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Brilliant Motorcycle Inventions -Electric Start

For this foray into brill biking inventions we must once more look at those four-wheeled things first.

If you were ever a fan of old silent films, you’d recall Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton hand-cranking some old Model T Ford before they could go off for a drive, before the car would hilariously fall apart or be smashed to pieces on a railway crossing…

If that sounded painful, even starting the car by hand could cause injury. Why: because the crank itself would often spin along with the crank of the engine. Injuries would often include broken hands, fingers, wrists and thumbs – with the worst injuries coming from larger cubic capacity motors…

While we may be talking about cars from the 1920s, the first patent for an electric start for a car (or more properly ‘electric automobile starter’) was filed in the United States way back in 1899, but it took at least another 10 years for the first half-reliable version to come out. To make it work you had to press a button on the dashboard or push a lever on the floor with your feet: it would take until 1949 when a system was made that worked with a key, like we are used to today.

By then the first motorcycle electric start had already been made. As far back as 1914 a system was seen on an Indian motorcycle. It took two, hefty six-volt batteries to crank the 7bhp motorcycle, which is probably why electric starters never really caught on for two-wheelers. After all, with smaller capacity machines and two-strokes, often a couple of prods on the kick-starter would do the job: or a good bump-start…

So what is the elemental electric start system made up of? Well, it’s a DC ‘direct current’ electric motor. Coils of wire become magnetic when a current is passed through them and these react against the central core of the starter that is also magnetic. The poles can be attracted to each other or repelled. This magnetic field pushes and pulls to get the electric motor spinning. This spinning force is then engaged to the starter clutch of the motor to get the motor going. Early problems with the first systems included the starter itself overheating to the point of destruction and batteries draining way too quickly…

The 1968 Honda CB350 was one of the most important models to get an electric starter. Honda had been using an electric start on some of their home models for around 10 years, but this was a machine which was a big-seller in the United States and Honda reckoned the new system would give the model a real ‘USP’ to the machine.

In fact, it didn’t and most owners used the notoriously fragile kick-start, which would often fail and result in a number of warranty claims. Honda – of course – would get the system (with a more robust kick-start as back-up) spot-on with the 1969 CB750, a machine which many remember as the bike which (ahem) kick-started the whole ‘electric boot’ phenomenon.

In the UK the CB750 was the bike which made the system popular and – of course – the embarrassed British bike industry soon had to catch up. ‘Soon’ was all relevant, it seemed so it still took them six years to get a Norton Commando 850cc Mk3 into the showrooms which used an electric start for the first time. Of course, being a British bike, with the associated electrics, it was more of an ‘assist’ as the battery was quickly drained… Triumph’s Bonneville didn’t get the system until 1980!

Today the electric start system is pretty fool-proof, with only the older, or smaller capacity classics having an electric start.