Like most things, car keys started from the bottom before becoming one of the automotive industry’s most crucial tools. From the car’s invention around 1885 to the first successful gas-powered model in 1893, car keys did not actually appear until 1949. Ignition was never the same after that.
The Humble Beginnings
In 1949, legendary car brand Chrysler introduced the first ignition key. Although it still required a push of a button to engage the starter, they introduced the modern key that we know today, which starts a car with a single turn of the ignition tumbler.
After 15 years, Ford came up with the first double-sided key still used today. While Chrysler introduced the first key, it was one-sided and allowed insertion only in one orientation. However, Ford’s idea made it possible to insert the key in either direction, making it easier for drivers worldwide.
Improvements in Security
In the late 80s, Chevrolet wanted to make cars more secure by installing an anti-theft system on their automobiles. 1986 marked the start of the coded resistor to keys that were needed to start vehicles. This move made their product, the Corvette, harder to steal. The anti-theft system trickled down to succeeding car models until the ‘90s.
Meanwhile, Cadillac made cars more secure by introducing the first example of a factory-installed remote entry that enabled remote locking and unlocking car doors. Although it is theorized that AMC started this movement, there are no known concrete examples. In the early 90s, keyless-entry fobs became a hit, changing the lives of parking valets.
Changes in Design
Jaguar opened up the 90s with a vision. They introduced a new car key design called a Tibbe key. It is a design with an odd shaft with an oval-shaped tip. First launched in 1989 through Merkur Scorpio before landing in Jaguar automobiles, it made its way to Ford products as well.
After quite some time, the design laid low and reappeared from 2012 to 2013 in the Ford Transit Connect before disappearing permanently. Lexus jumped on the hype of new key designs and commercialized the first laser-cut key, which uses intricate cuts that were more difficult to replicate and provided better security.
Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz introduced a “switchblade” key that flipped out of remote fobs. The design was widely copied by competitors and used in many modern Volkswagens.
Future of Car Keys
Chevrolet introduced the first proximity keys in 1993. It served as a blueprint for the proximity fobs of today. Called the Passive Keyless Entry System, it can’t start the car, but it automatically locks and unlocks doors as soon as it detects the fob close by.
Mercedes-Benz stepped up and reinvented the proximity key. As a result, the first fully functional proximity key design was introduced. However, it was only short-lived as Mercedes’ Smart Card lacked durability. A year later, the company tried to improve the system. Chevrolet jumped in the idea and launched the remote start, forever changing the way we warm up and cool our vehicles.
There were no innovations for a while in car keys. Until 2016, everything stayed the same, not until BMW changed the game by adding a modern display key that looked like an LCD touchscreen.
In 2018, Tesla made waves by totally omitting physical keys. Through their design, all you needed was a smartphone to start your car. However, if your smartphone ran out of battery, a credit card key can save you from walking home.
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