Emergency Locksmithing: Opening Locked Cars

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While not specifically intended to be an instructional in "How to Break Into Cars" -- in a criminal/"legal" sense -- we realize there may be times when "breaking and entering" an automobile is necessary or otherwise important. E.g., you may be an automotive engineer tasked with designing an "anti-theft" car-security system. So the info on this page may be used for this purpose.

Nevertheless, we at crsupport.net do not subscribe to any particular ethics on this subject. What is perhaps most important is that you are aware of the consequences of your actions.

While the automobile has been with us since the beginning of the twentieth century, the lock was adopted slowly. However, by the late 1920s nearly every auto had an ignition lock, and closed cars had door locks as well. Current models can be secured with half a dozen locks. This sect. explains how to open and service all kinds of vehicles.

Opening Locked Cars

Car opening can be a lucrative part of any locksmithing business. For some, it's the biggest source of income. To offer car-opening services, you only need a few inexpensive tools and some technical knowledge. In this section we show you how to buy and make the tools you need and give you detailed instructions on how to open most cars. we also tell you about the business matters you need to know.

In the interest of self-disclosure, we should point out that several years ago I was hired by a major automotive lock manufacturer to prepare and edit its car entry manual, which included creating new entry techniques and designing tools. At the time, it was one of the most comprehensive and best-selling publications of its kind. Although the manual is out of date, copies are still being sold. we no longer work on that publication. The suggestions and tool designs we give here are original and aren't meant to promote any company's products.

Tools you need

Car-opening tool sets sold through locksmithing supply houses may include 40 or more tools. Toolmakers point out that the variety is necessary (or at least helpful) because of the constant lock-related changes made to new cars. Some of the uniquely shaped tools are designed for one specific make, model, and/or year of car. Whether or not all the new specialized tools are worth the money is debatable. But a continuous supply of new tools means recurring revenue for the toolmakers.

ill.1 A slim jim shown outside of a door.

You can open most cars with only five simple tools, all of which you can make yourself. In some cases, not only will it be cheaper, but the tool will work better if you make it yourself. Later, I'll tell you how to make the tools. The most important car opening tools are a slim jim, a hooked horizontal linkage tool, an L tool, a J tool, and an across the car tool (or long reach tool). They have different ways of reaching and manipulating a car's lock assembly and lock buttons.

The slim jim is a flat piece of steel with cutouts near the bottom on both sides ( Ill . 1). The cutouts let you hook and bind a linkage rod from either side of the tool. The tool can also be used to push down on a lock pawl. Slim jims come in different widths. It's good to have a wide one and a thin one. You can buy them at most automobile supply and hardware stores. You can get better models from a locksmith supply house. They're often sturdier, have more notches, have a handle, and just generally look more professional. To make your own, you'll need a 24" piece of flat steel or aluminum, from 1 to 2 ” wide. You can use a ruler or other item that's the right size made from the proper material. Just draw the slim jim shape onto the metal and then grind away the excess material.

Hooked horizontal linkage tools go by many names and come in all kinds of sizes and configurations. The small hook on the end of the tool lets you catch and bind a horizontal rod and slide it to unlock the door. Some hook down onto the rod ( Ill.2); others hook from the bottom of the rod ( Ill . 3). It's good to have both of them. Two other kinds of horizontal linkage tools include the three "fingers" type that spreads to clamp onto the rod ( Ill.4), and the tooth-edged type that bites into the rod ( Ill.5). we don't like either of those two, because when using them, you have to be especially careful to avoid bending the linkage rods.

The J tool is one of the easiest to use ( Ill.6). It goes within the door, between the window and weather stripping, and then under the window and beneath the lock button to push the button up to the unlocked position.

An L tool is used to push or pull on bell cranks and lock pawls (Ill .7).

You can also use it to access the lock rod by going under the lock handle.

For versatility, buy or make a tool that is an L tool on one end and a J tool on the other. The part of the tool that enters between the door needs to be a specific shape; the rest of the tool is the handle. It's useful to make or buy tools that have a different or a different-size tool on each end.

The across the car tool is a 6-foot (or longer) piece of 3/16" round stock bar with a small hook on one end. Its name comes from the fact that the tool can be used to enter a window and reach across the car to get to a lock or window button. But sometimes you use it on the same side of the car on which you inserted it. Most of the ones you buy come in three pieces, and you screw them together before each use. They often bend and break at the joints. If you buy one in three pieces, you should braze the pieces together. But it's best to make your own out of one piece of steel.

ill.2 Some car-opening hook tools catch and bind a linkage rod from the top.

ill.3 Some car-opening hook tools catch and bind a linkage rod from the bottom.

ill.4 A finger-type car-opening tool spreads to grip the linkage rod.

ill.5 A car-opening tool with teeth grips a rod by biting into the metal.

ill.6 A J tool shown outside the car. The tool goes beneath a lock button and pushes it up to unlock a vehicle.

ill.7 An L tool of the right size can reach and manipulate a lock pawl or bell crank.

ill.8 Linkage rods are attached to the bell crank. Many times, a vehicle can be unlocked by pushing or pulling on the bell crank.

To use those car-opening tools, you'll also need a flexible light and a couple of wedges. The wedges should be made of plastic, rubber, or wood. The wedges pry the door from the window to allow you to insert the light and tool. The light lets you see the linkage assembly so you can decide what tool to use and where to place the tool.

Car opening techniques

With most cars, there are many good techniques that will let you quickly open them. A locksmith who opens a lot of cars will tend to favor certain techniques.

There's nothing wrong with that. Whatever way gets you in quickly and professionally without damaging the vehicle is fine.

Parts of the car to reach for opening include the lock button, bell crank, and horizontal and vertical linkage rods. The bell crank is a lever that connects to a linkage rod that's connected to the latch or another linkage rod. One popular style of bell crank is semicircular ( Ill . 8); another style is L-shaped. A horizontal rod, as the name implies, runs parallel to the ground. A vertical rod runs vertically from the lower part of the door toward the top of the door (often to a lock button).

You don't always have to use a tool within the door. Many locks are easy to impression or pick open. Standard torque wrenches used for deadbolt and key-in-knob locks don't work as well when picking a car lock. To make a better torque wrench for cars, grind the small end of a hex wrench.

When approaching an unfamiliar car model, walk around it, looking through the windows. As you walk around the car, consider the following:

1. Does it have wind wings (vent windows)?

2. Is there a lock button at the top of the door?

3. Are there any gaps around the doors and trunk where you may be able to insert an opening tool?

4. What type of linkage is used?

5. Can you gain access to the vehicle by removing the rear view mirror?

6. Can you manipulate the lock assembly through a hole under the outside door handle?

7. What type of pawl is used? As a rule, pre-1980 locks have free-floating pawls, and later models have rigid pawls.

Using a J tool

If the vehicle has a lock button on top of the door, you may be able to open it with a J tool. First, insert a wedge between the door's weather stripping and window, to give you some space for the tool ( Ill . 9). Insert the J tool into the door until it passes below the window. Then turn the tool so its tip is under the lock button ( Ill . 10). Lift the lock button to the open position (ill.11). Carefully twist the tool back into the position in which you had inserted it, and remove the tool, without jerking on it, before removing the wedge.

ill.9 Before inserting a tool within a car door, insert a wedge to spread the door a little.

ill.10 The J tool goes within the door near the lock button.

ill.11 When the J tool is below the window, turn it so it’s beneath the lock button.

The Long Reach Tool

If you learn to use it, the long reach tool will be one of the most useful car opening tools you have. You can quickly unlock about 90% of vehicles with it- including many of the latest models. When you use the tool it's like you have a very long and very skinny arm. The tool lets you reach inside a crack of a car door to push, pull, press and rotate knobs and buttons. You can even use it to pick up a set of keys.

To use the long reach tool, first you place an air wedge near the top of a door to pry the door open enough to insert the tool. (Sometimes you may need to use an extra wedge.) Use a protective sleeve at the opening, and slide the tool into the sleeve. The protective sleeve is to prevent the tool from scratching the car.

( You could also use cardboard or the plastic label off of a bottle of soda pop.) Most of the long reach tools you can buy are about 56 ” long; that isn't always long enough. If you purchase one, get the longest you can find. You can make your own with a 6-foot-long, 1/4" -diameter stainless steel rod. On one side of the rod make a 1" bend at a 90-degree angle. Dip that 1" bend into plasti-dip or some other rubber-like coating (to give it a non-scratch coating).

ill.12 Pattern for making a J and L tool. Made from 1/8" diameter steel rod

ill.13 Pattern for making a double L tool. Made from 3/16" diameter steel rod.

Making other tools

You can find supplies at many hardware and home improvement stores to make your own car-opening tools. You'll need flexible flat stock and bar stock of different sizes. See ill.12 to 14 for patterns for making some useful tools.

Another tool that we like a lot can be made from the plastic strapping tape that's used for shipping large boxes. It's hard to find it for sale in consumer out lets. I get mine for free from department stores before they throw it away. Take about 2 feet of strapping tape, fold it in half, and glue a small piece of fine sand- paper to the center ( ill.15 to 17). When it dries, you have a nice stiff tool that can easily slide between car doors to loop around a lock button to lift it up. It works like the J tool but from the top of the button instead of the bottom. The sandpaper isn't critical, but it helps the tool grab more easily.

Business considerations Often a locked-out person will call several locksmiths and give the job to the one that gets there first. Or he or she may get the door open before the lock smith gets there. Either way, you may not be able to collect a fee, unless you made it clear when you received the call that you have a minimum service charge for going on all car-opening service calls.

ill.14 Pattern for making a down-hooking horizontal rod/L tool. Made from 3/16" diameter steel rod

Before working on a door, ask what attempts have been made to open the door.

To improve your chance of getting an honest answer, ask in a manner that sounds like you're just gathering technical information to help you work. If you learn that someone has been fooling with a door, don't work on that one. You don't want to be held responsible for any damage someone else may have caused.

To open a lock with vertical linkage rods, you can often use a slim jim to pull up the rod to the unlocked position, or use an under the window tool to lift up the lock button. Before using an under the window tool at a tinted window, lubricate the tool with dishwashing liquid. That will reduce the risk of scratching the tint off. You may also be able to use an L tool to pull up the bell crank, which is attached to the vertical linking rod.

ill.15 Fold the strapping material in half.

ill.16 Glue a piece of sandpaper to the center.

To use a hooked horizontal rod tool, first insert a wedge between the door frame and weather stripping, and then lower an auto light so notice the linkage rods. Lower the hooked end onto the rod you need, twist the tool, binding the rod, and then push or pull the rod to open the lock.

You may also want to buy a set of vent window tools for special occasions.

Vent (or "wing") window opening is easy, but old weather stripping tears easily. In most cases, if it has a vent window, the car can be opened using basic vertical linkage techniques. If you decide to use the vent window, lubricate the weather stripping with soap and water at the area you will insert the tool.

Then take your time, and be gentle.

Special considerations

Some models, like the old AMC Concord and Spirit, have obstructed linkage rods.

It may be best to pick those locks.

Late model cars can be tricky to work on. Many have lipped doors that make it hard to get a tool down into the door or have little tolerance at the gaps where you insert wedges and tools. The tight fit makes it easy to damage the car. Also, the owners may be especially watchful of any scratches you make. To reduce the risk of scratching the car, use a tool guard to cover the tool at the point it contacts the car.

Be careful when opening cars that have airbags. They have wires and sensors in the door. If you just haphazardly jab a tool around in the door, you may damage the system. Use a wedge and flexible light and make sure notice what you're doing.

ill.17 Affix the sandpaper, let dry, and refold.

Why people contact you to open their car?

A lot of people know about using a slim jim. They're sold in many hardware and auto supply stores. and many people know about pushing a wire hanger between the door and window to catch the lock button. People typically try those and other things before calling a locksmith. They call a locksmith because it's freezing cold, late at night, raining, or all three, and they grow tired of trying to unlock it themselves. Newer model cars are harder to get into using old slim jim and wire hanger techniques.

People seldom break their windows on purpose, even in emergencies.

Replacing a car window is expensive and inconvenient, and there's a psychological barrier to smashing your own car window. I've been called to unlock cars that have young children in them on hot days. That isn't an uncommon situation.

Car-Opening Dispatch Procedure

Having a good dispatch protocol will help you stay out of legal trouble, get the information you need to unlock the vehicle quickly, and make sure you get paid. Modify this protocol to fit your needs:

1. Speak directly to the owner or driver of the vehicle and not to a middle person. If the owner or driver can't come to the telephone, don't go to the job.

2. Have the person verbally confirm that he or she wants you to do the job and is authorized to hire you.

3. Always quote an estimated price (or the complete price) and a minimum service call fee. Explain that the service call fee is for the trip and will be charged even if no other services are performed.

4. Ask how the charges will be paid (credit card, cash, or check). Explain that all charges must be paid in full and are due upon your arrival.

5. Get the make, model, year, and color of the vehicle and its license plate number.

6. Get the exact location of the vehicle. If the customer isn't sure, ask to speak to someone who is.

7. Get a phone number to call back on, even if it's a pay phone. Tell the person someone will call back in a moment to confirm the order.

8. Call the phone number to confirm that someone is really there. If no one answers, don't go to the job.

9. When you get to the job, ask to see identification, and make sure keys are in the car. Also, have the person sign an authorization form.

10. When you open the car, grab the keys and keep them until you've been paid. Any hassles about payment, toss them back in the car and close the locked door.

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