Prest-O-Starter, Acetylene Starter

As explained in “Background and Restoration” our car has a very unusual acetylene starter. (Go to that part of the blog for more details).  The Prest-O-Lite Company of Indianapolis, Indiana was in the business of selling full tanks of acetylene for use in the “pre-electric” headlights on early cars. Many of the earliest cars had carbide generators that dripped water onto carbide crystals which, in turn, generated acetylene gas at very low pressure. When ignited, the gas gives off a remarkably bright light.

Carbide generators are somewhat complex and required regular maintenance if they were to operate correctly. Spent carbide crystals created a soggy ash in the bottom of the generator that had to be cleaned out after each use.  The Prest-O-Lite Company saw an opportunity to provide compressed acetylene in purpose-built tanks that could be swapped out for filled tanks when the acetylene was used up. The system was exactly like our BBQ propane tanks. Bring in an empty tank, pay for the propane and get a filled recycled tank. This system was widespread and most acetylene headlight cars switched to Prest-O-Lite tanks over carbide generators because they were very convenient. By 1910 & 1911, the industry was looking for ways to start cars other than by cranking them. The Prest-O-Lite company already had a captive market where cars were using the tanks for lighting their headlights. So why not see if there was a way to use the existing acetylene system to also start the car?  It would ensure a broader market and require more acetylene tanks to be sold.  Enter the Prest-O-Starter.

Only one problem. The competition was going all electric.  A flip of a switch is much easier than turning on a valve, walking around to the front of the car with matches and lighting the headlamps. So, as electric lights were adopted by many manufacturers (Ford was notably slow, waiting until 1915 to switch to electric headlights), the need for acetylene went away. And went away quickly. The year 1912, was the first year Cadillac made electric starters standard on their cars and the technology quickly dominated the alternative automobile starter choices. Those included: electric start, acetylene start, compressed air start, spring start, and the original — hand crank starting.  It is again important to note that Ford did not put electric starters on as standard equipment until 1919.


This ad was in the February 27, 1913 issue of Motor Age, a widely read magazine that sought to showcase the latest and greatest in automotive technology.

I have been trying to find anyone that has a car with an acetylene starter and better yet, someone that has USED IT.  So far, I’ve encountered a hand full of folks that have them on their cars, but all have rigged electric starters to their vehicles.  In my search for all things related to our car, I chanced upon an eBay ad for PREST-O-STARTER installation and operation booklet.  It is reproduced below, just click on the blue words: Prest-O-Starter Manual, below.

Prest-O-Starter Manual