “cranky,” which often described someone’s mood after struggling to start a car.
Cadillac founder Henry M. Leland, who had already pioneered electric lights and electric ignition on his cars, worked closely with Charles F. Kettering, inventor of the electric starter, to incorporate the device into his cars. The electric starter was also GM’s first electric motor.
“It was one of the most significant innovations in the history of the automobile,” Wallace said. “It was a complete game changer. Within a few years, Cadillac featured women in their advertising showing them as drivers, instead of passengers or bystanders.”
The electric starter also established the gasoline engine as the industry standard. Steam-powered and electric cars were popular with drivers as they didn’t have to be cranked, but fell out of favour once gasoline cars could be easily started.