Historiography: 100 Years of Turning the Key

Photo (c)2012 General Motors

It was a century ago that the most important piece of automotive necessity was introduced.

Imagine a time when you had to use physical force to start a car. No matter the weather or the conditions, you took a doglegged piece of metal, stuck it into a hole underneath the radiator and rotated the bent stick so quickly in hopes that the starter/magneto/electric thingy would wake up the sleeping car for the drive. It is not as easy as one think it would be…

It took great strength to get it started the first time. Think about when you had to start your lawn mower. You pulled the starter rope to get it going, right? It is the same principle, but compared to starting a car with a crank, your mower was easy to start up.

In 1912, the Cadillac Motor Company developed a way for anyone to get in their car and start it. The electric starter was already developed, and has been in use for some time. The trick was to two-fold: Replicate the starting of a car while inside of it and find an easier, less painful way of doing so.

The solution was to install a key lock on the dashboard. Keys were becoming popular by this time – especially when one wanted to protect their homes from burglars. A key would be made to be inserted into a small cylinder to be turned by the operator of the car until the motor comes to life. No more freezing while you crank that car during the winter! No more mosquito attacks during the summer doing the exact same thing!

The self-starter was a revolutionary piece of ingenuity that gave Cadillac's its second Dewar’s Trophy. Yet, it came with a price – a Cadillac one. This technology would take years before it found its way into ordinary automobiles, but it was a good start.

Today, we take this advance in automobile technology for granted. The automobile key is one of the most prized possessions we carry every day. What was once a small metal key became a larger one with inscriptions that bore the trademark of your prized vehicle. Then, plastic and rubber key heads were made into these keys – to protect one from the extremes of weather.

Nowadays, the key blade that unlocked your freedom is becoming no more. Laser cut blades that have impressions on the inside are now connected to the key fob. They open up like a switchblade as you’re ready to rumble down the highway. Some key blades are hidden in a transponder as the ignition slot has been replaced by a start/stop button. You simply leave your keys in your pocket since the transponder let the car know it is you.

This is the reality we live in. The self-starter is now connected to a somewhat secure signal encoded with the identity of the vehicle. Add in a telematics connection, and your key is simply a radio wave being tracked via global positioning satellite.

It is now getting to the point where you no longer need a physical piece of plastic and electronics to get into your car. Your smartphone is being primed to do the same thing as a key with an app emulating the transponder and remote start. It transfers waves the same between the car and the phone to ensure your security getting into it…and starting it up.

What is this world coming to? Have we let go of the ignition key after 100 years of development?

Being six years old, I remember the feel of a key. The pentastar-shaped head of the key to my dad’s 1970 Plymouth Barracuda, where you inserted the cut side up to start it up. The reverse was done for General Motors' keys. Ford began to introduce double-cuts for their keys at that time – same as most of the Europeans and Japanese. You knew the difference between each manufacturer by feeling the head of the key – a gift some automotive enthusiasts would consider even too geeky.

Of the vehicles I reviewed last year, only several had actual keys to put into the ignition – the Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD, the Hyundai Elantra, the Scion tC, the Toyota Corolla, the Nissan Rogue, the GMC Acadia, and the Kia Optima. Then again, only a few had a button to start things up – the Lexus IS 250 C, the Lexus CT 200h and the Saab 9-5. Everything else came with a switchblade key with some funny cut down the middle of each side of the blade connected to a big fob controlling everything for you.

As I look at what's coming through this year, it would probably be more of the same – a hodgepodge of ignition options that would confuse even someone new to driving.

Cadillac's advance of 100 years ago should be celebrated. It added some necessary safety and security to operate our vehicles the way they were intended. It still resonates every time we take our keys out of pocket, purse or wherever we carry them. Or, transponder…or smartphone with a vehicle app…or…

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