How to start your classic when you, ahem, misplace your key

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Let’s take this little article for what it is—a cautionary tale about having only one key with you on a long road trip and how to get your car started in an emergency.

Our “Amelia Island or Bust” touring series event had gone wonderfully, despite pouring rain on the last couple of days driving through South Carolina and Georgia. I was on day two of drying the car out in front of the hotel in a sunny Florida parking spot, and I was plotting my exodus home on Monday morning after the concours

Hotwire your car

Now…where did I put that key? Uh oh

After going through every pocket, I came to the conclusion that the little key on my worn-out Barber Motorsports Park tag was a goner. Did it fall out of my pocket while I was rooting around for a business card on the show field? Lost while pulling out a pair of sunglasses or some kind of event credential? Did I leave it on the bed and it got scooped up by the housecleaning staff, lost into the maw of a giant industrial washing machine? Time was running out, and at this point it didn’t matter. I just needed to get the car started so I could drive it up on my rented trailer. 

I began to wonder what it would take to hotwire the car—I mean, in the movies it takes 10 seconds. How real is that? Getting access to the area under the dash wasn’t a problem, but I did have one obstacle: I’m as colorblind as a dog. I had a real aversion to joining wires together that might burn my car to the ground, so I needed some help.

Hotwire your car

Enter our Social Media Manager and able-bodied car guy, Matt Lewis. He’s a wiring whiz and has seen it all. Over the phone, I sent him a couple of photos to verify what I had going on, and he gave me the layman’s version of what I needed to do. 

Hotwire your car

First off, I had to get some good access so I could work. Pulling the ignition switch out of the dash gave me the view I needed to the wires on the back. In an emergency, there’s really only a few wires you need to know about:

  1. Power to the switch, which is typically a solid brown or red wire.
  2. Power to the stuff in the car that needs electricity to work, typically a solid white wire. In my case, that’s what needed to run my electric fuel pump.
  3. Power to the ignition circuit, or coil. This one was another white wire, and it had been modified to provide power to a 12V socket and a Stewart Warner voltmeter. 

Hotwire your car

After being promised repeatedly that nothing bad was going to happen by connecting these wires, I proceeded (sorry Matt, but I was worried I’d screw up). I had some electrical repair stuff with me in a tool bag that thankfully included a set of alligator clips. First step was connecting the solid brown one to the solid white one. I saw a little spark at the connection, and then the trusty SU electric pump under the seat starting its normal clickclickclick-ing to move fuel up to the carburetor. Taking the other end of the clip, I attached it to the coil circuit. Another little spark there, and the ignition light in the dash glowed brightly. 

So far, so good. I kept a good scan on all the wires under the dash to make sure nothing seemed abnormal. One more wire to go…

  1. STARTER. In my case, it was white with a big red stripe on it. I pumped the gas once, made sure the car was in neutral, and touched it to the others. The starter came to life, and it immediately cranked up and settled down to its usual lumpy idle! Naturally, you only want to touch that wire to the others long enough to crank it over, and I don’t think I had it connected for more than a second. 

Want to see this all live and in action? 

Now, let’s get to the caveats here. This worked for me in an emergency, and of course I’m not advocating anyone going around and starting other people’s cars this way—or even your own, unless you’re in a situation where it could save you a lot of time or hassle. I was a thousand miles from home and in a time crunch, so this really helped me get on my way. If you don’t know what you’re doing, phone a friend or consult a wiring diagram. Hey, maybe both. 

I learned a couple of other things from this exercise that I think are important to pass on. One, there are bad people out there that do this to steal cars. I’m going to be adding extra security to mine to make sure it can’t be started this easily by someone else. Things like hidden battery disconnects and kill switches are pretty common to retrofit to collector cars, and I’m going to be doing that immediately. Otherwise, keep your car locked and secure at all times.

Hotwire your car

Second, and perhaps the most important, lost keys are always in the last place you look. I found the missing key in my laundry when I got home … Should have looked there first.

 

Hotwire your car

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