The last post praised the invention of electric windshield wipers. Another great invention we take for granted is the automatic choke. Chokes were once a knob on the dashboard we pulled out to start the car on a cold morning. The hard part was remembering to push it back in after about five minutes when the engine warmed up to operating temperature. Manual chokes are still used on lawnmower engines, but these warm up almost immediately and “unchoking” is easier to remember.
My grandparents called their car the “machine,” as indeed it was. They would say something like, “After church, we drove out to Fernwood Cemetery in the machine.”
My mother’s Chevy two-door, the first car I drove, had both a choke knob and a hand throttle. It, too, was a knob on the dash that we pulled out. It was an early version of cruse control but without the control. Even then, it was recognized as dangerous and practically useless. On a long drive, supposedly you could pull it out to rest your foot, just like cruse control today, but it was only practical on the flat roads of New Jersey. Even a small hill would slow the car down to almost a stall, then dangerously speed it up on the downside. In a sudden stop, you had to brake and push the throttle back in at the same time while still controlling the steering wheel. The idea never caught on.
Gears were shifted by a rod that went down through the floor and directly into the gearbox. No electrical solenoids were involved. Moving the rod pushed and pulled on the actual gears, and you could feel it. Sports cars still use this system. By the time I was driving, the rod went up the steering wheel shaft and was moved by a lever mounted below the steering wheel. It was an improvement, but it was still a mechanical connection to the gears. The first car of my own was a Chevy with Powerglide, their early version of an automatic shift. I didn’t want it, but I bought the car used, and this is what it came with. It was popularly called “mashed-potato drive.” Step on the gas, and would sit and think about what to do, then gradually pick up speed.
The starter on my father’s early Oldsmobile was a rod projecting from the floorboard above the gas pedal. This, too, was a mechanical connection. Pushing on the rod with your toe physically pushed the starter motor onto its electrical contacts and meshed its gear with the flywheel. You were to do this while pressing on the gas pedal with your heel until it started.
This procedure was simple and usually worked, unless, of course, you forgot to set the choke.