Home » Here’s Why New Cars Used To Come With Plastic Keys

Here’s Why New Cars Used To Come With Plastic Keys

Plastic Key Ts
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Have you ever locked yourself out of your car? It used to be a fairly common occurrence back in the days before central locking. It’d normally happen when locking the car using the inside tab, before slamming the door shut, only to realize you’d left your keys on the seat. These were also the days before mobile phones were common, so such an occurrence usually meant finding a phone, or calling AAA. That was, unless you had a nifty spare key that was readily accessible.

Enter the plastic key card. It intended to solve this problem by giving you a spare key you could stash in your wallet. These key cards became popular in the 1980s, and were often included in the owner’s manual packet with a new vehicle.

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Some keycards were designed with a single plastic key, like these Lincoln and Mercury branded examples. However, in the 1980s, many American cars had separate keys for the doors and ignition. In that case, a single key card could get you into the car—useful if you’d locked your proper keys inside. However, dual key examples also existed, like these Chevy-branded versions. These had two separate blanks for both the door and ignition key styles, allowing you to both unlock and start the car without needing your regular keys at all.

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Like any plastic tchochke from the 1980s, these are all over eBay.

Some keycards were designed with a single plastic key, like these Lincoln and Mercury branded examples. However, in the 1980s, many American cars had separate keys for the doors and ignition. In that case, a single key card could get you into the car—useful if you’d locked your proper keys inside. However, dual key examples also existed, like these Chevy-branded versions. These had two separate blanks for both the door and ignition key styles, allowing you to both unlock and start the car without needing your regular keys at all.

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A Ford example, which has been cut to match a key. via eBay

 

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via eBay

The plastic material would not hold up to regular use, of course. A plastic key would typically be deformed by metal lock components after just a couple of uses. In extreme cases, or if used excessively, a plastic key could leave debris inside a lock, causing it to jam. Thus, these keys were usually marked strictly for “EMERGENCY USE ONLY.”

Cutting the keys could be done by any locksmith or appropriately-equipped dealer. All that would be required is to fold the key out of the card on its flexible plastic hinge (more on that later), and cut it to match the original car key as with any other blank.

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This example from TBSC Shop is listed as being for the 1989-1997 Ford Explorer, Taurus, Thunderbird, and Cougar.

The plastic nature of these keys has convinced some people that you could just stuff them in and open a door with them as is, but that’s not their intended use. They’re supposed to be cut to suit the individual car in question. Some cars had crappy locks in the 1980s that could be opened fairly crudely, sometimes even with just a nail file, but that’s more about shitty locks than it is about these key cards.

By virtue of being plastic, owners could probably easily shape the keys themselves, too. One would simply need to hold the real key against the plastic key and file the latter to match. Alternatively, the pattern of the real key could be transferred to the plastic via a marker, and the shape filed away in turn. I’ve tested these techniques myself, and it’s easy to learn. I successfully duplicated a friend’s key from a photocopy in order to break into his house and install a bidet.

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via eBay
Processed By Ebay With Imagemagick, Z1.1.0. ||b2
via eBay

At this point, you’re probably wondering: What exactly was the point of these? That’s kind of a fair question. Old-school car keys were pretty slim; you could have stashed one in a wallet or purse, no problem. Sure, it’s neat that you can stuff these plastic keys in a credit card pocket, but really, there’s not a whole lot of utility there.

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And yet, the idea was novel enough for not just one, but at least two whole American patents. One Donald F. Almblad applied for a patent in 1984 for this idea, with the patent art demonstrating up to two plastic keys integrally molded into a card form factor, with a hinge to allow them to be pivoted out and inserted into a lock. 1986 saw a Robert Almblad apply for a patent for an improved version, wherein the “hinge element” was really just a flexible plastic rod. This allowed the key to pivot more freely without damaging the hinge, which was formerly of a more linear-type design which only allowed limited movement. This later patent was also assigned to Donald Almblad; presumably the two worked together on the upgraded version. Donald’s obituary also credited him with the invention of the “Credit Card Key.”

Plastic Key Patent
The original patent from Almblad (top), applied for in 1984. Below it is the later patent, applied for in 1986, that shows a more robust hinge concept. Both patents were ultimately awarded months apart in 1987.

The keycards actually made some headlines shortly after the patents were granted. They appeared on CBC’s Midday show in 1987, where reporter Bob Nixon mentioned they were, at the time, just available for North American cars. Nixon interviewed Tom Townsend of Triple E Enterprises, that was manufacturing keys for the Canadian market in nylon, chosen for being strong enough to work as a key.

Other designs exist; the Chevy ones most commonly seen online seems to use a sliding method to reveal the keys instead. There were also other patents for wallet-insertable key holders prior to Almblad’s work, too. Realistically, though, it’s a pretty simple idea that probably occurred to a lot of people in the days before central locking. “Hey, what if I had a spare key in my wallet?” they’d think, as they lamented the fact they’d just shut their keys inside their 1978 Ford Mustang II.

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via Etsy

The full contextual history of these devices is still a little murky to me. I churned through a great deal of Ford and Chevy car manuals from the early 1990s, and could find no mention of these plastic keys. All this, despite the fact I had evidence—like Chevy’s “Heartbeat of America” slogan—that suggested they would still be around in that time period. 1980s manuals are harder to come by, but my limited research in that area didn’t turn up anything either. It’s hard to know exactly which cars these came with and when.

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Ultimately, taking a closer look at the cards gives me a hint why this might be the case. The Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury key cards out there often feature the name of the card’s manufacturer—Axxess Entry Tech Inc. That suggests to me that these cards may have been something that dealerships or automakers simply had made as an additional little pack-in accessory, rather than as a serious piece of the car’s original equipment. Indeed, while many are branded for major automakers, I found at least one that was produced specifically for Gresham Ford of Oregon, with the dealership’s address and phone number printed on the front.

 

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Processed By eBay with ImageMagick, z1.1.0. ||B2

But then I found it—the slightest little acknowledgement that these keys actually existed, by a major automaker! Ford apparently released a TSB on April 8, 1992, which consisted of a note to dealers that were cutting “Credit Card” keys for new vehicles.

SSUE: There may be some confusion about cutting “Credit Card” keys that are included in the glove box of the subject vehicles. The key is to be cut and presented on delivery of the vehicle.

ACTION: A key needs to be cut using Rotunda 011-Series Code Cutters, Grinders or the AXXESS 2000. Like all Ford keys, the key tip must be aligned when cutting them. The operating manuals for the Rotunda 011-Series Code Cutter and Grinder specifically call for tip aligning Ford keys.
NOTE: TIP ALIGNMENT IS VERY IMPORTANT WHEN CUTTING LATER VERSIONS OF THE ESCORT/TRACER KEYS SINCE THEY ARE SHORTER THAN THE METAL KEYS. THEY ARE SHORTER TO REDUCE THE LENGTH OF PLASTIC KEY THAT PROTRUDES FROM THE LOCK. THE KEYS DO NOT CUT PROPERLY IF NOT ALIGNED FROM THE TIP DURING THE CUTTING PROCESS.
If additional quantities of the credit card keys are required, they are available for $.65 each from CCA, 31535 Southfield Rd., Birmingham, MI 48009 ; Telephone: 1-800-521-0639.

Key/Card that AAA used to give out to open/start your car in case of emergency.
byu/ChurrObscuro inmildlyinteresting

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So why don’t we have these plastic keys anymore? Well, we sorta do, but we mostly don’t. Ultimately, a lot of cars started using keyless entry, which one suspects massively reduced the incidence of people locking their keys in their car. Coded keys and immobilizers also became common in the 1990s. This would stop you starting a car with a plastic key, though they’d still be useful for opening the doors. Car keys also got more complicated and more varied across the market, further complicating the effort to produce a viable plastic emergency key.

Even the, the language seems to support the idea that these were an add-on sourced from outside Ford. It seems these keycards were a pack-in managed by dealers as a useful accessory for customers.

AAA used to give these out too, apparently. The problem there being that where an automaker could order thousands of copies to suit their own style of keys, AAA would have to carry several versions to suit cars from different automakers. Interestingly, word on the street is that the AAA versions may have had a metal strip inside the plastic to help add some strength. Such a measure would likely reduce the likelihood of a plastic key breaking off inside a lock and causing more problems.

You could still do this concept today. Most car keyfobs still have a metal key hidden inside somewhere, intended for opening the car when the battery is dead. If you really wanted, you could duplicate this— in metal or plastic—and mount it inside a card-style form-factor. Really, though, it’s pretty rare to lock yourself out of your car in this keyfobby era of ours. And, as an aside, your emergency key won’t be any use as a general spare, as a modern car with an immobilizer won’t start without the keyfob chip present anyway.

The plastic key, then, was a curio of the 1980s, like Robert Smith or the Commodore Amiga. They don’t have a lot of relevance today, but they are pretty cool. If you do have a classic car from the 80s or 90s, you could always get one of these off eBay, and have it cut to suit your car. You could then whip it out to show off to people at Radwood and Cars and Coffee. It could just put you over the edge as the coolest person of the show. Good luck out there, friends!

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Image credits: via eBay, USPTO, Etsy

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Jason H
Jason H
2 months ago

I had a 2003 Infiniti that had keyless entry (first car I owned that had it) and it came with a metal credit card key for emergencies. Prior to that I had a 1995 Mercury Grand Marquis that had plastic backup keys.

The World of Vee
The World of Vee
2 months ago

Both 2000s Audis I’ve owned have come with the plastic key. The first we got when we got an A6 new, the second came with the S6 I bought. I always just assumed most cars had this extreme emergency key and people lost them till I got a new car and it didn’t have one.

Dudeoutwest
Dudeoutwest
2 months ago

I have a plastic key for my BMW R1200RT, complete with a chip and one for my Porsche Boxster, as well. It also has a chip and will get you back in your car if you lose your key. They’re both 2005 models. I’m not sure about more contemporary cars.

Marty Densch
Marty Densch
2 months ago

“However, in the 1980s, many American cars had separate keys for the doors and ignition.”

Two-key lock sets on cars were pretty much S.O.P. back in the day but one was for the door and ignition, the other for the trunk. Having to use a separate keys for door and ignition would have been a hassle.

Last edited 2 months ago by Marty Densch
AutoPartsGuyBuffalo
AutoPartsGuyBuffalo
2 months ago
Reply to  Marty Densch

I dunno about that. My ’89 Bronco II has a key for the ignition and a key for the doors/hatch.

Sean F
Sean F
2 months ago

I just made myself a spare metal key where the blank had the smallest head to the key that they would make, and put it in my wallet. Figured if I locked my keys and wallet in the car, I was in a state where I should not be driving anyway.

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
2 months ago

In my day you just tied a spare key, in a hard to reach place, under the car with some bailing wire.

Last edited 2 months ago by Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Aaron Slater
Aaron Slater
2 months ago

In my day, you had to suck it up and walk home like a real man!

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
2 months ago
Reply to  Aaron Slater

Aw… cute. Real men plan ahead for any scenario.
Real men don’t walk home because they lost a car key.
That’s a bitch move.

You need a ride? Hop in…
Be careful not to wrinkle up that little skirt of yours.

Last edited 2 months ago by Phantom Pedal Syndrome
70degrees
70degrees
2 months ago

Funny enough, the Audi R8 came with a molded plastic emergency key preset from the factory. I think it’s the newest vehicle to come with them, if not one of the last.

https://i.imgur.com/wvQNOYh.jpeg

OttosPhotos
OttosPhotos
2 months ago

I had one from AAA many years ago. Can’t remember how I got it, probably at the local car show, where AAA always had a booth. I think I used it once or twice, and it worked. No idea where it is now.

Drad
Drad
2 months ago

I used to keep a spare key in the coin part of my wallet. You know before the keys had buttons and chips and other paraphernalia on them. You lock your keys in your car 1 too many times and this soon becomes a nifty trick. Also was great for concerts etc, didn’t have to carry my keys.

Maymar
Maymar
2 months ago
Reply to  Drad

Yup, did the same, it was a decent $2 insurance policy.

Jeff Wheeler
Jeff Wheeler
2 months ago

We had the machine and the blanks to make these at the Mazda dealership where I worked in the late 1980s. Helped me realize that I was happier grinding out plastic keys in a windowless room than I was stepping out onto a scorching-hot lot (wearing a dress shirt and tie, no less) trying to convince strangers there was a quality alternative to Toyota and Honda

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
2 months ago

Some years back this concept was applied to USB keys. They were similarly moulded into a ‘credit card’. These were used as promotional giveaways with marketing content on the USB key and the card having printed promotional information on it. They’ve pretty much vanished to be replaced by just a printed card with a QR code. Good riddance, promotional USB keys are probably a bigger source of e-waste than anybody has considered.

Dan Pritts
Dan Pritts
2 months ago

Had one of these for my dad’s 79 Pontiac. Pretty sure it didn’t come with the car, he got it at a tradeshow or something.

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
2 months ago

Hmmm – I bought a new Mercury in 1989 and was never given one of these.
Bought a new Ford in 1997 and also was never given one.
I’m thinking these were not from the factory but from the dealers.

Marty Densch
Marty Densch
2 months ago
Reply to  Urban Runabout

We got one with a car from that era. IIRC it was an ’88 Cougar and the sales person gave it to us during delivery so, yeah, it might have come from the dealer not Ford.

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
2 months ago

The plastic key, then, was a curio of the 1980s, like Robert Smith or the Commodore Amiga. They don’t have a lot of relevance today, but they are pretty cool.

>:( You take that back about Robert Smith.

TriangleRAD
TriangleRAD
2 months ago

Some cars had crappy locks in the 1980s that could be opened fairly crudely, sometimes even with just a nail file, but that’s more about shitty locks than it is about these key cards.

Oh boy is this the truth. Between myself and my younger brothers, there were four 3rd and 4th-generation Honda Accords in my parents driveway at one time or another. My brother especially had a bad habit of locking himself out, and we learned that any of these Accords could be opened with a suitably-modified fork and a little finesse.

What was also crazy is that the key to mom’s ’88 Plymouth Voyager would open my ’88 Accord hatch, even though the Plymouth used a single-cut key and the Honda was dual-cut.

Honda’s lock game was….not strong in the ’80s.

Dan Pritts
Dan Pritts
2 months ago
Reply to  TriangleRAD

It wasn’t strong in the early aughts, either. Both passenger doors and the ignition lock failed on my 2004 Odyssey.

Frank Wrench
Frank Wrench
2 months ago
Reply to  Dan Pritts

I don’t think anyone had a good lock game going then. I remember having a rental Taurus for a business trip in the early 90s, lost in a sea of other non-descript rental cars in a hotel parking lot, I ended up in the wrong Taurus. It wasn’t until I sat down and smelled the stench of a load of butts in the ashtray that I realized my mistake.

JerryLH3
JerryLH3
2 months ago

I have an uncut plastic key for my RX-7 tucked in the owner’s manual pouch. Mazda called theirs “Keys ‘n Case.”

Church
Church
2 months ago

Objectively, I acknowledge that these plastic things did exist. However, I also acknowledge that this looks like some AI generated BS.

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
2 months ago
Reply to  Church

No, no, Lewin is an Australian Individual, not an Artificial Intelligence.

Mat M. O’Dowd
Mat M. O’Dowd
2 months ago
Reply to  Gilbert Wham

How do we know you aren’t an AI too “Gilbert Wham” trying to protect your digital brethren?!

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
2 months ago

Do not be suspicious, please, puny hum – I mean Mat. Everything is as normal and I am a normal human commenter on the normal human internet. Human. Yes.

Mat M. O’Dowd
Mat M. O’Dowd
2 months ago
Reply to  Gilbert Wham

Alright, nothing suspicious here, move along!

Hey buddy, you seem to be leaking some oil!

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