The Key To The Situation

The key to the situation

I went to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) Test Day at Millbrook Proving Ground the other month. It’s a bit of a boys’ outing for those of us who write about cars for a living, and involves us playing with lots of modern cars in a controlled environment off the public highway. I drove some special cars there – the new MX-5, the Alfa 4C, the current 911 – and some rather mediocre products that have impressed by dint of their competence. Dacia Sandero, I’m looking at you.

But this is neither a piece about how great modern cars are, nor about how they should all be tipped into the sea. This is about the emotional, tactile bond you form with a car, and how the gradual loss of one component is risking that very close relationship. The ignition key.

Mercedes and Renault, I blame you. Buttons atop the gear selector, credit cards in the dash: you started a trend which has led to strangely-shaped electronic tags and bright red starter buttons, a trend which has effectively reduced the concept of operating a starter motor to that of any other electrical device. Push a button to make it start. Push it again to make it stop. It’s impersonal, clinical, and it reduces personifiable objects like cars to the simple status of consumer goods.

The key is not just a device for pub table one-upmanship, you see, nor for putting in bowls at questionable parties. It’s the first part of the car you touch, the barrier between you and a thousand miles of B-road. For those of us who form bonds with our cars, the ignition key is almost as symbolic as a wedding ring, and I find the dearth in modern cars a concerning trend.

Remember your first car? Remember the thrill of slotting the key into the ignition, turning it, and hearing it roar into life ready for a new adventure? Would that have been quite so exciting with a button? I think not. Buttons might save labour but effort breeds attachment. I worry about the amount of classic car enthusiasts we’ll have forty years hence, when all they know will be buttons. Will the same feelings be there, the same desire to maintain something old? Or will the average car have been discarded as financially unviable and recycled long before it can be remembered fondly?

That’s the other problem with start buttons, or electronically coded plastic parts like the new 911’s 911-shaped ‘key’ with colour coded highlights. A particularly gauche example. Electronics don’t last forever, and they will go wrong. In thirty years, who will have the parts to repair a Renault Laguna II ignition system? And how much will it cost? If you lose a key, the worst case is that you replace the lock barrel. Having a spare key cut for my Triumph Stag would cost me about a tenner – having one for an MG6 would probably be over ten times as much even now, while parts are relatively commonplace. It’s a big deal, and along with the scrappage scheme and emission regulation, overcomplication could rob us of a further generation of classic cars as well as their enthusiasts.

Cars of the 2000s might not bother us now. There are people I know who feel that even 1990s cars should be buried in concrete pits. But they will be the unexceptional era in five years or so, and barely ten years later we’ll see cars of the 2000s coming into their own. These are problems we’re all going to experience over the next couple of decades – and they could make events such as the Festival of the Unexceptional impossible to co-ordinate when there are so few cars left. And unless we can find a way to bring the love back, we won’t find a way to make them viable classic propositions.

We never really paid attention to the ignition key when it was there – it was a part of life, like taxes or the supermarket checkout queue. But that which inspires the greatest fondness is deemed an imperceptible constant until it is lost. So you can keep your cards, your starter buttons, your terribly-named Emotional Control Units. What we want are ignition keys – the keys to our hearts and emotions. Let’s turn them in the barrel and go for a drive.


This article was originally published by Hagerty Insurance on 22 Aug 2016.

6 thoughts on “The key to the situation

  1. Agreed. Another symptom of the general malaise among car manufacturers: solving a problem that doesn’t exist by adding cost and complexity, and undermining reliability and durability, by the introduction of unnecessary electronics. The electric handbrake is the pinnacle of the disease. Until they effect a cure, I shall be avoiding their products…

  2. I absolutely agree, on all the points made! Which is unusual for me! Take away the key, and yet another sensory link is removed.Drivers these days are so insulated from what is going on with their vehicle, where technology takes over more and more, it even has the effect of de-skilling the driver altogether! I get into my car…a struggle in itself…insert the key, turn it, and wait…until the fuel pump changes its clattering tone, then a starter button is pressed, whilst the other hand fiddles with a choke control. The car only starts and runs, because of the input I make as the driver. Not because of some sort of software. The gearbox only smoothly changes gear because of how the driver operates the levers and pedals…and the car only goes around corners quickly because of how the driver balances steering against pedals, and eyes. When the throttle is blipped, it poisons everyone’s grand-kids! At 50 mph in winter, one’s top half is frozen, one’s legs are being roasted! Then there’s the sheer noise! All the noises! I’m certain my car would contravene the Factories Act! Certainly, anything more than an hour’s drive has to include a ten minute break for a cuppa. Which makes any sort of journey a hopeful, and sometimes, eventful one. Actually getting there can be an anti-climax in a way. Can any of the above be levelled at today’s modern autos? ”I hope not,” you hear potential customers say? Long live the’s one of motoring’s last bastions!

  3. So what else is new? Drivers of Series 1 Land-Rovers like ours (as well as early Minis) will have been using buttons to start the car for years… having turned a traditional key first. It’s a great anti-theft device — scallies raised on traditional steering-lock keys haven’t the faintest idea how to fire the engine. It even flummoxed an MOT tester once!

  4. Your writer must be from the “younger generation” to confine starter buttons to the trash can. They were an integral part of the traditional “classic car”, umbilically attached to the ignition key & manual choke, an essential part of the whole start up procedure. What owner of a ’50s or earlier car hasn’t experienced those, sometimes stomach churning, seemingly unending, moments of doubt as they perform the start-up ritual. Grasp choke,withdraw, insert key, turn, hope that the little red light glows brightly (battery not dead), check you are in neutral (don’t want to exit the garage via the back wall), apply thumb gingerly to starter button. Hear the satisfying clonk of the bendix engaging the pinion with the starter ring. Slight pause then the engine slowly starts to rotate, a slight cough, it starts to turn quicker, more coughing and then, if you’re very lucky, it catches and fires up, popping and banging for a while before settling in to a slightly uneven, lumpy idle. This only happens in the perfect ’50s world. More normally in those far off days, it dies after the first couple of turns. Repeated pressing of the starter button may bring the engine to life but two things can happen, and usually do, you either flood the engine or flatten the battery. The first requires removal of plugs, a rub down with a usually oily cloth and a trip to the oven to burn off the deposits and heat them up along with burned fingers on refitting, invariably the one with which you press the starter button! This sometimes needs repeating two or three times! Alternatively the battery is now of no further use and the starter handle is located, inserted and heaved upon. Occasionally, if you are built like Arnold Swcharzenegger, this works but quite often, as in my case, precedes a trip to the local A & E to re-position dislocated shoulder or discs. The starter button is an essential item in this and other situations, too many to go into. Mr Skelton sadly confuses those modern, dayglow monstrosites with the devine cream or dark brown item poking out of the dash board with a little “s” in the centre, a proper starter button. He should be made to spend the upcoming winter relying upon a nice old Humber or Austin for his every day transport, stored outside of course with a non-working heater and various leaks, maintained in the manner that they usually were in those far off halcyon days of ’50s, ’60s motoring, not the pristine examples one sees on the showgrounds nowadays. Then he would obtain a real awareness of the realities of old classic motoring and a splayed thumb like mine. Actually, I’ve reached the age where the loss of said button, replaced by no more than a gentle prod on the throttle pedal and a whispered “Go”, along with the certainty of instant start-up every time would not overly trouble my sense of loss of originality. Regards. John H.

  5. Great article Sam. There is something to be said for the look and feel of the key in your hand. That worn leather fob that’s been on there for so many years, with it’s pressed or painted badge. It’s our man to machine connection. It’s this first bridge that we cross before that engine rumbles in to life. It says that this is more than just a drive from A to B

  6. Mr Harris – you are right to separate the starter buttons of old from the modern monstrosities – and I had hoped my piece made it clear that my problem is with the modern generation. The difference is one of tactility – on many older cars with starter buttons the ignition key is still present, with the button serving solely to activate the starter. This is fine, because we retain the beautiful tactility of the key in our pockets. An Austin Somerset or a Humber Snipe would be just dandy. Despite being of the younger generation I do live the classic car experience and I have experienced winters in cars which would have been driven by my forebears – my Triumph Stag served me well over the winter of 2014 despite its failed heater, and my P6 with interesting brakes and a sticky choke cable did me well for the first chunk of this year before coming off the road for brake work. I think I’ll stick to my Jaguar Sovereign this winter! Thanks for your thoughts – I like seeing well-structured replies to my opinions; my aim is to prompt debate and this one certainly has. Sam Skelton.

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