Key won't turn in ignition

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I'm in Vancouver, BC, with a Toyota Camry 1989 V6 station wagon (~180k miles). I have a degree in mechanical engineering, but my knowledge on cars can probably fit on the back of a cereal box (okay, maybe two cereal boxes). I have a small collection of hand tools and a drill, and I'm not bad at tinkering with things (I've discovered the key is to move slowly, and to give up BEFORE something breaks).

The problem is a simple mechanical one: the key won't turn in the ignition. This usually happens to me when I've cranked the steering wheel all the way over for parking on a hill (and I park on a hill at home), and the usual solution is to move the wheel slightly, and the ignition can turn after that. But this time, no matter how I move the wheel, the ignition can't turn. (the key will shift a very small amount, enough so I can't pull the key straight out, but it won't go past that.) I poked around at the steering column for a bit, removing all the plastic bits, but the only thing I discovered is that I don't know enough about steering columns.

So how can I disengage the steering lock, or otherwise find some way to turn the key?

posted by  PotatoEngineer

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Oh...you've really gotten yourself into a pickle!

I've had a similar problem and the only thing that saved me was what is commonly called, "The Steering Wheel Jiggle"...and you seem to know that one.

I don't know any other solution...sorry. :banghead:

posted by  BavarianWheels

One BCAA visit later...... still no fix. But at least my key isn't stuck anymore. Looks like it's time to replace the ignition.

posted by  PotatoEngineer

If you can't get it to free up with moving the steering wheel and then trying to turn the key then you may have jamed something. The other option is that your key barrel is shot. Either way, it's time to tear apart (figuratively speaking) the steering column and see what's hanging up.

Start by removing any and all trim you can from around the column. If you have limited tools you may need to go to the store for this as, depending on make and year, there are sometimes different fasteners used to hold the trim on or they may be recessed requiring thin tools. You may also have to remove the steering wheel.

Once you get the column exposed, all the components are easy to see and your mechanical engineering degree should assist you in figuring out what each component does and where the jam is.

Good luck.

posted by  theman352001

I agree with all that has been stated about having to pull the lock cylinder and column down. Sometimes you REALLY have to put some muscle on that steering wheel if that lock Cylinder is stuck. Usually the "jiggle" does it. If not, now you need to tear it down.

Now for a little fun. You state you have a degree in mechanical engineering yet you only have a few tools and a drill and you automotive expertise could fit on the back of a couple cerial boxes, LOL. :orglaugh: It cracks me up how prevalent that is in the engineering field. Engineers, you would think, would be people like me who do anything mechanical from A-Z and have a garage and shop FULL of just STUFF to do anything with.....yet I have met so many that could not unscrew a lightbulb without a dissertation telling them how to do so. Isn't it kind of scarey that the engineers that are assigned to projects that any Joe Q might come in contact with one day where their safety is on the table might never have seen a wrench nor turned one a day in their life? It scares the hell out of me! I bet when it comes to math, you can calculate derrivatives and perform mathematical operations pertaining to differential equations though right?? alllll that stuff we all do daily that's gonna keep my ass safe, :doh: :laughing: Don't get "offended," I am just calling out an interesting observation. :2cents:

posted by  cmeseadoin

I find it interesting myself. However, I fail to see how an engineer needs to know how to turn a wrench in order to do his/her job. As you point out, the engineer needs to know the Math, and I will add Physics, Material properties, Dynamics, etc...... of what they are designing to ensure that your a** is safe.

Nothing against you. I am assuming, based on your context above, that you are not and engineer and are a technician of sorts. You probably have a great intuitve understanding of mechanics and other systems and may even know some of the reasons behind how and why things are and how they behave. You may even be a great fabricator. But can you tell me the limits of what you may have built? What kind of factor of safety is included?

I feel I can speak on the subject as my family contains both. I am an engineer by schooling and my brother is a technician by doing. My brother has a great understanding of mechanical systems and is quite good at fabrication. If my brother could have stuck it out through school, he would have made a great engineer also and had both traits.

I have the theoretical knowlege and understanding but I also have the desire to do my own work and create my own designs. My brother is a better technician than I am because he has much more experience. But I know how to turn a wrench, rebuild a motor, etc....

It really boils down to what you like to do. Most engineers like to work out the calculations and see a design come to fruition. They don't necessarily want to acturally build it or repair it. Technicians either did not want to, or didn't have the patience for, sitting through school to get the engineering degree.

There is more I would like to type but..... Let's just see if this thread keeps up.

posted by  theman352001

Thanks, theman, I didn't know what the key barrel was called. That helped on another round of searches. I now know how to pop a key barrel off of the steering column: put in the key, turn to position 1, and then find a little hole next to the key slot. Put a thin wire into that hole and push a mechanism (it's hiding in there), and the key barrel can then come out when you pull on the key.

It's great info, but the problem is that I can't turn the key. :banghead:

Further update: It looks like the key barrel is shot. After liberal application of a Flathead Screwdriver With A Lifetime Guarantee (the ultimate bending, prying, chiseling, and miscellaneous mangling tool. And yes, you will break it, just like your father and your shop teacher said, but who cares? It's guaranteed!), I managed to work my way into the steering lock--without damaging the lock itself. (The steering lock is covered by 1) a metal panel riveted to the cast block the key barrel goes into, covering 2) a metal plate sunk into a recessed portion of the cast block and riveted in place. I think it's the manufacturer's way of saying "no user-servicable parts. Opening this will void your warranty. Turn back now, for the love of all that is mechanical!")

At any rate, the steering lock was disabled, the wheel could turn.... and the ignition still couldn't. So I reenabled the steering lock. The key barrel (or possibly my keys) have finally worn their way to oblivion. Picking the worn lock looks like more of a job for a locksmith than my usual mechanic.

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As for the "engineer vs. technician" debate: the silly thing is that I have a BS in mechanical engineering, and I don't really know much about designing anything in particular (I could design it, but it wouldn't be the best design). All of my knowledge is so general (a generic bending beam and/or truss, some moderately-simplified heat tranfer equations, etc. Most of the equations I know are "first approximations.") that if I wanted to get into, say, bridge building, the best thing would be to go back to school and get a master's degree, or even a Ph.D. And even then, I would know a whole lot about a fairly specific topic. Most engineering firms have some guys for heat transfer, some guys for moving parts, some guys for materials, etc., because there's so much to know that you can't be a jack-of-all-trades easily.

At a technician's school, on the other hand (say, an Associate's degree, or an apprenticeship somewhere), they tell you a lot of very specific things about very specific objects. So "this refridgerator" can fail under "these circumstances" requiring the replacement (or repair) of "these components." A (generic) engineer might be able to tell you about how the compressor and radiator should function, and why the system works (it effectively pumps heat from inside the frige to outside the frige), but he couldn't tell an Eaton from a desk lamp.

Engineering firms tend to be big, so the best division of labor is to have the engineers design the thing (all the way down to the manufacturing process), and mechanics fix it. Engineering takes years in a college to learn, (4 years BS, 2+ years MS, 4+ years Ph.D. if you're that enthused. Add THAT tuition up. Plus experience, if you're going to do it right.) while basic mechanics can be learned on the job, with the proper tools. You can fix your own car, if you have the shop manual and the right tools, though it'll go faster once you have experience.

posted by  PotatoEngineer

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