Give That Man Starting His Lada Niva A Big Hand

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

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Last year in a post about Ypsilanti’s Orphan Car Show I had noticed that some of the 1960s vintage Citroens still had access holes so that, if needed, the cars could be started with a hand crank. I asked our readers what the last model car was sold with a hand crank and the immediate answer was “Lada”. As if to prove a point, at this year’s OCS, parked just outside the show entrance was a fairly late model Lada Niva in great shape, with a hand crank inserted through holes in the bumper and front fascia. There is a Niva that is in the show just about every year but that one’s about in the condition you’d expect from an Eastern Bloc 4X4 based on Fiat mechanicals subsequently exposed to Canadian winters and North American road salt. Except for the CHMSL that appeared to have come loose from its moorings, the blue Niva looks like it could almost be part of a Lada CPO program (to our Russian readers, does Lada have a CPO program in their home market).

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It wasn’t officially part of the show as it hadn’t been preregistered, but when the show organizers spotted the Niva, they asked the owner if he would park it so that attendees would be able to enjoy it. The OCS is held every fall here in Michigan, about the same time that yellow jackets are most active and I got to the Lada just after one of the aggressive hornets had stung the owner’s young son and got trapped in his clothing. Unlike bees, hornets can sting more than once and in addition to being in some pain from the sting, the boy was freaking out just a bit. While dad tried to chill out his son, I managed to crush the stinging insect between two folds of the boy’s shirt.

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I guess that established some rapport between me and dad, so while I was taking my usual sequence of photos of cars at car shows, I asked him if he’d ever hand started it and if he would mind trying to crank it later when I was ready to leave so I could get some video. Just coincidentally, this is the second video of a car being hand cranked that I’ve posted here this fall, since the Canadian Model T Assembly Team that performed at Greenfield Village’s Old Car Festival also started up their car by hand, once assembled.

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When the time came, it took him a few cranks and a little bit of fiddling with the choke, but he got it running. It wasn’t what I’d say an easy task but it looked to me that the Lada was easier to hand start than the Model T. Of course, the Model T’s 2.5 liter inline four engine had at least 50% more displacement than the Lada’s 1.6 liters. After he started it, though, I was able to offer the owner some important safety information. The Canadian Model T wasn’t the first that I’ve seen hand cranked, so I was familiar with the special grip to hold the crank back in the days before Charles Kettering liberated women and saved many men from injuries by inventing a practical electric self-starter for gasoline powered automobiles.

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Hand-cranking a car was dangerous enough that some people suffered fatal head injuries from the crank kicking back because of a backfire. While those kinds of head injuries were relatively rare, hand injuries were common, most often being broken thumbs. Early motorists learned to use a special grip to hold the crank, cupping the crank in their hand while keeping their thumbs on the safe, palm side of the crank, to protect their prehensile digits.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If you think that 3D is a plot to get you to buy yet another new television set, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

Ronnie Schreiber
Ronnie Schreiber

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.

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  • Athos Nobile Athos Nobile on Oct 15, 2014

    First gen Range Rovers also had a crank for hand starting. My dad's 75 had it. The were all sorts of levers in the tool kit located IIRC behind the spare wheel. We never tried it.

  • DC Bruce DC Bruce on Oct 15, 2014

    I worked on a ranch in the early 1960s and they had some late-1940s trucks, including a 5-ton stake body with a big six-cylinder engine. The stake body was never taken on the road, but had a large water tank strapped to the flat bed, which we used to fill stock tanks on this large ranch. Practicality being everything of you're a rancher or a farmer, the old trucks brakes did not work (who needs brakes if you're maxing out at 15 mph on flat ground?) and no one bothered to keep the battery up. So, hand cranking was the only method of starting the engine (the vehicle was stopped by switching off the ignition with the truck in gear). One of the advantages of hand cranking any engine, is that the ignition is getting full battery voltage; whereas there's usually a voltage drop caused by the drain of the starter motor. So, in the days of non-electronic ignitions (points-and-mechanical distributor), this was a plus. The truck, despite having a big engine, was easy enough to start. The tough engine to crank was one of the 4-cylinder farm tractors that the rancher had stroked, so it had a high compression ratio. I could not get that engine spinning, just turn over through one compression stroke and hope that it fired. In 1980 I had a 30 foot sailboat with a one-cylinder 12 hp diesel auxiliary engine that could be hand cranked. Never had to worry about draining the battery, since it was a diesel and had no glow plug. The engine had a compression release, so the technique was to get the engine spinning (it had a heavy flywheel) and then close the compression release. Started up on the first crank every time! The crank was geared to the flywheel, so there was some mechanical advantage that helped turn the engine. Unlike a gasoline engine, the crank was not directly connected to the crankshaft. No broken bones, or fingers in either case.

  • MaintenanceCosts The black wheel arches and rocker trim are ghastly. Looks like to get them in body color you have to downgrade to the N Line. And you can't get a 360-degree camera on the N Line. Oh well, I'm not a compact CUV customer anyway.
  • Gray Where is Subaru on the list? They build them in Indiana. NASCAR should field the Legacy sedan to go up against Toyota.
  • Redapple2 H-K Styling. May not be my cup of tea but they re trying. Gripe. This would be a deal breaker. Door cut out - seat postion - 'B' pillar. I m over 6'. So the driver's seat is towards full back position. Rental Equinox last week. 1100 miles. The seat bottom to seat back point was 8 inches behind and around the 'B' pillar. I had to be contortionist to get in and out of the car. Brutal POS. Wife's Forester? Nearly equal/flush. I ve never seen 1 car review where they complain about this.
  • Lou_BC In my town the dealers are bad for marking up products, even pickups. There were multiple "mega-projects" on the go in my region so money was flowing fast and loose both by corporations and employees. All of that is coming to an end plus we've seen a pulpmill close, one pulpmill line close and a few sawmill closures. Cash is getting tight.
  • Lou_BC Branding is very powerful and effective. I always get a kick out of hardcore Harley Davidson fans. The "Jap scrap" mentality exists even in Canada. I used to get derided for riding Japanese bikes. I confused a bunch of Harley guys once when I pointed out that in Canada, Harley is just as much as a foreign import as Yamaha. They tried to argue that a Harley made in USA was not a foreign made bike. The cognitive dissonance made me laugh.