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Old Things Become New

I should have mentioned in my 9-11 post last week that the fellow I was sitting and talking with at the airport before boarding the plane that fateful day was a former Army Captain in the Third Infantry Division in Germany back in 1975. I hadn't seen him since then. We had a lot of catching up to do.

A year after 9-11, the Pentagon held a ceremony near the site of the attack complete with bleachers and a visit by the President. When I got to the bleacher area, I just started climbing since all the ground level seats were taken. When I finally looked up as I neared the top, there he was, sitting by himself. The same guy that was with me in the airport. I sat next to him and we both marveled that with hundreds of people crammed into the bleachers, we would be sitting together just like we were a year ago. We both agreed that it was highly unlikely, very strange, and a perfect bookend to 9-11. I never saw him again after that.

Two weeks ago, I mentioned that my father told me he had to hand crank his first car to start the engine. That got me curious, so I looked up a few things and then a few more and before I knew it, I was knee deep in car history. It’s an interesting story that shows we’ve come full circle.

Starting a Car: “This was accomplished by turning a crank, usually located in the front of the automobile. The driver would literally ‘crank the engine’ by turning the handle, which would allow the process of internal combustion to begin. After a given number of cranks, the engine would begin to run on its own, and the crank could be removed.

“Although hand crank starters were simple and reliable, they suffered from a handful of drawbacks. The main issue with this method of starting an engine is that it is inherently dangerous to the operator. For instance, if an engine kicks back during the cranking process, the operator could get TKO’d [whacked] by the hand crank. Although many of these cranks used overrun mechanism, there was also a potential for injury if the handle continued to turn after the engine started running.

“The other main issue with hand crank starters is that it took a certain degree of physical effort to turn them. That meant anyone who lacked the necessary physical strength or dexterity was incapable of starting a vehicle equipped with this type of starter.

“By 1920, nearly all manufacturers were producing cars equipped with starters making it easy for anyone, regardless of physical abilities, to start a car by pressing a button mounted on the dash or floor. An ignition…operated by a key was introduced by Chrysler in 1949.”

Interesting, but let’s go farther back in time. In 1832, Robert Anderson, a British inventor, developed the first crude electric carriage, but it wasn’t until 1870 that French and English inventors built some of the first practical electric cars. Electric cars don't require multi-speed transmissions because the engine delivers power instantly, meaning, the process of building up torque through revving as in internal combustion engines is unnecessary.

1885-The German Karl Benz introduced his gas-powered Motorwagen with a single-speed transmission. The world now had a single-speed gasoline and a single-speed electric car which means no first gear, second gear, etc.

1890- William Morrison, a chemist who lived in Des Moines, Iowa, introduced the first successful single-speed electric car with a speed of 14 miles per hour that could carry six passengers under a canvas roof. Over the next few years, electric vehicles from different automakers began popping up across the U.S. New York City even had a fleet of more than 60 electric taxis. By 1900, electric cars were at their heyday, accounting for around a third of all vehicles on the road. During the next 10 years, they continued to show strong sales.

1891-94-The Frenchmen René Panhard and Émile Levassor (shown below) introduced a gasoline-powered three-speed manual transmission, two forward gears and one for reverse, using a chain drive. This transmission used a sliding-gear design without any form of speed synchronization, causing frequent and noisy grinding of the gear teeth during gear shifts.

Between 1900 and 1907 transmissions were introduced that operated using two epicyclic gear trains that allowed four forward unsynchronized gears aka non-synchronous transmissions (same thing as ‘sliding gears’ that made all the noise and were difficult to shift).

Procedure to shift unsynchronized transmission/sliding gears:

1. Press the clutch pedal and move the lever to neutral.

2. Release the clutch pedal and step on the gas to rev the engine.

3. Press the clutch again while adding throttle.

4. Shift carefully into desired gear.

5. Release the clutch. Whew!

1901- Lohner and Porsche’s Mixte is the world’s first hybrid car invented by Ferdinand Porsche which ran on gasoline and a self-charging electric battery.

1908-1912- The Model T Ford powered by gasoline, had an electric starter, was affordable, and all but killed the electric car which disappeared by 1935.

1921-1923 Canadian Alfred Horner Munro designed the first gas powered car with an automatic transmission (pictured). It had four forward gears, but no reverse or parking gears.

1928- General Motors used the first synchromesh gearbox or "constant-mesh" gears (instead of sliding gears). The first usage of synchromesh was by Cadillac and did away with gear grinding.

1939-Automatic Transmission becomes a reality. It can automatically change gear ratios as the vehicle moves, meaning the driver does not have to shift gears manually. General Motors Hydra-Matic became the first mass-produced automatic transmission following its introduction in the1940 model year. In 1942, automotive plants stopped building cars so they could focus on building tanks and military vehicles for World War II. The tanks were equipped with the Hydra-Matic Transmission.

Prior to the 1950s and 1960s, most manual transmissions (stick shift) cars used “constant-mesh/ synchromesh gears” to equalize the shaft speeds within the transmission, so they are synchronous transmissions and did away with gear grinding (if you held the clutch in long enough).

1968-1973- Gas prices soared renewing interest in electric cars.

1971- NASA’s electric powered lunar rover raises the profile of electric vehicles.

1974-1977-Sebrings-Vanguard’s 1976 electric CitiCar (pictured) is the sixth largest U.S. automaker by 1975. I never saw one of these on the road, and I’m pretty sure I’d remember.

1989-Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) also known as a shiftless transmission for gas powered cars, is a variant of the automatic transmission that can change seamlessly through a continuous range of effective gear ratios as opposed to a fixed number of gear ratios. In the 1989 model year, Subaru introduced the first automotive CVT in the U.S. Other automakers began developing their own CVTs throughout the 1990s.

1997-Toyota introduces first mass produced hybrid, Prius, which ran on gas and electricity.

2007- Elon Musk’s company Tesla, Inc produced the Tesla, a luxury single speed electric plug-in sports car.

2009-2013-Department of Energy invest in nation-wide charging infrastructure, installing 18,000 residential, commercial, and private electric car charging stations.

2010- Chevy Volt (pictured). First commercially available plug-in hybrid followed soon by Nissan’s Leaf.

2014- There are 23 plug-in electric vehicles and 36 hybrid models available to the consumer.

“A significant difference between conventional vehicles and electric vehicles (EV) is the drivetrain. Simply put, the majority of EVs do not have multi-speed transmissions. Instead, a single-speed transmission regulates the electric motor.”

It’s 1832 again! After years of progress from hand-crank starters to Continuously Variable Transmissions, we’re back to single speed electric cars―as it was when this all began. What’s old is new!

What is the current status of electric vehicles? reports:

“Electric car deployment has been growing rapidly over the past ten years, with the global stock of electric passenger cars passing 5 million in 2018, an increase of 63% from the previous year. Around 45% of electric cars on the road in 2018 were in China – a total of 2.3 million – compared to 39% in 2017.

“The number of charging points worldwide was estimated to be approximately 5.2 million at the end of 2018, up 44% from the year before. Most of this increase was in private charging points, accounting for more than 90% of the 1.6 million installations last year.”

And this:

Gov. Kathy Hochul, D-N.Y., last week signed legislation banning the sale of new gas-powered cars and trucks by 2035.

If all things old in the automotive industry are becoming new again, that might also apply to us. Perhaps it’s time to do things you tried as a child, loved, and forgot. I’ve never tried my hand at painting or drawing as an adult, but I feel I could do it, after a short course on the basics. Sculpting human faces using clay also fascinates me and might be worth a go with a little supervision. For some reason, making pottery doesn’t hold the same fascination as sculpting. So many things!

Writing is my passion at the moment and has been since 2013, but it will run its course in time. Perhaps I’ll take up drawing or clay sculpting next. Painting is still a bit intimidating. Maybe you would like to compose music or learn to play the guitar. Time to do it is now! Old things have become new. If you’re thinking about doing something you’ve never done before, I’d like to hear about it.


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