Using a 50 cent piece to hotwire a car?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Dec 01, 2001

Dear Tom and Ray:

In the 1950s and '60s, I spent a fair amount of time in Ford V-8s
with my friend Herb Johnson. When one of these Fords wouldn't start
because of a low battery combined with a Minnesota winter morning,
Herb would fetch a 50-cent piece from his pocket, reach under the
dash and touch it across two terminals on something. This would
cause the engine to start. Which terminals were involved? Why did
this work? I always wondered, but I had too much pride to ask. I
secretly hoped that he thought I knew how to do the same thing. --

TOM: You know, every woman reading this column today is shaking her
head right now in sad recognition. You've been wondering for 50
years because you were too damn proud to ask.

RAY: So let this be a lesson to the young men in our audience today.
Never keep quiet in the face of unknown phenomena. Show some
courage. If you see something you don't understand, don't keep
quiet. Immediately accuse your friend of ruining the thing. That
way, he'll be forced to explain to you what he's doing, while you
maintain your all-important male dignity.

TOM: I don't think old Herb was doing much of anything, John. He was
basically hot-wiring the car. In the '50s and into the early '60s,
most ignition switches were on the dashboard. If you reached behind
the dash, you could touch the exposed wires of the ignition switch.
And if you knew what you were doing, you could identify the solenoid
wire and the hot wire, and could bridge them to engage the starter.
You'd still need the key in the "run" position for the car to
actually start, but I assume Herb had the key.

RAY: Why he reached behind the lock and jumped the wires instead of
turning the key to the "crank" position, I don't know. It doesn't
make any sense to me, and I can't think of any advantage it offers.

TOM: Maybe his key would get stuck in the cold weather and wouldn't
turn to the crank position?

RAY: Maybe this gimmick was an old myth his father had passed down
to him, and he was too proud to ask his father why he did it?

TOM: Or maybe he just wanted to impress his friend, who he knew
would be too cool to ask what the hell he was doing?

RAY: If that was his goal, it worked, John. Ask next time, will you?

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