I watched out the window one very, very cold morning this past week as one of my kids started a ten year old car. Even though the temperature was -10 F, there was no need to get in, he just leaned in and turned the key. And of course, the eager little Honda fired right up. “How unremarkable” you might think. And you would be right. But this wasn’t always such a drama-free operation.
We have many things to complain about in our modern world. We forget (at least those of us of a certain age do) some of the ways in which life has become so, so much easier. For those of us who live up north, starting an older car on a bitterly cold morning is one of those things.
In the not-too-distant past getting a car started when the temperature plunged to, say, zero degrees (that is minus 18 for those of you who live in Celsius World) was as much of a dark art as a skill. Everyone had a favorite trick or two. I knew some who liked to run an extension cord to the car so as to keep an electric light bulb burning under the hood all night, and others who would resort to bringing the battery into the kitchen to keep it nice and warm until it was needed in the morning. I will confess to using that last one a time or two.
For those who do not remember, almost everything built before the mid 1970s lacked some things that we have come to take for granted today. In those pre-historic times anyone who hoped to get a balky car fired up in really cold weather had to understand the basics of combustion: the need for just the right mix of fuel and air which was mated to a spark to set it all off.
Spark came not from trouble-free electronics but from breaker points, a little mechanical device that opened and closed thousands of times every minute and which degraded measurably over several thousand miles. Points were one of the main reasons everyone went in for a “tune up” every few thousand miles. If they were worn or out of adjustment your margin for error would disappear on a cold morning.
And instead of a modern fuel injection system that precisely meters fuel and squirts it into just the right spots in the engine, we had carburetors. Many a young man expanded his vocabulary because of carburetors, and not in a good way. How more basic can it get than to let gasoline dribble out of a little hole to vaporize while the operator fiddles with the amount of air it got exposed to by working the accelerator pedal and the choke. Not enough gas and it wouldn’t fire. Too much gas and it wouldn’t fire – for another twenty or thirty minutes so that the soaked spark plugs could dry off.
And then there was the battery. I am too young to have lived through the era of 6 volt electric systems (that required double the power draw of the modern 12 volt systems) but even then, many a battery was not up to the task of waking up a really cold engine with its parts mired in oil the consistency of molassas.
Each car was different then. A nice new car was probably fine – just set the choke according to manufacturer directions (usually by a prescribed way of working the gas pedal). But as the car got older the whole thing became a crapshoot. One car might demand constant pumping of the pedal to get enough fuel. Another might flood easily, so pumping of the gas pedal was an absolute no-no. Each of us learned the little idiosyncrasies of our cars by trial and error. And the errors always happened on really cold mornings.
Car starting on a frigid morning was not something anyone approached in a cavalier way. Nobody even thought of just leaning in from outside and turning the key. There were preparations to make. You got in and shut the door. This assumes that your locks had not frozen you out of the cockpit, requiring another twenty minutes to get the door open as you repeatedly heated the key with the flame from a Zippo lighter. You might have looked at the dome light to get an advance read on the strength of your battery.
Then you set the automatic choke. Pushing the gas pedal to the floor and letting it halfway back up usually worked for me no matter what the car. Then it was time to turn the key and hope for the best. If you were a person inclined to prayer, this was a good time for one. The moment you first turned that key provided suspense on a level with anything Alfred Hitchcock ever dreamed up.
The most depressing sound was when your battery was unable to give you more than a single “Ruhr” followed by some clicks. Bad words usually followed. Although depressing and a pain in the rear, this problem was often the most easily fixed of anything you might encounter during the ordeal. If you were lucky you had jumper cables in the trunk and another car nearby to provide some juice.
If The Force was with you, the starter would labor mightily to crank the engine over as you listened intently for signs of life. If you got nothing after six or ten sloooow revs, then maybe another pump of the pedal. The slightest cough or change in sound indicated that good things were possible, though far from assured. It was essential that you played your cards right with just the right rhythm of gas pedal and ignition key to have any chance of the car starting before your frigid battery ran out of enthusiasm. Not everyone can win consistently at poker and not everyone could start a reluctant car in subzero temperatures.
If all else failed (as it did for even the best at one time or another) you faced a choice. If you had the luxury of time, “let’s try after the day warms up a little” was the play. If you really had to get somewhere it was time to call Vic at the Shell station and see if he could send someone out. Or, if you were someone with more mechanical inclination than money, it was time to bundle up and figure it out.
Maybe it was a frozen gas line. Modern gasolines with alcohol added have largely eliminated the scourge of water in the fuel system. Then there was the possibility that some critical part became brittle with cold and broke. I spent a day during my senior year of college dealing with this one. It was too cold for the University to hold classes but not too cold to spend a couple of hours to pull and replace a distributor with a crumbled plastic gear. In an alley. The worst part of that process was pulling the replacement from the windy junkyard because the alley at least had some houses around to break the wind. It was a miserable day and my hands are stiffening up just thinking about it.
Today, so long as you have some charge in your battery and some gas in your tank you just turn that key or press that button. All hail the automotive engineers of the world who have largely freed us from the curse of “will it or won’t it start this morning.”
As I have gotten older I have noticed that more and more of the skills honed in my youth have become obsolete. Starting balky cold cars used to be something I was really good at. This has, however, become a skill that almost nobody needs any more. And this is a trade-off that I am very happy to make.