Dorri Partain

Can’t find your car keys?

The earliest models of automobiles had neither doors, roofs, nor keys. With the earliest designs based on carriages, the term ”horseless carriage” was quite accurate. Engines were started by manual cranking, and without doors, there was certainly no need for a key.

Henry Ford (1863-1947) began production of his most popular series, the Model T, in 1908 and all models were doorless. While still not common, driver doors began appearing in 1912. Nearly all models had locking doors by 1923.

Locking devices were first invented by the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians and crafted from wood. Years later, the ancient Romans molded locks and keys from iron and bronze; those keys resembled the skeleton key, a style that changed little over centuries.

At his locksmith shop in Newport, New York, Linus Yale Sr. (1797- 1858) invented the pin tumbler, which used a flat key with carved indentations. Designed for bank vaults and drawers, his designs were patented between 1843-1857. This new style was more secure, more versatile, and eventually replaced the skeleton key.

By 1910, automakers began producing cars that needed keys to unlock the ignition, but the engine still needed to be cranked manually. Ignition keys that would start an engine first appeared in Chrysler models introduced in 1949.

To differentiate ignition keys from door and trunk keys, the head of the key was shaped differently. Barely two inches in length, they were also single-cut and could only be inserted one way and open one door at a time.

Ford Motor Company introduced the double-sided key in 1965. Not only did this ease the entry or ignition speed, but the double-cut also increased security. Again, keys were differentiated for door or ignition.

Remote control door locks first appeared in 1987 in models produced by Cadillac and AMC.

Power door locks made entry easier since all doors could be opened at the same time.

New developments in auto technology such as proximity keys, remote start, and smartphone apps may soon make auto keys obsolete and the collector item of the future.

This key set features the Ford Motors crest emblem designed by L. David Nash and appeared on various models from 1950 to 1956.