The History of Car Keys

For decades, mechanical car keys used to start an automobile were standard. Now those jagged pieces of metal are nearly extinct. The history of car keys has a story to tell.
car key history

What connotations come to mind with the words “car keys?” Bad thoughts, like frantically ransacking your house, bags and pockets in search of them? Good thoughts, like being handed them for the first time at a dealership or flicking your wrist and hearing the engine come alive?

Either way, these experiences are likely to soon be stowed-away memories of a different time: The truth is, the history of car keys as we know them is quickly coming to a close.

Just about every other aspect of automotive technology has drastically evolved over the past century, and the keys we use to open and start our cars are no different. But car key history is unique in that instead of simply improving the feature, current technology has rendered traditional car keys obsolete, sending them the way of the dodo, car ashtrays and crank windows.

That renders the age-old question: How did we get here? Let’s take a look back.

history of car keys
Photo: Robert Bosch GmbH, Stuttgart/Germany, Corporate Archives

The History of Car Keys Begins

Car key history can be traced back to 1910, but these early versions didn’t start the engine or ignition. Instead, the first car keys controlled the ignition’s electrical circuit. Using the key, car owners could switch off the flow of electrical current, making it impossible to start the vehicle. Once the switch was on, the ignition could be activated, although drivers still had to then crank up the engine.

Soon after, keys that could lock and unlock both the electrical circuit and the ignition became more common.

Because it was still impossible to start the engine without a key, car theft was not a concern, and “locking” a car wasn’t a practice. In fact, most early automobiles were roofless and some were even door-less.

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Mid-Century Car Keys

A major milestone in car key history occurred in 1949 when Chrysler unveiled the first car key that could start a vehicle’s engine all on its own. It was able to do so through the use of an ignition tumbler, or ignition lock cylinder.

In 1965, Ford became the first manufacturer to introduce double-sided keys that could be inserted into the tumbler either way. While seemingly elementary by today’s standards, these types of car keys remained the norm for decades.

This was also around the same the time the dual key, which could both start the car and unlock the doors, took hold. Prior to the 1960s, some vehicles still required two separate car keys.

key fob

Car Keys Meet Technology

Car key evolution was mostly dormant for the next quarter century but took some momentous leaps in the 1990s. It was this decade that saw the rise of the now ubiquitous key fob.

Remote keyless entry fobs allowed car owners to lock and unlock vehicle doors from afar by emitting a coded signal through radio waves to a receiver in the car. As technology developed, key fobs gained more functions, such as opening the trunk or sliding doors and starting the engine remotely.

(If you’re curious about the strange name, according to The Atlantic, “fob” may come from the word “fuppe,” which means “pocket” in the low German dialect.)

Car fobs are very expensive to replace. Make sure you’re protected with AAA’s Tire & Wheel Program, which covers lost keys and key fobs up to $5,000.

key fob

Car Keys Today

The traditional, mechanical car key is quickly becoming a thing of the past – if it’s not already a relic of automotive history. Almost all of today’s new vehicles have some version of a keyless entry and push-button start system. In fact, according to consumer auto research firm Edmunds, 91% of 2019 model-year vehicles had keyless ignitions. That’s up from 72% in 2014.

We’ve come a long way from having to carry one key for the engine and one key for the doors. But apparently one key is still one too many: Drivers can now store a digital car key on – where else – their phones.

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Apple’s Wallet app includes a feature to add your car key. In order to do this, you need to have a compatible car as well as an iPhone or Apple Watch. Once installed, a user simply places their phone or watch next to the car’s door handle to unlock the vehicle. To start the car, they just place the phone or watch in the car’s key reader and press the start button. When an owner wants to share their key, they can simply send an iMessage to that user, which tells them how to add and use the car key.

Tesla owners can use the company’s smartphone app to do many of the same things. The app can track a driver’s smartphone from up to 30 feet away and automatically unlock the doors by the time they reach the car. But the electric automaker isn’t alone. Several marques, including BMW, Hyundai and Lincoln, offer digital car keys, making the trend’s rise seem more assured and imminent.

What are your thoughts on car keys today? Do you like the idea of a digital key on your phone or would rather have a tangible key you can hold? Let us know in the comments below?

For more automotive history, visit AAA.com.

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108 Thoughts on “The History of Car Keys

  1. I prefer an actual radio linked key for which the battery can be either easily and cheaply replaced or recharged from one’s computer..

  2. Control freak that I am, I absolutely prefer a key to start the car and for that reason it is more convenient to just use it to open the car as well. I do not like the possibility of inadvertently starting the car or my kids starting it even worse. I need my car to require a conscious action to start and stop my engine and require a physical object that I can control. All “progress”/”digital”/”electronic” is not necessarily good. Hopefully this is just a passing fad.

  3. I like the fob and the functions that they provide, in fact i can go so far as to say I love the Fob in my caddy and what it does, but the metal keys are easier to carry, without the thought of dying batteries in the remote, inexpensive to replace and safer to have even if you lose them ( if you lose your remote chances of a bad guy finding your vehicle is very easy since all he have to do is press the button on the remote to find your car and steel it…

  4. I think it is ridiculous to do away with car keys. We are so beholden to technology, it is nice to have something that we can do manually. I take great pleasure in driving myself and backing up etc. without assistance. It is as if all our skills are being taken away in favour of technology. Besides, screens are distracting. I say leave us alone and let us drive as we always have, using keys to start our cars and our own skills to navigate!

    1. Could not agree more! It’s a shame what cars have become thanks to needless technology “improvements”. Kids learning to drive today are going to have no idea how to actually drive a car. They’re basically going to be passengers to the technology. No to mention all this technology baloney is making everybody dumber and they pay even less attention to what they’re doing behind the wheel because the cars do it for them. So dangerous – which is ironic since supposedly it’s supposed to make things safer. Good luck when your sensors fail and you have to actually drive…

  5. I want my new car to have a key to open the doors, start the engine. I want my new car to have a bench seat where my knees are not higher than my tush and that I can change position without seat belt restraint. I want a car with hand crank windows that do not rely on a dead battery or malfunctioning motor to open. I want a car that has a little head room for me, and leg room for the backseat passengers. I want windows that can be opened a bit without rain pouring in. I want a real spare tire that I can change if I get a flat. I want a car that has some real style to it instead of the squashed jellybean look where a Hundai or a Mercedes are indistinguishable in profile. What ever happened to car stylists. I don’t need 0 to 60 in 3.2 seconds or be able to “burn rubber” with 400 horsepower engines. I don’t need to be the first to race up to a stoplight with a stupid mentality or weave in and out to get ahead of some other fool.
    Today’s cars are over engineered, overpriced, unaesthetic pieces of cr**. I love J. Leno’s garage for great pieces of automotive history and design. I’ll end my rant at this point.

    1. totally agree! fobs are a classic example of something that was not “broke” but got “fixed” anyway.

      1. That’s why I drive an old Chevy with a metal key for the doors and another for the ignition.

  6. KEY! My wife’s car drives me nuts with all its electronics. I love my 2008 Forester – plainer, simpler, smaller.

  7. I am a Safety Coordinator at an auto auction. We have a weekly problem with the theft (average-16) of remote fobs. Even though we strap the fobs with aircraft wire, the wire is cut and the fob is stolen. Average cost to replace the fob’s is $3,100. a week.
    Bring back the key.

  8. Yes. Too much reliance on tech can backfire. The old fashioned key ???? works fine for me. If I ever find a guy to get married I will let my husband figure this all out.

  9. As your story states, key fobs are expensive to replace. Cell phones take up too much space in my pockets so I usually leave it in the car for emergencies. Car keys are slim and easily carried. I carry a spare in my wallet. A car key is safe, because, if lost, no one knows which car it belongs to. They are cheap to duplicate.
    An electronic key reader is an expensive item and the car manufacturers just pass on the cost. Sometimes old technology is superior. And don’t get me started on push-button starting!

  10. I prefer having a regular key..I would hope one could have a choice. My car is a 2010 Toyota Matrix with a key.

    1. 2009 Toyota Matrix here. 175,000 miles. Still going. Burns oil a little so I have to add oil every week or two but that’s about it. Oh and older Toyotas have this thing with tail lights that go out for what seems like more often than others cars do. Not that often but I’ve noticed other older Toyota’s with their tail lights out. Other than that, the car is super reliable.

      1. Edit: oh and yes I agree with other people here. I like the idea of the key fob with a spare key in the fob. Best of both worlds.

    2. Edit: I agree with others here. The key fob with the spare key inside is ideal. Best of both worlds.

  11. I don’t like combining too many functions in one electronic device. If the phone battery dies you can’t unlock the car? No thanks. Just give me a fob, with a backup key inside it. Similarly, I don’t trust fingerprint or facial recognition; both are too unreliable.

  12. We ae snow birds and leave a car in FL outside with the battery disconnected. Without a real key we could not do that. No battery would mean I would not be able to unlock the doors.

    1. Metal keys are king! Make A spare for $5 bucks. To much “tech” already! Just because you can-doesn’t mean you should. Simple is best!

  13. I’m old fashioned and like the physical fob. Having a touch start car was an adjustment since I always had a key to turn the engine on and off, several times I walked away and did not shut the engine off!
    I think having both would be good for those who want the convenience and those of us who want a “key”.

  14. I was lucky enough to own a 1949 Ferrari. They had an ignition key and a door key. The ignition key was a pole similar to what you plug into stereos. I am pretty sure this same key was also used in radios of the time.

  15. phone batteries die, just like on my fob battery died luckily key was in fob.
    keep it simple.leave a key in the fob

  16. I really prefer actual keys. This could prevent me from buying a new car and just keep up the maintenance on the old one. Same goes for motorcycles 2012 BMW has a key new ones do not. Will likely not upgrade to a new one.

  17. I’m for car keys. No danger of leaving them in the car and having a car stolen because you accidentally left them in the car. Then again, my dad’s car was stolen in 1966 when he left it running to come inside for a few minutes. Fortunately, in those days, many times cars were stolen for “joy rides,” not for parts. The car was found in the next town the same day by good police work and perhaps parents of the young ones forcing their children to take responsibility for their misdeeds.

  18. At my age, 91, I still like having a key although my key is attached to a fob for
    pushing functions.

  19. Luddite that I am, I prefer the old thin key, can have multiple copies easily and cheaply–no need to carry that fat electronic key or the large phone to open and start the car. Yes, less secure, but that is what insurance is for.

    1. Luddite. Me too. I recently bought a used car that needed a second key to be ordered. Took a month. Frustrating.

    2. I think there are more luddites than you think. My second car is an older model station wagon that does not have an electric key. I don’t find it an inconvenience to simply twist a key to open the door or the back trunk.

    3. Article doesn’t comment on the use of an RF amplifier to steal cars by tricking them into thinking the holder of the amplifier has the key.

    1. and what if the fob or other device has a flat battery? or the automobile’s battery “dead”?

      1. That’s very rare, but can easily be mitigated by keeping spare batteries in the glove box. I’ve been doing that for keyfobs & keyless since the ’90’s. The spare button batteries will easily last 10 years. The bigger issue is folk who rely entirely on their phones. Phones get stolen a lot, phones get broken a lot, and phones go deal a lot.

        1. I’ve had the battery in the key fob stop working. That’s why I keep a spare in a wallet (they’re very small), and also in the house. If the fob is not working, and entry is not possible into the car, then the spare battery in the glove compartment won’t be available. Agree with you on the phone car key, unless there is also a back-up way for the owner’s entry

          1. Pretty sure the fob still has a mechanical key inside it for backup. And it gives you a low battery warning. If you ignore it then that’s on you

    2. I don’t like ANY technology that allows an automobile company to have access to my ignition or starter.

    3. Having an old style key in the fob is great for backup. You never know when the battery will fail. Some things shouldn’t go completely out of style…

      1. I prefer a key to unlock and start the car. Having a key in the fob housing will let you get in your car but won’t start it if you have push button start.

      2. I agree. If all cars are going to Push Button Start, A FOB with internal emergency key is good. But, what happens if the start button fails??

    4. i do not carry a cell phone – the key fob thingie is bulky enough in my pocket – also heard replacing dead battries is both a cost and convenience issue

    5. I would rather have a key in my hand. Technology is great but no privacy anymore. Anything you do on your phone can be traced. Or used for unsuitable things.

      1. Even without any phone, there is no privacy when you drive because license plate readers (LPR) are everywhere. Not to mention video cameras. Basically, when you walk outside your house, your privacy ends.

    6. HATE the fobs. The other day, dropped my wife off at a store, continued to another store and turned off the car. Tried to exit the vehicle but doors were locked. Fob was in my wife’s purse. Had to ‘break out’ of my own car with the alarm blaring and walk over a mile back to my wife to get the key. Never would have happened with real keys.

      1. Being unable to exit a car is VERY dangerous! Suppose you were in an accident, the car was on fire, no one was around to help you, and you couldn’t get out of the car? That is SCARY!

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