A KEY ISSUE by bill orth
Remember the good old days, when if you wanted a spare key for one of your cars, you could visit a hardware store and have a new one cut from your original for 99 cents? If you were fussy you could go to the car’s dealer and get a factory-supplied one, with the original logo stamped into the head, for $1.95. In either case, it took about ten minutes and you were on your way. If you had a foreign car, the original key was probably steel, instead of the more common brass, and you had to go across town to a lock & key shop to have a new steel blank cut, since the grinders at hardware stores couldn’t do steel. (Steel keys were necessary, because foreign ignition switches had heavier springs in them and a soft brass key would eventually twist and break in the lock)
During those innocent times, nobody cared if a used car they purchased only had one key—it was a problem easily solved over a lunch hour and with pocket change. By the ‘70s, some European manufacturers had begun making their keys a little harder to duplicate, which made replacements cost several dollars and in isolated instances (BMW Bavarias) they needed to be ordered from the dealer. But the vast majority of cars could be supplied with spares with little inconvenience and expense.
By the ‘80s, Mercedes abandoned traditional keys cut with jagged teeth and adopted a laser-cut serpentine groove along the side of the key. This was difficult to duplicate, so only the local Benz dealer and a few professional lock shops in each city invested in the equipment necessary to mill the grooves. Such keys cost about $10 and that was considered outrageous by many. It also prompted auto dealers to needle their salespeople to ask customers who were trading in Benzes for all the car’s spare keys. (Few complied) Several other makers developed their own unique key styles, but most could be copied in a matter of a few days and for less than the cost of a good lunch.
Enter the ‘90s. Insurance companies had begun to lean on manufacturers to make their cars more difficult to steal, so alarm systems started to appear along with more imaginative key patterns. In many cases, these new keys could no longer be copied locally, so a car owner had to order new ones from his dealer, wait a couple weeks and pay around $30 apiece for a plain-headed one. The fancy ones that had lights and/or alarm buttons built in cost twice as much. (I remember picking up a key for a new Porsche 928 in 1978 that had a little light in it; I pried it apart to see how it worked and the owner panicked, saying “Stop!! That’s a $50.00 key!! Auto dealers again prompted the sales people to be sure to get spare keys for their trade-ins, because the next buyer would surely want a spare and $50 a car started to add up after a while. The alarm-button ones could often be $100 each by the end of the decade. (Few salespeople complied)
Turning (finally) to Ferraris, duplicating their keys was always simple. The door key was the same blank used by every common Fiat or Alfa and the ignition blank was either a German Nieman used by Volvo or another Fiat clone. Dealers stocked the original steel variety and it was easy to get extras cut from your remaining original…until 1996. That year Ferrari began installing an electronic security system in all their new cars. Each car came with two keys and three alarm remotes that controlled the unit (Why not three keys? Don’t ask.) Anyway, that all worked out just fine until someone lost his spare remote and wanted another. Or a dealer took a car in trade and was only given one key and remote. One would assume that you could go to the dealer and simply order another remote and key. Wrong. In order for the system to be truly secure, it can’t be possible for a valet, your housesitter or anyone else to get a spare for your car, so if a late model Ferrari is missing its spare remote, the only remedy offered by Ferrari is a complete new set of three remotes AND the alarm ECU unit, which will make the original remotes useless. The original key would be unchanged, but all the electronics have to get replaced—for about $1500!
Now, when we trade in a 355-or-newer Ferrari, we ask if there’s a second key and remote, because if there isn’t, we have to adjust the trade allowance a bit. Unfortunately, it’s human nature to be careless with things like spare keys, so in kitchen drawers all over America there are spare keys that were abandoned when the family changed cars. (You’d be surprised how many times they suddenly get “found” when the owner finds out his trade is worth another grand if he can come up with another remote, though)
I can’t speak with authority on how difficult or costly it is to replace a missing alarm/key unit for other brands of automobiles these days, but it certainly isn’t chump change any more. Beyond the cost is the inconvenience. In order to order replacements, proof of ownership must be provided and the factory is rarely in a hurry to send the new ones—count on a month with Ferrari, certainly weeks with most others. Also for security reasons, Ferrari no longer sells uncut key blanks to its dealers, so even the simple ones for older cars have to be ordered factory-cut. The moral of the story is don’t lose or misplace your spare keys! We had an instance this summer where a 355 owner who only had one key & remote managed to lose it. The car couldn’t be opened, steered or started, so a flatbed had to be dispatched to drag it out of its garage, a professional locksmith called in to at least get a door open, the blaring alarm had to be circumvented and then the car sat for several weeks while a new set was produced. Modern cars are certainly far more protected from theft and joyrides than in the past, but the owner’s peace of mind comes at the potential cost of much more than a 99 cent duplicate key.
-- Bill Orth –