Lim Tayar

The Evolution Of The Simple Car Key

Gone are the good old days when car keys used to be just a piece of metal that you insert, turn and vroom, car starts!

Now there are keys with codes, alarms, buttons, and all kinds of nonsense.

But a good hundred or so years ago, car keys didn’t even exist! Forget unlocking your car from 10 feet away, you couldn’t even lock it, bro!

The first car that was introduced to the world was the Benz Patent Motorwagen in 1885.

But it wasn’t until the 20th century that they really became a ‘thing’. Back then, a horse and carriage was still very much in vogue (faster too perhaps).

But soon after, car manufacturing companies started popping up like mushrooms in a damp forest, i.e: Renault (1899), Ford (1903), Mercedes (1902), Stanley (also 1902) and Proton (1983).

Early cars did not even have ignition keys – in fact they didn’t even have electric starter-buttons, starter-motors or anything like that. To get them going, you had to crank them by hand. Yes, just like in the cartoons.

And while this looks like a lot of fun, it wasn’t easy to do. It was actually pretty easy to get hurt from it. First off, you needed considerable strength to start them and the most common injuries associated with starting such cars were broken wrists and broken arms.

According to a Popular Science article from March 1964 on automotive firsts, the first ignition keys that also operated the starter mechanism were introduced by Chrysler in 1949.

In the 1950s, early versions of “flip keys” resembling jack knives were made by the Signa-Craft company out of New York with various U.S. automakers prototypes like the Pontiac Strato-Streak and the Cadillac El Camino featuring them.

Signa-Craft and other manufacturers like Curtis, Taylor Locks, and Mr. Key also produced keys for many 1950’s-1970’s makes and models known as “Crest Keys”.

These were car keys that featured an enameled rendition of the auto manufacturer’s logo on the bow and were plated in 14k gold.

During the early 1960s, these special keys became so popular that oil companies like Mobil, Texaco, and Union 76 began issuing their own versions as promotional items for their customers. Today, these early keys are also highly sought after by collectors.

In modern times, most car keys are 3-in-1 offerings which includes a mechanical key to release the steering lock, a coded ‘electronic transponder chip’ read by the car when the key is inserted into the ignition, and a remote control to unlock doors and turn off the alarm.

Come the 2000s, GM became the first carmaker to offer remote-starting direct from the factory (this tech has been available in the aftermarket world for years).

But in 2016, BMW changed the game when they debuted the 7-series and with it, a key straight out of James Bond movies that can lock and unlock the doors, set climate control, and open the trunk.

Via the touchscreen, the car can be parked even when there’s no driver at the wheel!

In April 2019, Korean car-maker Hyundai debuted the third-generation 2020 Sonata equipped with a company first, the Digital Key.

This tool uses Near Field Communication tech to turn a smartphone into a key via a dedicated mobile application, thus eliminating the need for a traditional key and having that awkward bulge in your jeans.

You can see it here (the key, not the bulge).

Through the app, vehicle owners can select which smartphones have access to the car and for how long.

While all these cool new high tech keys might be great to some and perhaps convenient for others, we simply have to ask one question – what happens if your phone runs out of battery?

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