Today's cars are incredibly reliable and functional. No matter what the weather we get in, turn the key and the car starts and runs smoothly within a couple seconds. We fasten our belts and start off, certain that the car will accelerate and come to a stop with no engine hiccups, rough-running or stalling.
Not very long ago it wasn't that simple to start and drive a car. Before the age of engine management computers and fuel injection there were points-type ignitions and carburetors. They worked, but only because the people operating the cars knew how to get them to work.
When it comes to running engines the only things old cars have in common with new ones is that they all need spark and fuel delivery. Getting a new one started is the result of a complicated series of electronics interactions, while starting an old one is dependent on what the temperature is and how well tuned the ignition might be.
If you've never started an old car — particularly one with a 6-volt electrical system — you need to realize that just turning the key (or pushing the Start button) won't get the engine running. All it will do, especially if it's cold, is crank away until the battery gets drained and you need a jump-start. Instead, you need to set the choke to allow the engine to suck in lots of raw gas so some of the vapor will ignite.
Chokes came in two types: manual and automatic. If your car has a choke knob, pull it out to close the "butterfly" valve on the carburetor (this limits air intake, thus allowing a far greater fuel-to-air ratio). If the choke is an automatic type, one or two strokes on the gas pedal will set it.
Assuming the ignition is up to par you can now hit the starter. With your foot pushing the gas pedal down about 1/2 of the way, crank the engine until it fires. It will usually start running, but rather rough. As you give it some gas you can slowly push in the choke knob until the engine smoothes out. Automatic chokes use thermostatic springs to accomplish this operation but you have to gently move the gas pedal to allow the linkage to operate.
Once the engine runs reasonably smooth you can start to drive, but you will find that the engine doesn't develop much power initially. It will also stall at a stop if it's not up to temperature, and as it warms up you need to keep compensating by pushing the choke knob in. Otherwise, you will run the engine too "rich," causing black smoke and poor fuel economy.
This whole operation takes a certain amount of time. On a 50-degree day, for instance, the car won't operate normally for at least 5 minutes of driving. On colder days you might spend 10-15 minutes "nursing" the car until it warms up to normal operating temperature.
Sounds complicated, doesn't it? By today's standards it is, but to millions and millions of drivers this was second nature for well over 80 years. The whole procedure might seem quaint and old-fashioned, but how many of today's young car thieves would ever be able to heist your '54 Ford? They'd never figure out how to start it!