Automobile self starter

An automobile self-starter (commonly "starter motor" or simply "starter") is an electric motor that initiates rotational motion in a car's internal combustion engine before it can power itself.


Both Otto cycle and Diesel cycle internal-combustion engines require the pistons to be moving before the ignition phase of the cycle. This means that the engine must be set in motion by an external force before it can power itself. Originally, a hand crank was used to start engines, but it was inconvenient and rather hard work to crank the engine up to speed. It was also highly dangerous.

Even though cranks had an overrun mechanism to prevent it, when the engine started, the crank could begin to spin along with the crankshaft. Additionally, care had to be taken to retard the spark in order to prevent backfiring: with wrong settings, 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 endeavor.

While the need was fairly obvious — as early as 1899, Clyde J. Coleman applied for 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 Electric Laboratories (DELCO) invented and filed for for the first useful electric starter. 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 IC car, and this made it the design of choice for car buyers from that day to this.

Electric starter

The modern starter motor is either a permanent-magnet or a series- or 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.

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.

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.

Gear-reduction starters

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 1970's and 1980's. Light aircraft engines also made extensive use of this kind of starter, because its light weight offered an advantage. Those starters not employing offset geartrains like the Chrysler unit generally employ planetary epicyclic geartrains instead. Direct-drive starters are almost entirely obsolete owing to their larger size, heavier weight and higher current requirements. Ford also issued a nonstandard starter, a direct-drive "movable pole shoe" design that provided cost reduction rather than electrical or mechanical benefits. This type of starter eliminated the solenoid, replacing it with a movable pole shoe and a separate starter relay. The Ford starter operated as follows:

  1. The operator closed the key-operated starting switch.
  2. A small electric current flowed through the starter relay coil, closing the contacts and sending a large current to the starter motor assembly.
  3. One of the pole shoes, hinged at the front, linked to the starter drive, and spring-loaded away from its normal operating position, swung into position. This moved a pinion gear to engage the flywheel ring gear, and simultaneously closed a pair of heavy-duty contacts supplying current to the starter motor winding.
  4. The starter motor cranked the engine until it started. An overrunning clutch in the pinion gear uncoupled the gear from the ring gear.
  5. The operator released the key-operated starting switch, cutting power to the starter motor assembly.
  6. A spring retracted the pole shoe, and with it, the pinion gear.

This starter was used on Ford vehicles from 1973 through 1990, when a gear-reduction unit conceptually similar to the Chrysler unit replaced it.

Pneumatic starter

Some gas turbine engines and Diesel engines, particularly on trucks, use a pneumatic self-starter. The system consists of a geared turbine, an air compressor and a pressure tank. Compressed air released from the tank is used to spin the turbine, and through a set of reduction gears, engages the ring gear on the flywheel, much like an electric starter. The engine, once running, powers the compressor to recharge the tank.

Another method, for large diesel engines, uses additional valves in cylinder heads. Compressed air is let in the cylinders so that its pressure pushes pistons down when appropriate; at the upward piston movement, air is discharged through normal exhaust valves.

Since large trucks typically use air brakes, the system does double duty, supplying compressed air to the brake system. Pneumatic starters have the advantages of delivering high torque, mechanical simplicity and reliability. They eliminate the need for oversized, heavy storage batteries in prime mover electrical systems.

Auxiliary starter engine

A large, high power Diesel engine, such as those used in off-road heavy equipment, may have a small gasoline-powered engine attached to the side as a starter.

These were also sometimes called pony engines. On some applications, they shared the same cooling system and oil supply. As the pony engine warmed up, it circulated warm coolant and warm oil in the diesel engine. In addition to making it easier to crank, it improved the service life.

Static-start engine

Another way to provide for shutting off a car's engine when it is stopped, then immediately restarting it when it's time to go, is by employing a static-start engine. Such an engine requires no starter motor, but employs sensors to determine the exact position of each piston, then precisely timing the injection and ignition of fuel to turn over the engine.

See also



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