Automotive 2010 Supplement: What Makes A Vehicle Difficult To Unlock?

In my youth, I owned a 1970 VW bus with all the accessories. One cold, late night, my best friend and I found ourselves with the keys locked inside the van in the middle of a college parking lot. Security said they couldn’t help. Then my friend called his brother, who owned a locksmith shop, to...



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In my youth, I owned a 1970 VW bus with all the accessories. One cold, late night, my best friend and I found ourselves with the keys locked inside the van in the middle of a college parking lot. Security said they couldn’t help. Then my friend called his brother, who owned a locksmith shop, to help us out. His brother the locksmith told us in no uncertain terms that he was not interested in unlocking a VW in the middle of the night on the coldest night of the year. During the conversation, he mentioned that those vans were very hard to unlock.

Eventually, I pried the hinge in the vent window apart with a borrowed screwdriver. The hinge consisted of two tabs with a rivet in the center, so after we pried the hinge apart, the entire vent window came out, giving us access to the inside of the van. Even better, once I put the vent window back in place, I could “snap” the two portions of the hinge back together and it was almost as good as new. From then on, it was a simple matter to get into the van when I locked my keys in it.

I learned three important things that night. One: some vehicles are harder to unlock than others. Two: a wise locksmith knows when it’s time to stay in a nice warm home. Three: If you put your mind to it, and are desperate enough, you can usually handle any job with a little thought and ingenuity.

So what exactly makes a vehicle hard to unlock? The biggest factor is having the right tool for the job, and I’ve spent most of my adult life making sure that locksmiths have those tools. But assuming that you have all the tools, there are still going to be some jobs that are harder than others.

The customer is also a big factor. If they’re looking over my shoulder and bugging me while I work, I’m going to have a harder time than if they had left me alone. Sometimes customers won’t let you use a particular tool for fear of damaging their vehicle, and you have to work around it.

The answer to all of these problems is to think carefully before you start and have a variety of options in your tool kit for different circumstances.

True locksmiths also have another advantage over the less sophisticated competition, in that when all else fails, we can either pick the lock or just make a key to the car to get in. Today, with the introduction of electronic and cable operated lock systems, making a key has become a much more important tool than in years past.

So what vehicles do I personally consider just plain hard to unlock? Let’s take a look at the cars that make me want to stay home.

VIRTUALLY ANY JAGUAR

Jaguar has a reputation for building quiet vehicles and they do everything they can to shield the passengers from wind and road noise. This means that the weather stripping is going to fit very tightly at all points. In addition, they use Tibbe locks, so picking them will require special tools that most locksmiths don’t have, and even if you have a Tibbe pick, you know that picking a Tibbe lock is hit or miss at best.

The older Jaguars also had a sheet of plastic hanging inside the door to shield the power window motor and power door lock motors from water that runs down the inside of the door. The sheet of plastic acts a lot like a shower curtain for the electronic parts inside the door. If you damage this “shower curtain,” water will get into the electronics and you open yourself up for a large liability.

The good news is that on almost all Jaguars sold in the U.S., pulling the inside handle will override the lock mechanism and allow you to open the door. On the newer vehicles, which are equipped with cables inside the door, this means that if you cannot pick the lock, you have two choices: use an under-window tool to pull the inside door handle or use a long-reach tool such as the Jiffy-Jak to pull the inside door handle. The extreme weather stripping gets in the way of both these methods.

If you choose an under-window tool, using a lot of lubricant on your tool and shimming the weather stripping on the outside of the door will go a long way toward making the job easier. For a lubricant, you obviously can’t use oil or grease since that would stain the upholstery, so I use dishwashing liquid. This will rinse away easily and if it gets on something that it shouldn’t, it simply cleans it. Since I always keep a bottle of Dawn in my truck for cleaning my hands, this is not really a problem.

Using a long-reach tool requires patience and a quality tool. You simply can’t use a long-reach tool that requires you to shove a chainsaw wedge into the space between the door and frame without risking damage.

Even with the Jiffy-Jak, you must be very careful. I use the smaller of the two levers to gently open a gap large enough to insert the large lever without pinching the weather stripping. Then, I use the large lever to open a gap just large enough to insert an air wedge and let the air wedge do the work. I also use a sleeve over my rod so that it doesn’t scratch the paint of tear the weather stripping. Toilet paper tubes make great disposable shields if you don’t have a plastic one.

PRE-2004 LEXUS VEHICLES

These vehicles are equipped with an alarm that incorporates a relocking mechanism that will relock the door as quickly as you can unlock it. The mechanism inside the door is either well shielded or it is cables. And of course the locks are high-security “sidewinder” locks that have split tumblers.

If you use either an under-window tool or a long-reach tool, you must pull the outside door handle at the exact moment that you unlock the door. The relocking mechanism works very fast and the later models work even faster, so this requires a lot of patience and coordination. Unfortunately, both of these character traits are hard to exercise while the alarm is sounding and everyone within half a block is coming to see what is going on.

My solution is to simply avoid the alarm / relocker problem completely by disconnecting the battery before I try to unlock the car. The standard Toyota and Lexus hood release is a paddle located at that bottom edge of the dash near where the driver’s left knee would be. I use the Jiffy-Jak on the driver’s side of the vehicle to reach in and pop open the hood. Once the hood is released, I leave the rod inside the vehicle while I disconnect the negative terminal of the battery. After the battery has been disconnected, I return to the door and use the tool to unlock the vehicle.

The downside to this method is that disconnecting the battery will require the owner to re-set the radio stations, and if they have an anti-theft stereo system, they will have to enter the code in order to get the stereo to operate again. Both of these problems are minor annoyances as long as you inform the customer before you start. If you wait until you’re done, you’re liable to have an angry customer on your hands – especially if he or she doesn’t know the code for the high-dollar anti-theft stereo!

What about Lexus models made after 2004? Those are easy to unlock with the Jiffy-Jak. In fact, I love doing them because I can charge more for less work. The trick is that beginning in 2002, Toyota / Lexus began phasing in a new latch system. On the new system, pulling the inside handle will override the lock mechanism. The cars still have a relocker, but as long as you are holding the inside handle out far enough, it simply cannot relock the car. All you have to do is hold the handle out with one hand and reach down with the other to pull the outside door handle.

If you’re dealing with a Toyota, Lexus or Scion vehicle made between 2002 and 2004 and you’re not sure if it is equipped with the new system, just attack it from the driver’s side. Pulling the handle on the older models will do you no good, so if that doesn’t work, reach on down with the tool and unlatch the hood as I described above.

SOME ACURAS AND HONDAS

Unlike most manufacturers, Honda uses plastic trim along and around the windows. All Honda vehicles have tight fitting weather stripping to combat wind and road noise. They also have used either bicycle-style cables inside the doors or a heavily shielded vertical system since the late 1990s. Newer Honda and Acura vehicles use a high-security lock system. Once again, this leaves us with two options, an under-window tool or a long-reach tool.

Some vehicles with a vertical linkage system, like the Accord, have lock buttons that difficult to grab, while others like the Ridgeline and Element have rectangular recessed buttons with a thumb-notch. On the buttons with a thumb-notch, I prefer an under-window tool, but on the round buttons, I use an under window tool with a “lasso” to grasp the button. This tool is awkward to use, but it will usually unlock the car with a minimal risk of damage.

Using a long-reach tool on a door with plastic trim is a bad idea. If you have to use a long-reach tool on a vehicle with plastic trim, use it with extreme caution. If you are in doubt if the trim is plastic or metal, try a magnet on it to make certain.

A new wrinkle has appeared on some of the Honda and Acura vehicles beginning in 2006 with the new Civic. These vehicles have a horizontal linkage system that uses bicycle-style cables, with a lock control rocker located inside the trim that surrounds the inside door handle. On these vehicles, the rocker moves in the opposite direction of most vehicles to unlock the door. It must be pushed forward with an under-window tool rather than pulled back.

CADILLAC XLR & CTS COUPE AND 2005 AND UP CORVETTE

These vehicles use a “keyless” lock system where the door latch is mounted in the body of the car rather than in the door. There is absolutely nothing in the door to attack with a tool. The window design makes using a long-reach tool almost impossible without breaking the glass. But all of these vehicles have an override lock mounted at the rear of the vehicle that you can generate a key for or pick. On the Corvette and the CTS, the lock is located directly above the license plate in the deck lid, with the lock pointing down. On the XLR, the lock is located behind a plastic plug in the rear bumper.

Picking these locks is not easy, but it can be done. The lock is also equipped with a clutch that is operated by the tip of the key though, so once you have it picked, you will have to push in on the clutch with your pick or another tool while you turn the lock. Once the rear hatch is unlocked, a couple of cables are hidden behind an upholstered panel. They will allow you to open the door and the fuel filler door.

With the GM-9 Determinator™ set, you can generate a key to operate the lock in a matter of minutes. Be aware that even though a B-106 “Z-keyway” blank can be used on these locks, the correct key blank is a narrow version of the B-106. At this time the only source other than the dealer for these blanks is HATA and their part number for the blank is HAT-3937.

BMW, MERCEDES, VW, AUDI & PORSCHE

I no longer consider these vehicles either hard to unlock or particularly challenging since the introduction of the new generation of high security lock picks. But I know that a lot of people reading this article probably feel differently. Between the High-Security Flip Pick, the VWEZ pick, and the BMWEZ pick, none of these vehicles stand a chance of defeating me. As long as the locks are functional and I’m patient, I have utter confidence in my ability to unlock the vehicles with the picks I have.

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