A Brief History of Vehicle Entry Procedures

It’s funny how it happens. You don’t really see it coming, and then one day you wake up and realize that you’re no longer a young man. A few minutes ago, I plugged some numbers into a calculator and discovered that I have been in the locksmith business for 40 of my 62 – two-thirds of my life! Then I went to Wikipedia to check out what cars were in production when I became a locksmith. The list included the Chevrolet Vega, Chevrolet LUV, Ford Pinto, and the AMC Gremlin. On the bright side, I became a locksmith in the same year that Pink Floyd released “Dark Side of the Moon.” Next year will mark a quarter century that I’ve been writing articles for the Locksmith Ledger.

So, what has any of that got to do with car-opening procedures? Not much actually, except to establish that I actually do have first-hand experience with a lot of car-opening tools and techniques.

It was the changes made during the late 70s and early 80s that actually got me into the business of teaching and writing about vehicle entry. I stopped doing automotive work for almost six years in the 80s while I was the base locksmith at NAS Pensacola. When I went back to automotive work, I discovered that there had been A LOT of changes in six years. I had no idea at the time that the automotive locksmith world would keep changing and change so drastically during the next few decades.

When I introduced the Jiffy-Jak in 1999, it changed the market for automotive entry tools. The odd thing was not that it was such a novel new tool, but that it was such an old technique. I have an ad from a locksmith publication from the 1930s that illustrates a “Revolutionary New Tool” that is used to reach inside a car and attack the window crank. This tool was designed to enter the car by way of the rubber grommet around the brake or clutch pedal, but the overall idea was the same as today.

Let’s take a few minutes to look back at the vehicle entry tools and techniques of the past, and maybe we can get some idea of where we’re going in the future.


Early Systems

Early cars did not always have locking passenger compartments. I own a 1959 Austin Healey Sprite that has no door locks. In fact, it doesn’t even have an exterior door handle - you have to reach inside the car to unlatch the door. When locks were first added to car doors, they were relatively simple devices. Even today, most automotive locking systems are actually nothing but a “disconnect.” When the car is “locked,” all that happens is that the outside door handle is disabled.

To allow someone inside the car to unlock the door without a key, some “lost motion” is built into the linkage system. For many years, this lost motion was built into the tailpiece, sometimes called a cam or a pawl, of the door lock. In that type of system, the tailpiece can move from the locked position to the unlocked position without the lock cylinder turning. This type of system is known as a “Lazy-Cam” system since the cam on the lock could be moved so easily.

It wasn’t long before tools were developed to move the tailpiece of the lock from outside the car. Usually these tools were made from a flat piece of spring-steel that soon became known generically as a Slim-Jim.

Slim-Jims are still available in a variety of sizes and configurations, but they are not nearly as effective as they once were. The most common use for a Slim-Jim was to use the end of the tool to push down or pull up on the lazy cam to unlock the door. For those who were willing to practice with the tool, there was a lot more that could be done with it. With practice, it was possible to place a bend in the tool to reach hidden linkage rods and then use the curve of the tool and the slots on the end of the tool to move both vertical and horizontal linkage rods.

Because most people used the Slim-Jim to attack the lazy cam, most of the efforts made by the auto manufacturers to stop this tool boiled down trying to hide the lazy cam behind shields and braces inside the door. The real end of the Slim-Jim era came in 1977 when Ford discontinued the lazy cam on all of their vehicles. Within a few years, with the help of insurance company pressure, other manufacturers followed suit.

To make matters worse, the new rigid cams that Ford adopted were made of plastic and simply snapped onto the back end of the lock plug. This meant that when a Slim-Jim jockey attacked one of these locks, the cam usually popped off the lock and fell into the inside of the door along with the linkage. Then, the car could not be unlocked even with the key, and the door panel had to be removed in order to repair the lock. After many damage claims, a lot of police and fire departments ordered their officers to stop attempting to unlock cars. Of course, we still have the “cowboys” who watch too many movies and TV shows and think that a Slim-Jim will unlock any vehicle if they just poke it around inside the door hard enough. These guys cause damage left and right and are hardly ever still around by the time a professional gets there.

But even before lazy cams were eliminated, the guards and shields had locksmiths working on other ways to unlock vehicles. One of the most common methods was to attack the vent-windows that were common at the time. I once had a set of six different vent window tools in different shapes and sizes that was sold as a “Volkswagen Kit.” I did successfully unlock quite a few VWs with them but I also used them on many other vehicles as well.

Speaking of VWs, the first time I ever used a “long-reach” tool was on an old Volkswagen Beetle, and I used it to release the vent window. This happened one evening while I was shooting pool with some of my friends and one of them locked her keys inside her VW. Since they all knew that I was a locksmith, they expected me to do something about the situation, even though I wasn’t working and didn’t have my locksmith van or tools. After looking the problem over, I used a pool cue to reach in from one of the rear pop-out windows and release the vent window latch.

Perhaps the best vent window tool of them all didn’t even start out as a vent window tool. Back in the early 1980s, Chevrolet introduced a small pick-up truck called the S-10. This thing had no vent window, well protected linkage rods, and was just plain hard to unlock with the existing tools. Someone introduced an odd curved tool to unlock the S-10, but it would only work on the trucks without power door locks. It turned out that the tool was perfect for unlocking many vent windows, which was a usage the manufacturer never seemed to grasp. You could use it to push the release button on the latch and flip the latch open at the same time with one hand. This freed your other hand up to push in on the vent window, which took all of the pressure off the latch, making the job quick and easy.

Even though the original manufacturer never marketed the tool for vent windows, word got around thanks to my first video, called “Opening the 88s.” Later, I introduced a modified version of the tool called the TT-1006 tool that has a long and a short ends so that it can be used on a wider variety of vent windows. Unfortunately, vent windows have almost become a thing of the past today, so like the Slim-Jim, the TT-1006 is still useful, but just not as useful as it once was.

Later Systems

As the newer systems evolved, new tools came out to deal with the new problems. When lazy cams were eliminated, there still had to be some lost motion in the system, but that lost motion was moved from the lock, where it was vulnerable, to the latch where it was harder to attack. To deal with this, locksmiths started using wedges to open a gap into the door large enough to see down into the door, so that they could attack the latch. Flexible lights were also introduced to put enough light inside the door so that you could actually see what you needed to attack.

At the time, I used a light almost all the time, but now that my eyes have aged to the point where I wear bifocal contact lenses, I have a hard time using a light. I now appreciate the problems that many people had with the lights and now try to come up with unlocking methods that don’t require a light, whenever possible.

One of the methods that popped up in the late 80s was the use of under-window tools. The first ones to market were generally referred to as a “Beretta Tool” or as a “Caddy Tool.” The reason for this was that the Chevrolet Beretta, introduced in 1987, and Cadillac’s of the same vintage used a lock system that was so heavily guarded that there was just no practical way to attack it from inside the door. In fact, the Beretta used a system that had the door lock and most of the mechanism mounted in the widened sash around the rear of the window.

There were lots of problems with under-window tools, not the least of which was that at first glance they seemed so easy to use that anyone could use one. As many discovered by watching a window shatter before their eyes, they aren’t as simple to use as they appear. But, if you are careful and understand what you are doing, they can be very powerful tools. Following are a few things to keep in mind any time you are tempted to use an under-window tool.

  • Once you put it into the door, you are committed. It is almost impossible to remove an under-window tool until you have opened the door.
  • If you use a wedge or wedges to insert the tool into the door, remove them before you attempt to bring the tool up inside the vehicle. Removing the wedges makes the job much easier, and not removing them is a recipe for a broken window.
  • Under-window tools and after-market tinting film are a bad combination. The tool will most likely scratch the film as you bring it up inside the car, or as you operate the tool.
  • Inside power door lock controls on most modern vehicles are disabled once the door is locked, so your target should always be the manual lock control. (Nissan vehicles are an exception to this rule, for now.)

The question I hear the most about under-window tools is: “Why can’t you make it longer?” The answer is not simple, and requires a little thought. There is a dynamic relationship between the length of the business end of an under-window tool and the bottommost bend in the tool, which I call the “throat.” If the distance between the tip of the tool and the throat is too small, the throat will bottom-out against the lower edge of the glass before the tip can come out of the weather stripping on the inside of the door. If the distance is too great, the throat will often stop against a brace inside the door before the upper bend of the tool can go below the base of the window. Of course, these relationships also depend on the construction of the individual car door. That is why there are so many different designs for under-window tools on the market. A tool that is ideal for one vehicle may not even come up on the inside of a different vehicle.

You need to carry several under-window tools of varying lengths in order to handle the challenges presented by different vehicles. Carrying extra under-window tools also gives you options if you get a tool stuck in the door. You can try to unlock the car with a different under-window tool on the other side of the vehicle. This happened to me the very first time I tried to use an under-window tool. The car was a Cadillac in the airport parking lot. I unlocked the door easily, only to discover that the outside door handle had been disconnected by a Slim-Jim jockey before I got there. I used a second under-window tool on the other side of the car. After retrieving the other tool, I made arrangements for the owner to bring the car to the shop in the morning for us to repair the damage the Slim-Jim jockey had inflicted.


Modern Systems

The federal government enacted stringent new side-impact collision standards beginning in the 1996 model year. These new standards forced the manufacturers to devise a whole new way of building vehicle doors. One aspect of the new standards required that the doors must remain closed in a side-impact or roll-over collision. Horizontal linkage rods, like those that were in use at the time, would often get bent badly enough in a collision to cause the door latch to release, and the door to fly open.

The most common solution was to replace the linkage rods with bicycle-style cables. Cables would be able to flex easily during a collision without causing the latch to release. Another solution was to minimize the size of linkage rods, and to position them in heavily protected areas. This is the reason why you see so many vertical lock buttons today, when they had almost disappeared a few years back. By placing the vertical lock linkage at the rear of the door, it is protected by the edge of the door frame and the window track mechanism.

Side impact-airbags also popped up as a result of the side-impact collision standards. The vast majority of them are mounted in the seat-back or in the door pillars or both. Door mounted airbags simply don’t work as well as seat-back mounted airbags because the position of the seats are adjustable. An airbag mounted in the door may give great protection with the seat in one position but can actually cause harm if the seat is in a different position. A seat-back mounted airbag will always be in the same relationship to the passenger, regardless of where the seat is positioned.

Door-mounted airbags also got a totally undeserved “urban legend” reputation for killing Slim-Jim jockeys. According to this legend, using a Slim-Jim can cause a door-mounted airbag to deploy and the force of the deployment will shoot the slim-Jim out of the door and through the user’s neck. Despite the fact that this is complete hogwash, these rumors still make the rounds. In the first place, the airbag deploys into the car, not into the inside of the door. Secondly, no incident like the ones described in the emails as being “common” have ever been reported to the authorities. Thirdly, the only way that I can see that a Slim-Jim could possibly deploy an airbag in the manner described would also involve the user either stepping on a high-voltage electrical wire or being struck by lightning at the moment the Slim-Jim was in contact with the airbag wiring.

Of course, the easiest way to unlock these vehicles without having to deal with airbags, tinting film, or cable linkages is to use a long-reach tool like the Jiffy-Jak Vehicle Entry System. The Jiffy-Jak system was introduced to deal with all of the problems that I’ve listed in this article. It was simply the right tool for the times.

A long-reach tool is definitely my tool of choice for almost anything made by Toyota, Lexus, or Scion, but it certainly isn’t the best tool for everything. I cringe when people tell me they use the Jiffy-Jak for “everything.” There are just a lot of vehicles out there, such as the 350Z, Camaro, Chrysler mini-vans, and many Hondas, on which you should never use a long reach tool. The real secret is to have the proper tool for the job, and to know how and when to use it.

So with all of these new systems in place that make it difficult to unlock modern cars, what’s next? Well, the current trend, as I see it, is toward lock-picking. When GM stopped using sidebar locks on the doors, a trend toward cheaper and less sophisticated door locks began. Today, most domestic vehicles use door locks that are about as complex and hard to pick as the average desk drawer. All that is required is the proper tools. Wave keys, Marshal Keys, Pick Keys, Jiggle Keys, and similar products all allow you to pick open the door locks of the majority of domestic and imported vehicles quickly, once you learn how to use the tools.

Recently, we’ve seen domestic manufacturers jumping on the side-milled key bandwagon, but if you think these locks are impossible to pick, then you’re using the wrong tools. The current crop of domestic side-milled systems like those found on the Camaro, Equinox, Terrain, Focus, Fiesta and others can all be readily picked with the Lishi 2-in-1 picksets.

The locksmiths that I talk to today, who tell me they’re afraid to work on high security automotive locks, remind me of a guy I worked with in the 1970s. When GM changed the six-cut system so that the door key no longer worked the ignition, he swore loudly that he would “never pull a steering wheel to make a key to a car.” Within a year, he told me privately that he couldn’t believe how much time he had wasted in the past pulling door panels, when pulling steering wheels was so much faster and easier. As he and I both learned, what we initially thought of as a challenge, became an opportunity. I see lots of opportunities out there for automotive locksmiths that aren’t afraid of new things.