Originally, a hand crank was used to start engines, but it was inconvenient, difficult, and dangerous to crank-start an engine. Even though cranks had an overrun mechanism, when the engine started, the crank could begin to spin along with the crankshaft and potentially strike the person cranking the engine. Additionally, care had to be taken to retard the spark in order to prevent backfiring; with an advanced spark setting, the engine could kick back (run in reverse), pulling the crank with it, because the overrun safety mechanism works in one direction only.
Although users were advised to cup their fingers under the crank and pull up, it felt natural for operators to grasp the handle with the fingers on one side, the thumb on the other. Even a simple backfire could result in a broken thumb; it was possible to end up with a broken wrist, or worse. Moreover, increasingly larger engines with higher compression ratios made hand cranking a more physically demanding endeavour.
While the need was fairly obvious - as early as 1899, Clyde J. Coleman applied for U.S. Patent 745,157 for an electric automobile self-starter - inventing one that worked successfully in most conditions did not occur until 1911 when Charles F. Kettering of Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (DELCO) invented and filed for U.S. Patent 1,150,523 for the first useful electric starter. (Kettering had replaced the hand crank on NCR's cash registers with an electric motor five years earlier.) One aspect of the invention lay in the realization that a relatively small motor, driven with higher voltage and current than would be feasible for continuous operation, could deliver enough power to crank the engine for starting. At the voltage and current levels required, such a motor would burn out in a few minutes of continuous operation, but not during the few seconds needed to start the engine. The starters were first installed by Cadillac on production models in 1912. These starters also worked as generators once the engine was running, a concept that is now being revived in hybrid vehicles. The Model T relied on hand cranks until 1919; by 1920 most manufacturers included self-starters.
The electric starter ensured that anyone could easily start and run an internal combustion engine car, and this made it the design of choice for car buyers from that day forward.
The modern starter motor is either a permanent-magnet or a series-parallel wound direct current electric motor with a solenoid switch (similar to a relay) mounted on it. When current from the starting battery is applied to the solenoid, usually through a key-operated switch, it pushes out the drive pinion on the starter driveshaft and meshes the pinion with the ring gear on the flywheel of the engine. Before the advent of key-driven starters, most electric starters were actuated by foot-pressing a pedestal located on the floor, generally above the accelerator pedal.
The solenoid also closes high-current contacts for the starter motor, which begins to turn. Once the engine starts, the key-operated switch is opened, a spring in the solenoid assembly pulls the pinion gear away from the ring gear, and the starter motor stops. The starter's pinion is clutched to its driveshaft through an overrunning sprag clutch which permits the pinion to transmit drive in only one direction. In this manner, drive is transmitted through the pinion to the flywheel ring gear, but if the pinion remains engaged (as for example because the operator fails to release the key as soon as the engine starts), the pinion will spin independently of its driveshaft. This prevents the engine driving the starter, for such backdrive would cause the starter to spin so fast as to fly apart. However, this sprag clutch arrangement would preclude the use of the starter as a generator if employed in hybrid scheme mentioned above; unless modifications are made. Also, a standard starter motor is only designed for intermittent use which would preclude its use as a generator.
This overrunning-clutch pinion arrangement was phased into use beginning in the early 1960s; before that time, a Bendix drive was used. The Bendix system places the starter drive pinion on a helically-cut driveshaft. When the starter motor begins turning, the inertia of the drive pinion assembly causes it to ride forward on the helix and thus engage with the ring gear. When the engine starts, backdrive from the ring gear causes the drive pinion to exceed the rotative speed of the starter, at which point the drive pinion is forced back down the helical shaft and thus out of mesh with the ring gear.
An intermediate development between the Bendix drive developed in the 1930s and the overrunning-clutch designs introduced in the 1960s was the Bendix Folo-Thru drive. The standard Bendix drive would disengage from the ring gear as soon as the engine fired, even if it did not continue to run. The Folo-Thru drive contains a latching mechanism and a set of flyweights in the body of the drive unit. When the starter motor begins turning and the drive unit is forced forward on the helical shaft by inertia, it is latched into the engaged position. Only once the drive unit is spun at a speed higher than that attained by the starter motor itself (i.e., it is backdriven by the running engine) will the flyweights pull radially outward, releasing the latch and permitting the overdriven drive unit to be spun out of engagement. In this manner, unwanted starter disengagement is avoided before a successful engine start.
Chrysler Corporation contributed materially to the modern development of the starter motor. In 1962, Chrysler introduced a starter incorporating a geartrain between the motor and the driveshaft. Rolls Royce had introduced a conceptually similar starter in 1946, but Chrysler's was the first volume-production unit. The motor shaft has integrally-cut gear teeth forming a drive gear which mesh with a larger adjacent driven gear to provide a gear reduction ratio of 3.75:1. This permits the use of a higher-speed, lower-current, lighter and more compact motor assembly while increasing cranking torque. Variants of this starter design were used on most vehicles produced by Chrysler Corporation from 1962 through 1987. The Chrysler starter made a unique, readily identifiable sound when cranking the engine.
This starter formed the design basis for the offset gear reduction starters now employed by about half the vehicles on the road, and the conceptual basis for virtually all of them. Many Japanese automakers phased in gear reduction starters in the 1970s and 1980s. Light aircraft engines also made extensive use of this kind of starter, because its light weight offered an advantage.