A brief history of car keys

Time was when cars didn’t have keys of any type. That was back in the days when they were referred to as “horseless carriages”, and had no doors to unlock, no way of starting the engine without a hand crank … and a strictly-enforced two-mile-an-hour speed limit in urban areas.

And hand cranks were notoriously dangerous to use: once you’d got the crankshaft and the pistons moving, the spark plugs would ignite the fuel and the engine would start running by itself, often throwing the crank handle backwards and slamming it into the driver or chauffeur’s hand.

1910 saw the introduction of the first type of car key. It would lock the vehicle’s electric circuitry, meaning drivers’ wrists and arms were still at risk from crank handles, but not for much longer because during the 1920s starting a vehicle had become much easier – just the simple press of a button and the engine sprang into life. It was around now that it seemed like a good idea to stop unauthorised people pressing that button by adding locks to car doors.

Car key development took a bit of a back seat until 1949, when the Chrysler Corporation came up with an alternative to the starting button – a key that would start the engine when inserted into the ignition tumbler. It looked more like a house key and you could only slide it into the tumbler one way up because it only had the single cut edge.

But it was a start.

In 1965, Ford went one step better by introducing an ignition key that instead of being just single-sided like the original Chrysler key, had cuts on both sides of the blade so drivers could insert it into the tumbler either way up.

However, that was just the ignition key. In those days cars were sold with two different key types: keys with the square shaped head started the car, while the keys with the oval head were for unlocking doors, boots and glove compartments.

Around ten years later Honda brought out a new type of car key. This one – and just the one – unlocked car doors and switched on the engine all by itself, and it didn’t matter one bit which way up the key went into the barrel.

That was around the time when side-winder keys were introduced to increase vehicle security. Instead of cutting along the edges, that type of key had a pattern engraved onto both sides of the blade, and the style is still very popular today.

Moving forwards another ten years, the double-sided, multifunctional car key started to become much more sophisticated. In 1986, Chevrolet’s Vehicle Anti-Theft System (VATS) comprised a coded resistor with one of 15 different values in the key to make their popular Corvettes more difficult to steal. The resistor would touch two contacts inside the ignition barrel, and if it was the right value the car would start. That system worked so well that it became standard across many General Motors vehicle makes and models.

In 1983 the American Motors Corporation and Renault worked together to bring out their Alliance model which, we’re told, is the earliest example of a factory-installed system to lock and unlock doors remotely, thereby starting a car key trend that continues to this day.

In 1990 Jaguar adopted the Tibbe key. Instead of the usual flat blade, edge-cut or side-winder keys, Tibbes had a cylindrical shaft with the end cut six or so times to four different depths. Ford also adopted the Tibbe key format for a few years.

That same year the Lexus LS400 was the first vehicle to require a key specially cut by laser, while the Mercedes-Benz SL came with a “switchblade” key that flipped out of a remote-locking key fob – a concept now widely copied throughout the automotive trade.

In 1993, still with a view to making Corvettes less tempting to thieves, General Motors’ Passive Keyless Entry System meant that your Corvette would lock and unlock its doors just by detecting the key fob nearby … but you still had to use a separate key to start the engine.

From 1995 onwards, central locking systems became increasingly commonplace, and around then UK motor manufacturers were legally obliged to factory fit immobiliser systems to their vehicles. The key transponder chip code and the code programmed into the vehicle need to match exactly – even if the key fits into the ignition barrel perfectly – otherwise the engine won’t start.

1999 saw the introduction of keyless locking systems, which not only locked and unlocked car doors, but also took drivers back to the early 1900s when it just required the press of a button to start their car’s engine. (Fortunately we’ll never have to return to having to use a handcrank for that.)

In 2003 the Mercedes-Benz Smart Card seemed like a good idea at the time: it was a fully-functional proximity key designed to fit into a wallet – just like a credit card. But unlike a credit card, which can withstand a certain amount of bending and being sat on if the wallet it’s in is in a back pocket, the Smart Card simply didn’t have the flexibility to survive in a wallet. The following year, the company brought out a key fob containing the required technology, which was much more successful.

In 2004, Lexus introduced its own first Smart Card, and still offers it as an accessory, while General Motors was the first car manufacturer to offer remote start as factory-installed standard in their vehicles.

In 2016, BMW’s 7-series display key’s LCD touchscreen can control vehicle functions from a distance of up to a thousand feet. Owners can open the boot, lock and unlock the doors, and even heat up or cool down the car’s interior from that distance – perfect for both summer and winter driving. But that’s not all: as well as the touchscreen displaying all kinds of information about the vehicle, it enables the driver to get out, and with a few taps on the screen watch the car do a better job of parking itself than any human.

But the more technical and the more complicated physical car keys become, the more there is to go wrong. That’s not to say they do go wrong, but there’s always the possibility of needing a duplicate or even a replacement key at short notice, for whatever reason.

So no matter what your car key problem may be, we’ve got the solution for you because we are … Car Keys Solutions.