Volkswagen Ignition Lock Housing Failures

June 1, 2021
Don’t be put off by a bias against working on those vehicles. There’s money to be made in doing the work.

Sometime around 2006, some bean counters at Volkswagen decided that the company could save money by using ignition lock housings made by Valeo instead of Huf. This decision was correct in the short term, but very wrong in the long term. Valeo VW ignition lock housings fail at an alarming rate.

You might remember Valeo as the company that brought us the truly abysmal early Ford Focus ignition locks that failed at such a high rate they became a joke in the automotive locksmith world. I made a lot of money replacing failed Valeo Focus ignitions and replacing them with STRATTEC locks. After I learned how to remove the failed lock quickly, I looked forward to those jobs and regarded them as “easy money.”

I now feel the same way about the failed VW ignition lock housings. After I learned how to deal with them, I started looking forward to them. I make a lot more money per vehicle than I did on the Focus, and I almost always can do the work at my shop.

That said, this is NOT a job for amateurs or heavy-handed, “get a bigger hammer” types. But, if you have good mechanical skills, a little patience and the proper tools and information, there’s no reason you shouldn’t look forward to these jobs, too.

So, What Actually Fails?

The actual failure is in the steering wheel locking mechanism. The bolt that extends into the steering shaft to lock the wheel into place never was designed to be lubricated. After a few years, the mechanism gradually becomes impossible to operate without breaking the key. Occasionally, the mechanism fails suddenly, but in most cases, the customer puts up with it until it simply no longer works.

The only real solution is to remove the Valeo lock housing and replace it with a Huf lock housing. It’s possible to remove the lock housing and lubricate the mechanism to get it to work again, but that’s only a temporary fix. If you do that, odds are that the vehicle — and an angry customer — will turn up months later with the same problem and expect you to fix it for free.

I initially turned down several of these jobs for the same reason a lot of us do:  At some point, we’ve gotten in over our heads trying to work on VW vehicles. That happened several times in my case, but I hate to walk away from any job.

The first VW ignition lock housing I did was for a local detail guy at a dealership that I did a lot of work for. His hadn’t locked up completely, but it was extremely difficult to turn. The VW dealer quoted him over $1,200 and told him what had to be done. He asked whether I could help, so I did a little research and determined that I could.

My price wound up being about half what the dealership was going to charge, and my cost was about half that, plus a couple hours of my time. Naturally, the first time I did one of these, it took longer, because I was being extra careful and learning as I went. Today, I can do one of these in an hour or less, not counting the trip to the dealer for the parts.

Why does the dealer charge so much? The short answer, of course, is because they can. But, in fairness, dealerships have much higher overhead. What they pay for insurance alone probably is more than I earn in a month. They also pay mechanics generously, supply most, if not all, the tools and pay for advanced training. So, dealership prices almost always will be higher than at independent shops.

First Steps

Before we do any work, we first must determine that the problem actually is the ignition lock housing. If the key still turns in the lock, you normally can tell by the “feel” of the lock as you turn it from “Off” to “On.” If the key turns smoothly up until the steering column lock begins to engage or disengage, that’s a good sign that the lock housing is the problem. If “bumping” the key seems to move the lock bolt, that’s another good indicator that the ignition lock housing is the problem. Finally, if you can remove the lock cylinder from the housing, and it turns freely with the key, you can be almost certain that the problem is in the housing. IMPORTANT: DO NOT attempt to turn the ignition lock housing manually without the lock cylinder in place. If you do, what amounts to a relock will be triggered, and the housing will HAVE to be replaced. NEVER try to operate the mechanism without the lock in place.

If the vehicle can’t be brought to your shop because the key won’t turn, you generally can get the lock to turn enough so the vehicle can be driven to your shop. If the key isn’t trapped in the lock, make a mechanical key from the owner’s key and then insert it into the lock. Keep the owner’s key handy, because you must have it to start the car after you get the mechanical key to turn.

Clamp the largest set of vise grips that you have on the head of your mechanical key and use the added leverage of the vise grips to gently bump the key gradually into the “On” position. You can tape the owner’s key close enough to the ignition for the system to read the transponder, or you simply hold the key next to your mechanical key when you finally get the ignition turned on. That way you can start the vehicle and then let the driver bring it to your shop.

Stress to whoever drives the vehicle not to turn off the ignition until the vehicle is parked where you want it and then let you turn the key to the “Off” position. You might have to use the vise grips and “bump” the key back to the “Off” position. To change out the lock housing, you have to remove the lock cylinder from the housing, so only turn the ignition back to the proper position to remove the cylinder.

Removing the Shroud

Depending on the model and year of the vehicle that you work on, there might be some slight variations, but this still should help you through the process. The vehicle in this report is a 2010 VW Jetta. It isn’t necessary to remove the steering wheel to change out the ignition lock housing. But if you feel comfortable in dealing with the airbag, it might make the job easier. The less I take apart, the less there is to go wrong, so I don’t remove the steering wheel.

The shroud around the column consists of two plastic parts, one forming the top of the shroud and one forming the bottom. No screws secure the upper portion of the shroud; it just snaps into the lower portion, which is secured by three screws. Gentle prying along the seam between the two portions will cause the upper portion to pop up. (Image 3) I use a plastic pry-bar designed for vehicle upholstery work, because it’s much less likely to damage plastic trim than is a screwdriver. Mine came from Harbor Freight in a pack of four, but most auto parts stores have similar tools.

At the rear of the upper shroud, a flexible dust cover made of vinyl snaps into the rear portion of the upper shroud and the dash. (Image 4) You can leave this in place, but then the upper portion of the shroud will fall onto the column constantly and get in your way. I unsnap it from the dash. (Image 5) In some cases, I found it easier to unsnap it from the shroud, but most of the time, disengaging it from the dash is the easiest.

Every VW column that I have worked on is a tilt-telescoping column. This is a big help in removing the ignition lock housing. After the upper shroud has been removed, I lower the column as far as possible and pull it out as far from the dash as possible. (Image 6)

You have to remove two, #25 Torx head screws located at the front of the lower shroud. (Image 7) To remove these, you have to rotate the steering wheel and remove them one at a time. If you can start the engine, this will be a lot easier, but even if you can’t start the engine, you still have to have the ignition lock in the “On” position to release the steering wheel lock.

The third #25 Torx screw securing the lower portion of the shroud is hidden inside a square opening next to the tilt control lever. (Image 8) A flashlight might be necessary to see the screw, but after that screw has been removed, the lower shroud can come free of the column. You have to flex the shroud so it will fit over the ignition lock (Image 9), but after that has been done, the lower shroud will be free, and you can put it in a safe place while you do the rest of the job.

Removing the SWPS

The Steering Wheel Position Sensor (SWPS) is located directly below the ignition lock housing (Image 10) and is held in place with two plastic snap fittings. Not all VWs are equipped with an SWPS, but if the vehicle you work on has one, you have to be careful with this module. It’s an expensive device and can be damaged easily. The two snap fittings are hidden, and if you don’t know how to remove them properly, they can be broken easily. A single tiny #8 Torx screw at the forward end of the SWPS must be removed. (Image 11) I believe that screw is there simply to prevent the SWPS from rattling.

VW recommends that you disconnect the negative terminal of the battery at this point to prevent damage to the SWPS. After you disconnect the battery, you’re ready to remove the SWPS. A length of stiff wire, such as a bicycle spoke or the 2mm Allen wrench I used here, is necessary. You insert the wire into a small hole at the front of the SWPS (Image 12) about 2 inches deep and lever the plastic snap fitting to your left (pushing the handle end of your tool to the right), while gently pulling down on the front of the SWPS. (Image 13) After the front portion of the SWPS drops down, you repeat a similar operation on the second plastic snap at the rear of the SWPS.

After the forward clip has been released, the one at the rear is much easier to release. (Image 14) I normally can reach the clip with my finger by placing my finger between the column and the SWPS at the rear. I have had a bit of practice at this, but you might find it difficult the first few times. If you can’t locate the clip by feel, use a small screwdriver to probe for the clip and then press it with the screwdriver to release the rear of the SWPS.

I normally leave the one remaining electrical cable attached to the SWPS and just tuck the whole thing to one side while I switch out the ignition lock housing. If you disconnect the SWPS, be sure to put it in a safe place.

Removing the Lock Cylinder

This step can be done at any point, even after the lock housing has been removed from the column, but you have to be prepared with the proper tools before you start the process. The only real “tool” that’s necessary is a piece of spring steel wire about the diameter of the wire used in large paperclips. In fact, a large paperclip will work in a pinch, but spring steel works a lot better. I use a piece of 0.04-inch “music wire” that I bought at a hobby shop, but the most important thing to remember is to use stiff wire that’s the proper diameter. This is because you use the wire to pull down the retainer.

Basically, you want to use wire that’s barely smaller than the hole in the face of the lock that you insert it through. The tip of the wire goes into an angled hole in the retainer that acts like a ramp. As you push in the wire, the tip rides along the ramp, which pulls the retainer down. If your wire is too narrow in diameter or made from too soft a material, the retainer won’t be pulled down fully, which can lead to a frustrated locksmith. This is why spring steel works so much better than a paperclip.  To help the tool ride along the ramp, I always bevel the end of the wire, either by filing it or simply snipping off the end with wire-cutters.

Before you can insert the wire, the lock must be turned to the “On” position, where the notch in the edge of the lock face aligns with a notch in the lock shell. (Image 15) Only in that position will the wire fit far enough inside the lock to contact the retainer. When I feel the end of the wire contact the retainer, I rotate my wire so the bevel on the end works its way into the angled hole in the retainer. I then push in the wire until it hits a solid stop.  At that point, the retainer should be pulled down all the way and the lock cylinder will slide out of the housing. The transceiver ring around the front of the lock cylinder comes out along with the lock cylinder. (Image 16) Make a note of how the wire that goes to the transceiver ring is routed along the lock housing. When you put the lock into the new housing, you have to route the wire back in the same way.

Removing the Shear-Head Bolts

Shear-head bolts have been used for decades on ignition locks by many manufacturers. When the ignition lock housing is installed at the factory, shear-head bolts are tightened until the head of the bolt shears off. The result is what looks like a headless bolt or rivet that you have to remove before you can remove the ignition lock housing. (Image 17) Two shear-head bolts have to be removed. These bolts are recessed behind a plastic portion of the steering column, which makes them difficult to attack.

There are several ways to remove this type of bolt. One is by using a specialized drill bit. (Image 18) These bits are designed specifically for removing broken bolts. The tip of the bit is a reverse drill bit. Above the bit portion, another reverse bit edge bites into the top surface of the bolt when the drill is deep enough. By running your drill in reverse, at the proper speed, the drill bit portion will drill down into the center of the bolt, and when the shoulder of the tool contacts the bolt, it will bite into the bolt and unscrew it.

I became a fan of 90-degree drills quite a few years ago. (Image 19) The drill doesn’t see a lot of use, but when it’s necessary, it’s a real lifesaver. If you want to use a drill on the shear-head screws on a VW column, a 90-degree drill is a must-have tool. Normal drills simply can’t get a straight shot at the target because of the overhang of the dash.

Center-punching the bolt before you start is critical. Otherwise, your bit will slip off much too easily. Keeping the bit in line with the bolt also is important, and make sure you don’t run the drill too fast. If you do everything correctly, after the shoulder of the bit hits the top of the bolt, it unscrews, leaving you with the bolt on the end of your bit. (Image 20)

These things work great when they work, but when they don’t work, you have a real problem. There are lots of cheap imitation versions of these tools, and they break way too often for me. If the tool breaks off, you have to use another technique, so I no longer use this technique.

Getting the broken bit out of a shear-head bolt is a lost cause, and with the broken bit in the center of the bolt, you simply can’t use another extractor bit. So, it takes a sharp punch and a hammer to get the bolt out.

When this happened to me at first, I thought I would have to enlarge the hole in the plastic above the shear-head bolt to extract it, but I was pleasantly surprised that with a little patience, I could break the bolt loose and remove it without having to modify anything except the bolt itself. Because I was going to replace the shear-head bolts anyway, that isn’t a concern.

In fact, after having been forced to use the hammer-and-punch method, I discovered that it wasn’t nearly as difficult as I thought it would be, so I rarely use screw extractors now. The important thing about the hammer-and-punch method is to have an extremely hard punch that has a nice sharp point on the end. The punch also has to be long enough for you to use your hammer without damaging the vehicle or your fingers. Then you must angle the punch so the force that you apply goes in the direction of unscrewing the bolt. With patience, it really isn’t that difficult, and after you get the screw to turn a half to a full turn, you typically can unscrew it the rest of the way with your fingers or by using a pair of needle-nose pliers.

Freeing the Ignition Lock Housing

After the two shear-head bolts have been removed, you have to release the two plastic tabs that are located at opposite sides of the ignition lock housing. (Image 21) These tabs are assembly aids, so you do NOT want to break them. When you slide the new housing into place, these tabs will hold the housing in the proper position for you to start the new shear-head bolts, without having to juggle the housing, bolts and your wrench. A small screwdriver can be used to push up on one of the tabs to release one side of the housing. After one side is free, you angle the housing, and it will slip free of the second tab.

The housing still is connected to the vehicle by one cable and the wiring harness from the ignition switch. The new housing will include a new ignition switch, so to free that connection, follow the wires to the connector and disconnect it.

The cable is part of the transmission interlock and is disconnected easily. Follow the cable to the module that’s attached to the housing. The module is held in place by a single screw. After you remove the screw, the module slides out of its socket in the lock housing. (Image 22) One electrical connection is on the module, and disconnecting it will make it easier to remove the module. With these final connections released, the old housing will be free, and you can install the new housing. The reassembly is basically the reverse of the disassembly.

Things to Keep in Mind

Before you begin such a job, you have to have the replacement housing. There are many variations, and it’s important that you have the correct housing. I don’t know whether housings are available from auto parts stores, but I doubt it. I always call my VW dealer to see whether it has the correct part in stock and check the price before I quote the job. The dealer uses the VIN to check for the correct part, because there are so many different variations, so make sure you have that information before you call. Replacement shear-head bolts are sold separately, and be sure to get two for each housing you replace.

On the first one that I replaced, when I asked whether the housing was in stock, the guy from the parts department told me that they had six. That surprised me, and I asked whether these failed a lot. His reply was, “You wouldn’t believe how many we go through!” That comment alone made me decide that this was the kind of work that I should do. I spread the word through my local network, and now I do a couple a month. I also am beginning to get calls from people who were referred by satisfied customers.

I love it when I get a call from a customer who was referred by another local locksmith because “they don’t work on VWs.” That’s music to my ears.

Steve Young has been a locksmith since 1973 and has trained and taught locksmiths since 1988. He is a frequent contributor to Locksmith Ledger.