Ryan Aghdam

The Evolution of Car Keys

Awhile ago eBay suggested that I buy a vintage Toyota key. For reasons I am unable to explain, I decided that I would much rather have a key to an unknown 1960’s Toyota than $2. I keep that key on the ring next to my FR-S key.

The shape is the same. But that’s where the similarities end. In the past half century keys have changed a lot. Has it been for the better?

The old key is two inches long and three quarters of an inch wide; the new key is three and a half inches long, one and a half inches wide, and – most importantly – a half inch thick.

Old keys: 1; new keys: 0.

That bulk must be there for a reason. On this particular key, it houses the remote for locking/unlocking the doors, opening the trunk, and setting off the alarm. Is that really much more convenient than using a key to lock/unlock the door? In my beloved and dearly missed 2001 Nissan Altima, no. When locking/unlocking the driver’s door with the key it’d operate the locks on all of the doors. The FR-S doesn’t do that, which makes those buttons somewhat necessary if you have a passenger. A point to the new keys.

Old keys: 1; new keys: 1.

But what about that button that sets off the alarm? That button’s been pressed many times – never once intentionally.

Old keys: 1; new keys: 0.

Almost immediately after buying my 1991 Miata, I decided it would be wise to make a spare copy of the key because it came with only one master and one valet. Easy. A quick ride to the hardware store and five minutes and $4 later, I had two spares.

Hannah’s RAV-4 needed a key copied, too. We needed a spare because “I” lost her keys. The RAV-4’s key are nearly idential to those for the FR-S. They have a transponder and remote, so I expected it to be a bit more expensive, but not inconvenient. I didn’t care about the remote, just a key that starts the car. The hardware store that copied my Miata key claimed to do “chipped” keys so I tried them first. They couldn’t do this one. Nor could the other hardware store in town. Not Lowe’s either. The locksmith that Lowe’s suggested? Nope. I eventually had luck at Sears, where they made a copy for $50.

Old keys: 2; new keys: 0.

Transponders were added to reduce rampant car theft. Since transponders have become nearly ubiquitous, car theft rates have plummeted. They’re clearly effective, if sometimes frustrating.

Old keys: 2; new keys: 1

The reduced rates of car theft can often lead to discounts on car insurance, which is further proof of their effectiveness.

Old keys: 2; new keys: 2

But, I’d risk the chance at having Hannah’s RAV-4 stolen rather than spend two hours trying to have a key copied. I’ll keep the transponder for my cars, though.

Oh, and if you’re about to take a picture of your plain old metal keys and drop them on a plate covered in barbecue sauce, you can just run them under the sink for a minute. Another point for the old keys.