A Brief History of Car-Opening Tools

March 2, 2020
As long as there are people, there will be lock-outs. It’s the cars and car-opening tools that change.

I once owned a base-model 2000 Chevrolet Express that had manual windows. I got a good laugh one day watching a friend’s kid try to figure out how to open the window. He had never seen or imagined a car window that required you to turn a crank to open or close it. The whole thing fascinated him, and he spent much of the time playing with it. For many young people entering our industry, it’s hard to imagine a time when cars didn’t have power locks and harder still to imagine such esoteric things as vent windows, starter buttons, dimmer switches located on the floor or even cars that don't have door locks.

Difficult as it might be to grasp, once there was a time when it would have been impossible to lock your keys in the car, simply because the doors didn’t lock. And in some cases, that time wasn’t all that long ago. The car that I drove to work on my first day as an apprentice locksmith didn’t have any door locks, and the starter was engaged by pulling a knob on the dash. It wasn’t an antique at the time, only 14 years old, but it still was considered somewhat odd – like me. I’d been driving that car as my sole means of transportation for about four years at that time, and I still have it in the garage today. It was a 1959 Austin Healey Sprite, and door locks would have been kind of silly on a car that has no windows, no hard top and no exterior door handles.

On rainy or cold days, the soft top went up and the side curtains attached to the tops of the doors. If the top was up and the side curtains installed, you opened the door by sliding open the plexiglass window in the side curtain and reaching inside to pull a cable that ran the length of the door above the door pocket. (Later models replaced the cable with a lever.)

Modern vehicle-entry systems are relatively new systems that have evolved around the changing nature of the vehicles and the times. This evolution continues, and I’d be willing to wager that some young people reading this article will live to see a day when their grandchildren will be mystified by something that we all take for granted today.

Early Car-Opening Tools

There was a time when locksmiths made their own car-opening tools, simply because none was made commercially. The first commercial car-opening tools that I saw were a set of “Volkswagen Tools.” These were made from flat spring stock and bent in various shapes. They were designed to slide under the weatherstripping around a car’s vent window. After the tool was inside the car, the tool was used to manipulate the catch on the window. With the vent window open, the user then would reach inside the car and either pull the door handle or crank the window down far enough to reach the inside handle.

But that was only the first tool set that I had actual experience with. The oldest car-opening kit that I’m aware of was a type of long-reach tool that required at least two people to use. The tool operator would lie on the ground and insert the tool through the grommet in the floorboard of the car that sealed the opening around the brake or clutch pedal. After the tip of the tool was inside the vehicle, the second person would direct the tool user as he attempted to use the tool to either operate the inside door handle or the window crank. When I first discussed this article with the editor, Gale Johnson, I got a good laugh as he described helping his father use this type of tool as a kid. It was Gale’s job to look inside the vehicle and give directions to his father as he used the tool to roll down the window. After the window was down far enough for Gale to stick his arm inside, he would unlock the car.

Next, of course, was the famous slim jim. I’ve heard several contradictory stories of how the tool got its name, but I honestly don’t know the true origin of the term. The slim jim is still out there and comes in many different sizes and shapes but is of little value on most modern cars. The secret of the success of the slim jim lies in the design of early automotive door-lock systems.

Let’s take a moment to go over the basics of automotive door-locking technology. There are five components to most systems:

  • The door lock
  • The door lock linkage
  • The door latch
  • The inside lock control linkage
  • The inside lock control, typically a vertical button on older vehicles.

The door latch holds the door closed, and the rest of the components are used to control the latch in one way or another. When the key is turned in the door lock, the linkage moves to switch the setting of the door latch to locked or unlocked. When locked, the outside door handle essentially is disconnected from the door latch, so pulling the handle will have no effect on the latch. When unlocked, the outside handle is engaged, so pulling the handle will release the door latch. On older systems, the inside handle always was engaged with the latch, so if you operated the inside handle, the latch would release, regardless of whether the outside handle was locked or unlocked. Operating the inside lock control essentially would engage or disengage the outside handle by changing the same setting on the latch that the outside lock cylinder controlled.

Because the inside lock control and the outside lock cylinder control the same device independently, there must be some sort of “lost motion” in the system, because the lock cylinder can’t rotate without a key in the lock. The easiest way to build this type of system was to build the “lost motion” into the lock cylinder itself. This was normally done by using a so-called lazy cam.

On a lock that has a lazy cam, the tailpiece (sometimes called the “cam” or “pawl”) could move about 90 degrees around its attachment point to the lock, without the lock plug turning. When the key was turned in the lock, the first 45 degrees of movement had no effect on the lock system. After that, however, it started to move the cam and the linkage. This same “lost motion” would allow the key to be turned back to the key-pull position without changing the setting on the latch.

When the inside lock control was operated, it moved the inside lock-control linkage, the setting on the latch and the outside lock-control linkage. Because of the “lost motion” in the lazy cam, the tailpiece of the lock could move without turning the lock plug.

The slim jim normally was used to attack the lazy cam directly and move it and the connected latch setting into the unlocked position and re-engage the outside door handle so the door was unlocked. Although this was the most common way to use a slim jim, it also could be used to attack the lock linkage or the inside lock-control linkage to accomplish the same thing.

There always have been two schools of thought on how to use a slim jim. One school of thought is to position the tool methodically on the tailpiece of the lock. This is done by aiming directly for the lock with the tool and then holding your thumb or finger on the lock until you felt the tool contact the lock. At that point, the tool was used to lift or push down on the tailpiece and unlock the door. The other school of thought is to insert the tool into the door and work it up and down randomly until the tool hits something and, hopefully, unlocks the door. As doors became more complex and began to fill up with electrical wiring, the second technique often did more damage than good. That’s why slim jims often are thought of as tools for amateurs. But, for someone who really understood what was going on inside the door, a slim jim was a powerful tool in its day.

Another popular early tool was the Lemon Pop tool, which also had a name whose origin is a bit of a mystery. I’ve heard various stories, but I have no idea what the truth is. The tool typically was homemade, but several were marketed commercially. This tool was used to pull up on an inside vertical lock button, which was used on the vast majority of vehicles at that time. It was a simple strip of plastic, often cut from a plastic bottle or jug, that was folded in half and inserted between the door and the frame. After the tip of the tool was inside the vehicle, it could be maneuvered around the lock button by pushing or pulling on one side or the other of the strip. Then, it was pulled tight and used to lift the button and unlock the car. A locksmith armed with a slim jim, a Lemon Pop tool and a few vent-window tools could unlock most cars built in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s, around the time I started my apprenticeship, however, everything changed.

What Changed?

The simple answer is that the government got involved, not in the manufacture of car-opening tools, but in how vehicles were built. It started simply with common-sense things, such as padded dashboards and safety glass. But, as time went on, government intervention into U.S. auto manufacturing got more intrusive. (I’ve heard the design trends of the late ’70s and early ’80s referred to by insiders as early and late “Federal Periods.”) The government set standards on such things as the number and placement of headlights, side running lights, pedestrian safety, child safety and vehicle security.

One of the early security requirements involved the elimination of lazy-cam door locks. Without the lazy cam, there still had to be a mechanism for the “lost motion.” Most manufacturers moved the “lost motion” into the door-latch mechanism, so the lock linkage became rigid when no key was in the lock. This step alone pretty much put an end to the usefulness of slim jims. But a skilled operator still could use a slim jim to operate the inside lock-control linkage on some vehicles. Soon, more regulations encouraged manufacturers to move away from vertical inside linkages in favor of horizontal linkages that were at least partially shielded.

I vividly remember when Ford did away with lazy cams. The new locks not only had rigid cams, but the cams also were plastic and snapped on to the lock plug. The slim-jim jockeys of the day went around disconnecting linkages on a regular basis, and, as the biggest locksmith shop in town, I got a lot of those cars coming in for repair. Meanwhile, Ford also started to secure the lock to the door with a clip on the edge of the door, which allowed you to remove the lock without taking off the door panel. I got pretty good at fishing disconnected linkage rods up from inside the door through the hole that the lock fit into. It was a bit like building a ship in a bottle, but it was better than removing the door panel.

In 1988, I went into the business of making car-opening tools. Shortly thereafter, my company, Tech-Train Productions, and Z-Tool introduced tools for manipulating horizontal linkages. My tool went on sale in February 1988, and their tool went on sale in April. Neither tool was a copy of the other; we both simply came up with similar ways of dealing with the same vehicles at the same time. (I’m proud to say that when we found out about each other’s tools, we settled the issue like gentlemen and left the legal system out of it!) During the next 10 years, other companies came and went that manufactured bent-wire car-opening tools. Many of the tools that were introduced during that time were “specialty tools” for specific vehicles.

During the late 1980s and the 1990s, hundreds of competing tools and tool systems went on the market. The pages of the locksmith trade magazines were filled with ads for these tools, and I spent a lot of time researching and developing tools. I pretty much expected to spend the rest of my professional life doing what I was doing then, but once again, the government got involved, and nothing was ever the same.

Side-Impact and Rollover Safety Regulations

Side-impact collisions had become more dangerous just as the dangers of head-on and rear-end collisions were reduced. With the benefit of hindsight, the reason is obvious: The crop of government regulations focused mostly on strengthening the front and the rear of vehicles. And even though the doors were strengthened as well, the sides of most vehicles simply were no match for the high-powered battering rams that modern vehicles had become.

The new side-impact and rollover standards regulated a lot of different things, but one particular part really changed the very nature of opening a vehicle. As part of the testing, all vehicles had to pass a rollover test where they were hit from the side in such a way that the car rolled over completely. During the test, if any of the doors opened, the vehicle failed the test. This test changed more things about car-opening procedures than any other single thing. Here are a few of the things that changed:

  • Horizontal-linkage rods were eliminated.
  • Many vehicles now use bicycle-style cables instead of linkage rods.
  • Many vehicles now use vertical lock buttons.
  • Vehicle doors are more flexible than in the past.
  • More and better shielding exists around latches and linkages.

Because horizontal linkage rods can be bent during a side-impact collision — causing the door to unlock or open — they almost have been eliminated. Most of the manufacturers that still use a horizontal system have changed to bicycle-style cables, because cables can flex during a collision without causing the door to unlock or open. Many manufacturers changed back to a vertical-button inside lock control, because the vertical linkage runs through the strongest portion of the door and is less likely to cause the door to unlock or open during a collision. Many manufacturers coupled vertical-linkage rods for the lock control and a cable for the door-opening control. For the driver and passengers to better survive a rollover collision, a great deal of flex now is designed into the doors, so they can bend without opening. Finally, to better protect the latch in a side-impact collision, extra shielding has been added on many vehicles.

As if all of these factors weren’t enough, some manufacturers added door-mounted side-impact airbags to the mix. Fortunately, the door turned out to be a bad place to mount an airbag, and few manufacturers used them for long. As it turns out, because seats are adjustable, a door-mounted airbag wasn’t reliable, because the position of the occupant in relation to the airbag can’t be predicted. Most side-impact airbags now are mounted in either the seatback or the door frame.

For a while, side-impact airbags were the stuff of nightmares for locksmiths. There are several urban myths about people being killed while trying to unlock a car because a door-mounted airbag deployed, driving a slim jim through the person’s neck. That story is utterly bogus, and the National Transportation Safety Board has a statement debunking it on its website.

Modern Long-Reach Tools

Meanwhile, I was trying to come up with a better car-opening tool. With the help of a friend, Bob Womack, who sadly is no longer with us, my company introduced the original Jiffy-Jak Vehicle Entry System at the ALOA show in 1999. This was the first of a new generation of long-reach tools, and it obviously fulfilled a need: We simply couldn’t make them fast enough to satisfy the demand for the next three years. During that period, I learned the true meaning of the phrase “having a tiger by the tail!”

As soon as the Jiffy-Jak went on sale, most of the other car-opening tool manufacturers started screaming that it wasn’t a tool for professionals, while introducing similar tools in their own product line. I recall one memorable issue of Locksmith Ledger that had an article written by a competitor that said “No professional would ever use a tool like this” and an ad from the same company introducing its own long-reach tool!

When the smoke cleared, every car-opening tool manufacturer had at least one long-reach tool in its inventory, and sales of my individual bent-wire tools fell rapidly. I was exhausted and persuaded to sell my company to Lockmasters Inc., which sells an improved version of the original Jiffy-Jak.

Within months of introducing the Jiffy-Jak, I had locksmiths all over the country telling me again and again: “It’s the only tool that I use now!” and “I use it on everything!” I cringed at the time when I heard that, and I still do. There are many vehicles that I never would attempt to unlock with a long-reach tool, no matter how careful I was. Well-designed and carefully used long-reach tools are great for many applications, but their effectiveness is anything but universal.

Now that I am back to being self-employed and working out of a truck again, I certainly have a Jiffy-Jak, and I use it occasionally. In the past week, I unlocked two vehicles with it: a Jeep Renegade and a Dodge Dart that had a disconnected linkage on the door lock. I unlocked at least a dozen other vehicles during the same time with different tools, however.

The Next New Tool

Most of my work is in making keys to vehicles where all the keys or all the proximity fobs have been lost. Unlocking vehicles is something that I often flip to other locksmiths when I’m busy. But I still do my share of basic unlocks. The tool that I use the most now is the Original Lishi 2-in-1 Tool. Of all the tools in my truck, these tools probably see the most use. I even have worn out several and keep spares on hand for the ones I use the most, just in case.

Once while I made keys for a 2018 Ford F-250 at a construction site, the owner of the truck wanted to get something from inside the truck while I was using the tool. Without thinking, I pulled the door handle to let him in, forgetting that the tool was inserted through a hole in the outside door handle. The HU-101 tool broke in half, and I had to spend an extra hour or two removing and replacing the door lock so I could make a key for the vehicle. A 20-minute job suddenly became a two-hour job! That was one mistake I certainly won’t make again.

I’m not the only one using Lishi tools for unlocking vehicles. I spend a lot of my day on the phone talking with other locksmiths, and I see a growing trend among the real pros to unlock cars by picking the locks this way. Lishi tools have many advantages in that customers have become scared of long-reach tools, because a LOT of heavy-handed gorillas out there used them. I have seen so much damage done with long-range tools that I now explain to a customer before I begin to use my Jiffy-Jak that I put the tool on the market in 1999, I know exactly what I’m doing, and I guarantee no damage. Believe me, many of them check out the door before they pay me!

Car-opening tools will be with us as long as there are cars. And as long as cars continue to change, there always will be new tools. And as long as there are people, vehicles and keys, there always will be lockouts. I have a card that I received for my birthday a few years ago hanging above my desk. It has a drawing of an astronaut on a spacewalk attempting to unlock the door of the space shuttle with a coat-hanger. The text reads, “Try not to do anything too stupid on your birthday!” As long as there are people, there will be lockouts.