Mystery Armstrong Starter?


I have been annotating correspondence between my grandparents from the mid-1930s, from before they were married. During this time, my grandfather had what I think was a 1929 Essex. He frequently complains about keeping the thing running and at one point, has to replace the clutch. Because he was short on cash (as was typical during this era), he decides to do this himself with his friend, Francis (later my great-uncle, through marriage). They take it all apart. I came across this passage in a letter dated March 14, 1935.

“I have the Essex running at last. I spent nearly the whole day Tuesday putting in all the parts I could find and when I was finished I didn’t have the courage to try it out. I went in and talked to Fran for a while then dashed out and stepped on the starter. I don’t know if I expected it to explode or what but anyway after a few feeble groans and a great clashing of gears it slowly went into motion. Did you notice the fact that I mentioned a starter? I have done away with the Armstrong starter, but as yet haven’t discovered anything to substitute for that type of heater. Have you any suggestions?”

My question is, what is an Armstrong starter?
Can you provide any insight as to what he’s talking about?
I have attached a photo of my grandfather with what I am pretty sure was the Essex. He was from upstate NY.

Thank you very much.
Julie Williams


Great story and very nice photo! Although, I am sorry to say the car in the photo you sent is not an Essex but rather a 1927 Studebaker Victoria Coupe. They have a very unique front visor, rear quarter windows and Landau Bars. Studebaker’s of that period had very distinctive lines that set them apart.

“Armstrong” is sort of a tongue-in-cheek term to describe something you’ll need ‘Strong Arms” to do. Your grandfather had a good sense of humor. Years ago I bought a 1954 Ford F100 that was advertised with Armstrong Steering, and it took nearly all I had to drive it home.

In this case the Armstrong Starter he is describing refers to the engine crank. The crank was inserted through a crank hole in the grill, the ignition switch would be turned on, and the crank was turned by hand to start the engine. They could be hard to turn and require “strong arms” to do so.

If you weren’t hanging onto the crank properly and the engine backfired and the crank didn’t release, you could easily break or dislocate fingers, thumb or even a arm. Many cars in this era came with either standard or optional electric start and all had crank start capability.

Crank starters remained as a starting option on many cars well into the 1940s although the crank hole became more disguised.

Wrench Safe, Mark

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16 Responses to “Mystery Armstrong Starter?”

  1. Vance Veynar

    60's? I had a 1962 and then a 1970 Peugeot 404 (both very well used) up until 1986. Both had Armstrong Starters. The crank served as both the starting crank and the crank for the jack. Used the crank on both cars many times. Loved those cars. I remember my Dad telling me 'Never push down to turn the crank and don't try to gorilla grip it'..

  2. Jim L

    Position the crank aout 7:00 , do not wrap your thumb around the crank, pull upwards to the 10:00 position. If the engine backfires your thumb will still remain connected to your hand.

  3. Adrian whittemore

    I started driving on 1971, and a teenager could only afford older cars. My first two, a Morris Minor, and a six cyl Austin Westminster both often needed the "help" of the starting handle on a cold winters morning. I learn to drive on phase 3 Vanguard of my dads, It was normal fro boys then to be taught how to properly hold the starting handle and how to use it these cars all had electric starts, but electrics in those days were not what they are now.. The condition of your plugs, pints, leads, distributor, and mixture setting with a manual choke made starting a far different game from modern fuel injected electronic ignition cars.

  4. Dennis Dunn

    The crank was standard equipment into the 1960. My 1962 MGA had a crank as a backup for the electric starter motor. The starters (On the Mg's of the time) had aluminum windings and were not that reliable

  5. Darryl J Birch

    Excellent points in answer to this letter. I will point out, however, that the Lada Niva came with an engine crank in the 70's.

  6. Peter Wolf

    here in England (or UK as we seem to be known now) we always knew these manual starters as "starting handles" and our native built cars had them up to the early to mid 60's, my first car was a 1964 Sunbeam which came with a starting handle, used it a couple times when I couldn't afford a new battery !

  7. John Allan

    the 1929 Essex had a key start, so "stepping on the starter" would pre-date the car to early 20's I would think

  8. Larry

    I don't see how one could get hurt with an Armstrong starter. The crank bolt on my '49-50-51-52 mostly Dodge truck is like tamper proof screws. It only turns one way. The other way the starter is pushed out. That kind of starter is pointless on a standard shift. Pop the clutch. My father didn't use the starter on his '56 Chevy truck for months at a time (the solenoid didn't work half the time). He parked on a hill or gave it a good shove, pop the clutch and go. It would fire up barely moving. Best ever starting arrangement was on my '55 Roadmaster. No start position on key, no button on floor or dash. Turn the car to on and mash the gas pedal. Magic.

  9. Dan Kahn

    I have a 39 Plymouth Pickup truck and it has the hole in the radiator and grill to accept the 'Armstrong" starter. I have not had to use it but trying to turn over the engine to set the points using the fan/fanbelt takes a lot of effort. I can just imagine what it would take to spin over a 6 cylinder engine!

  10. Rhett Hardwick

    My grandfather wouldn't let my mother date anyone with an Essex. Most British sports cars had crank holes in the front, well into the 60's. I think this was more for valve adjustment than starting, but, in an emergency?