Once upon a time, cars didn’t much like waking up in the dead of winter.

Mindful of their hesitancy to sometimes get up and going, I’ve carried a set of jumper cables in every vehicle I’ve owned since I got my first set of wheels in 1966.

It’s been years, though, since I’ve had use them to jump-start a vehicle after slowly grinding the battery to a dead stop — every hint of a spark drained from its lead and water-filled battery cells. Several things can be to blame when a car won’t start in winter — faulty points or timing, poor gas mixture, heavy oil or a driver clueless about how to start an old car in winter. But if the battery and starter can make the crankshaft spin like a top, chances are Ol’ Nellie will kick off even if everything is not quite up to snuff. Nonetheless, Mother Nature can be mighty unforgiving on winter mornings.

In our first years on the farm near Elkland — the late 1950s — simply getting Mom’s car going could be a challenge when the mercury dropped to single digits. I’m sure that wasn’t the case in every driveway up and down our road, but those were lean times for Harold and Hazel Hamilton. As recently as 1953, Dad had bought a brand-new Mercury, but four years later that car was history and we had been through a series of older, used cars. All had 6-volt electrical systems, which simply didn’t have the cranking power of modern 12-volt systems, especially when burdened with turning the crankshafts of big V-8s in oil as thick as molasses in winter.

Dad’s first 12-volt system was in a secondhand 1956 Mercury he bought in about 1960. That was a beautiful car, and immensely more reliable than the 1954 Ford it replaced or the 1952 Dodge pickup before that. We sometimes parked that truck on a hill in the barn lot to get it started. 

Even with its 12-volt ignition, though, the Mercury could be sluggish on the coldest of mornings, its big V-8 a chore to crank. As I recall, Dad sometimes set a kerosene lantern under the engine on really cold nights.

My folks’ first car to guarantee quick winter starts was a nimble, brand-new 1963 Chevy II. It was perfect for Mom’s daily 30-mile trips to work at Burge Protestant Hospital in Springfield. A six-cylinder, stick shift, it didn’t even have a radio — just everything it needed to be reliable transportation, foremost, that modern, 12-volt electrical system.

At about that same time, Dad came up with a 1948 Ford pickup that became the truck I learned to drive on. Again, the F-1 had a 6-volt system to crank its flathead six, and it seems we replaced the battery several times, usually with a rebuilt job from a place on Dale Street in Springfield. One trick Dad often used to get the truck started on subzero mornings was to simply yank out the battery and set it behind the stove overnight. I also remember carting the battery over to the Elkland garage for a recharge after I had a car of my own.

That first car of mine was a 1956 Chevy — the first year, I think, with a 12-volt system that never gave me electrical problems, except when a mechanic mistakenly replaced my generator with a 6-volt model. That cost me a whole series of voltage regulators before the same mechanic discovered his mistake.

If you’ve never had a car with anything other than electronic ignition, some version of fuel injection or hosts of onboard computers to take all the guesswork out of maintenance and tuning, you’ve likely not had trouble starting your car in any season.

But, if, like me, your toolbox once included a timing light and a gap gauge to set the points, you always kept a set of jumper cables in the trunk and your car’s headlights dimmer switch was on the floor, then you, too, remember when cars didn’t always start in winter.

Copyright 2021, James E. Hamilton; email jhamilton000@centurytel.net. 

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