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Leland’s Aid in Improving the Electric Starter


The Electric Starter

While driving the Belle Isle Bridge, a woman’s car conked in Detroit in 1910. A passing motorist, Byron T. Carter, who was also a car manufacturer offered to help her restart her car. He inserted the handcrank and gave it a furious turn, which was required to start a car in those days. Surprisingly, the crank snapped back and broke Carter’s jaw. He was rushed to the hospital and treated, but unfortunately complications arose and the jaw was gangrened. Carter died in the hospital.

This death rattled Henry, as Carter was not only a car manufacturer but was also his friend. Moreover, the car due to which the tragic event occurred was a Cadillac. Henry approached Charles Kettering, a researcher and an inventor unknown in Detroit, to develop a safe alternative to start the vehicle instead of using a hand crank.

The inventor Charles Kettering of Dayton, Ohio would soon become a legend known as the ‘Boss’. Kettering was responsible for developing the first cash register for the National Cash register Company by making a small electric motor that would supply power in short bursts rather then a constant flow. Kettering thought that an electric starter would solve the problem for the ignition of automobiles.

Till that time, many other automobile manufacturers had tried electric self starting their cars, but everybody had failed. Kettering figured that this was due to the wrong positioning of the starting motor which was directly mounted on the car engine. In this position, the motor was geared to the engine at a one-to-one ratio, without any mechanical advantage.

With Leland’s financial help Kettering formed the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco) and recruited a handful of assistants to develop the starter for the automobile.

Kettering visualized a small battery powered motor which could be fitted under the car’s hood. This motor would apply the strong quick burst of power required to spark the ignition for the internal combustion engine. After that it would automatically reduce its surge and divert its power towards headlamps and other devices.

Kettering solved the problem of motor to engine ratio by increasing the ratio between the starter motor and engine in scale. To do this he reduced some sprocket wheels and chains and got a ¼ horsepower electric motor and attached it to the engine of the car. He got the mechanical advantage of about 20:1. This altered design worked. Kettering also realized that when the engine was running, the electric starter also doubled as a generator. The addition of a storage battery would complete the whole system which would start the car, generate electricity for lighting and ignition. This system which was developed then is still in use today.

When his fellow inventors had seen his design for the starter they said it was a failure. But on February 27th, 1911, the first electric starter developed was successfully demonstrated on a Cadillac in the presence of Henry Leland. The interim president Storrow and the others were not convinced though and when Leland announced his wish to make the Kettering starter a standard on all 1912 Cadillac cars, they voted against it by arguing that the device was not proven in real driving conditions.

To ascertain his doubts about the device, Storrow appointed an independent committee of electrical engineers to evaluate the self starter, whose manufacturing, he considered, posed a huge financial risk,. The outcome of the evaluation was that they all finally supported Leland. Moving from a small barn makeshift factory, Kettering shifted to a leased factory in Dayton. He employed his assistants as full time employees and proceeded to produce four thousand self starters in a couple of month’s time.

The vital thing to keep in mind is that, the invention of an electric starter was not a vast technical leap. The Leland engineers too were working on various answers for starting the automobile, since some time. It was during such time it occurred to someone that Charles Kettering had developed a small electric motor that could generate high torque for short periods. Kettering had developed and used that in electric cash registers of the time. Leland just hired Kettering and adapted his motor design for his new application.

The more significant note to this matter was that, that till the Carter death, nobody had given the matter much consideration. There were other automakers that used to hear about motorists being injured by crank handles, but used to shrug those tales off indifferently. Leland was the perfectionist who was deeply appalled by the incident, and saw it as his obligation to find a solution for it. He also had to make sure that the new device worked perfectly and reliably. Thus, not only the development of an electric starter was a technological achievement, but for Henry Leland it was also a matter of personal ethic.

This electric starter was introduced by the Cadillac in its 1912 Model. The 1912 Cadillac was marketed as ‘The Car that has no Crank’. It was an instant success and the Kettering self starter made the use of hand crank obsolete. The starter system developed by Kettering and Leland was the most important single step towards making the automobile practical for everyone.

By the 1920s, all the American cars featured Kettering’s self starter even the Ford Model T. The self starter made the automobile a safe and convenient vehicle to travel. The Kettering self starter proved instrumental in winning the Cadillac its second Dewar Trophy in 1912, a feat no other auto manufacturer has ever matched. The balance sheet of the Cadillac for the year 1915 showed net earnings of $15 million.

Despite bringing out his cars with innovations like the electric starter, which gave the Cadillac a distinctive competitive advantage over the others, Leland’s contributions had little impact on the minds of its investors. The banker’s perspective of these innovations was a dim one, feeling the use of such devices as needless extravagance. If the other car manufacturers were content with hand cranks then why was there a need to replace it was their question.

Leland had to practically fight it out with such shortsightedness all through his career. He once wrote, "There always was and there always will be conflict between Good and Good enough. It is easy to get cooperation for mediocre work, but one must sweat blood for a chance to produce a superior product."

The Cadillac entered their 1912 Cadillac in the prestigious Dewar Trophy once again in 1913. After a thousand mile test conducted in September/ October 1913, the Royal Automobile Club announced Cadillac the winner, mainly because of the electric starter and proclaimed it as ‘The Standard of the World’. This slogan given by the Club was used for many years in the Cadillac advertisements.

Cadillac introduced their 1913 model in August 1912. The slogan ‘The Standard of the World’ was first used in ads of this car. In July 1913, they introduced their innovative two speed rear axle drive for their 1914 model. The sales for the 1914 vehicle reached 14,002 automobiles. D. McCall White replaced Frank Johnson as the chief engineer of the company.

In September 1914, the Amsterdam Street factory introduced yet another first, the V-8 engine. This Type 51, 3.125 inch bore and 5.125 inch stroke engine of 314 cubic inches was developed for their 1915 model. Cadillac 1915 generated a majestic power of 70 hp, making it one of the fastest automobiles in the world. The 1915 car was also the last from the company’s stable featuring Alanson Brush’s design and it was also the last four cylinder vehicle from Cadillac. By the 1915, Cadillac had produced over twenty thousand vehicles, a feat matched by none other until 1922.

The Lelands & the War

Henry Leland had been deeply affected by the loss of his brother in the Civil War and by his own inability to enlist in the Union Army. Leland claimed that he wanted to devote more of Cadillac Motor’s production capacity to Liberty aircraft engines and he had told before a U.S. Senate aircraft committee when it visited Detroit some months ago, that ‘‘Billy Durant was not in sympathy with the war.’’ With America supporting the war effort in the summer of 1917, the Lelands in protest and without prior warning, resigned from General Motors that August.

The General Motor’s version of the issue was that that the father son duo did not resign but were in fact fired from the corporation. They did not resign voluntarily but were discharged from the management of the Cadillac Company. Their discharge had nothing to do with patriotism or the war. Billy Durant was keen to consolidate his own control at General Motors and to expand Cadillac sales. But, the obstinate Lelands, were more interested in maintaining their product’s prestigious image rather than the going with the policy to increase the mother company’s sales.

Even if this version is believed to be true it clearly indicated that the Lelands’ hold over the functioning of Cadillac was dishonored.

 
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