By on October 14, 2014

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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).

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.

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.

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.

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

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32 Comments on “Give That Man Starting His Lada Niva A Big Hand...”

  • avatar

    I remember the Renault Ami James May bought on an episode of Top Gear having a hand crank…I was downright shocked, because I had thought hand cranks had ceased to exist back in the 20s, and yet here’s a Russian SUV type thing of…some recent vintage with one.

  • avatar

    My 1964 Humber Super Snipe starts easily — on the first pull — with the hand crank.

  • avatar

    I had a Niva. For a few weeks.

    It didn’t need a crank to start it. A sledgehammer might have helped on occasion.

  • avatar

    Also he appears to be pushing the crank rather than pulling, a big no no. My Model T starts much easier , The compression ratio is 4.17 to 1.

  • avatar

    What a cute little thing. It’s like if the original Golf had a secret affair with the AMC Eagle SX/4. I like the old Range Rover style wheels as well. It’s a car where if it could speak, would probably say “I can do it!”

  • avatar

    My family owns a 1972 ZAZ 966 back in Novosibirsk, it slumbers in a rusty Soviet era garage complex and we start it up every time we visit. Battery went dead in the early 90s when we emigrated, my dad had soldered up a home-brewed power supply that plugs into a standard European wall outlet (he’s a high energy physicist). With that hooked up and some stale RON 80 octane gas we have stashed away in the garage in an aluminum jerry can, that old cast iron V4 fires right up from the hand crank.

    The ZAZ 968M still had a crank starter when production ended in 1994.

  • avatar

    That’s not a crank starter, that’s how you wind it up.

  • avatar

    I had a 1950s Citroen 11CV when I was stationed in France during the second Berlin crisis. Great car with huge legroom in back seat and a flat floor. I toured much of Europe with it. The original battery kept dieing and I cranked it numerous times during the winter I was there. The crank worked through the transmission which stuck out in front of the engine. The crank had a cam that disengaged it if the engine kicked back. I never had any kick back problems.

  • avatar

    Used to pull-start this old guy’s ’63 Beetle. The guy was the original owner and at some point along the way he added an extra pulley to the crank. Turn the key on, wrap the pull rope around that pulley and give it a yank. Great way to start the car on a flat battery.

  • avatar
    Bruce the K

    I had a 55 VW beetle and I bought a leather strap from J.C. Whitney that had a metal pin on one end and a wooden handle on the other end. You drilled a hole in the generator pulley, inserted the pin, wrapped the strap around the pulley and, voila! Rope-pull lawnmower engine. I had the pleasure of starting it that way (too) many times and it worked well (as long as the engine was in reasonably good tune).

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    What a novel way to save weight, replace the heavy starter motor with a light as a feather crank, Mazda are you taking notice?

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    I’m surprised Malcolm Bricklin never brought these here as a Yugo SUV. They could not be any worse.

  • avatar

    I am old (seriously old), growing up in the UK, my father drove as his DD, a 1938 Morris Ten Four. Complete with flags for turn signals, running boards, and yes… a hand crank. I read with horror on TTAC that ones thumbs were in danger, I do not recall this warning, yet I started his car hundreds of times. However I do remember using the hand grasp used in the Model T ad above. It was fairly easy to start using the hand crank

  • avatar

    This is an older generation Niva, you can tell because the newer ones moved the tail lights to sides and that permitted a larger hatch. They also have fuel-injected engines and small enhancements. But I suppose the new-production Nivas are not sold in Canada anymore, owing to their archaic safety compliance parameters.

  • avatar

    “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”

    It’s not so much a matter of displacement, as it is compression ratio. A Model T had a very low compression ration..4.5:1 That Lada probably has a compression ratio double the Model T.

    BTW, a properly tuned Model T was relatively easy to hand start, Get every thing set up just so, dial back the spark advance, and they would usually go on the first pull.

  • avatar

    My dad had a scar on his chin from a model T hand crank. He said it was common for the hand crank not to release once the engine started. He said it was the only time in his life that he was ever knocked out.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    I would dare to say the even in the US up into the 60s vehicles were sold with hand crank capability.

    I do know the 510 Datsun pickups did have the ability to be hand cranked.

    A simple dog clutch was used on the harmonic balance, even with the hole through to front splash guard under the grille.

    Look carefully at the harmonic balance.

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    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.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    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.

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