As Michal Velebny, the Restoration Workshops Coordinator at the Skoda Museum, explains in this video, starting a car is like the machine comes to life. Then he proceeds to take us on a history of the car starter, illustrating its evolution with a series of vintage cars in the museum's collection.
The process for starting a 1905 Laurin & Klement Voiturette was complex involving five steps before turning the crank. It included opening the brass petrol tap, moving the electric spark plug advance lever to start, adjusting the hand throttle, turning a key to switch on the electric circuit, and checking that the gear level was in neutral. Only then could you turn the crank, which required strength and a feel for the compression cycle of the engine.
Hand cranks caused lots of injuries and were phased out in favor of electric starters by the early 1920s. During that era, Laurin & Klement cars featured a "toggle starter" which used a mechanical device like a switch or pedal to engage the starter. There were still other steps involved, like turning on the fuel tap and setting the choke, but the process was much easier, safer, and didn't require you to leave your car.
For Skoda, the significant change came in 1964 with the S 1000/1000 MB, which was the company's first car that started with a key. The steps of switching on the electrical system and engaging the starter were now done in one motion and became the standard for almost 60 years. Other innovations quickly followed, like mechanical and electric chokes to replace manual ones.
Keys themselves also underwent many changes. Initially, they were small and simple, making them easy to forge or recreate. Eventually, Skoda went to a one-sided key which was harder to copy. Gradually keys evolved to double-sided keys that were more secure. That innovation led to keys with built-in electronic immobilizers and then key fobs allowing for keyless entry and remote start.
In 2010 Skoda introduced its KESSY keyless system on the Superb, allowing the driver to leave the key in their pocket and press a starter button. That innovation led to the most recent starter process used by Skoda's electric cars. Now the driver doesn't even have to press a button, they just get in and go.