Car ignition column repair


Moderator Emeritus
Dec 11, 2002
I've learned the basics of car repair and I have no fear, but I've also learned not to fix what ain't broke. I'd appreciate the board's advice on whether or not to fix an ignition condition.

Last week our kid snapped off the key in the ignition of our '94 Ford Taurus station wagon. Like all Fords in my experience, the car runs OK but the auxiliaries & interior are turning into crap. I've never seen a car allow this before, but its ignition has never held on to the key. We've always been able to insert the ignition key, start the car up, and pull the key back out with no effects. In fact the key comes out of the ignition at any position and is only required to start/stop the engine. I don't know if this is design or malfunction.

Now that the business end of the key is snapped off in the ignition, we no longer need a key at all. I can turn the ignition to all positions and I can start/stop the car just as if there was a real key dangling out of the steering column. Our biggest problem is remembering to carry a key to unlock the doors!

So my first question is-- is there a problem worth the repair effort/expense? We plan to keep this car as long as it runs (at least another decade of Hawaii driving) and our kid will "inherit" it in four more years.

My second question, assuming the first answer is "Yes!" is how to extract the *!^#ing key. It's at least an inch deeper than the entrance and it's tightly wedged. I can't even touch it with pliers and I can't move it with a dental pick. I don't know of a tool that can get in there, get a grip, and hold on during extraction. While my Haynes manual assures me that I can tear the cylinder out of the lock, it's mute on whether I'll be able to extract the key or if I'll just have to buy a new cylinder.

Let's just say that the kid has temporarily backed off on her insistence to learn how to drive, and she's happy to assist with the repairs.
Nords, I have a 95 Escort which, like your similar era Ford, runs OK but the accessories and interior (and exterior in my case) are turning to crap. I was thrilled to get "the junker" to pass the People's Republic of New Jersey's inspection process on Saturday morning, so now I have a couple of years to play with. Let's face it: neither car is worth much and neither resembles a theif's idea of a hot ride or any easily fenced piece of loot. Is there a reason why you would bother fixing this? It is unlikely to be stolen, and it doesn't in any way impede the use of the car.
Most Ford products have a well-armored steering column. But they do allow easy ignition cylinder removal, IF and only IF you have the corresponding key! Which you do, permanently :D

Usual procedure - Disconnect negative battery cable; Turn ign. key to ON; Insert awl or other thin rod up into the cylinder release hole; While pushing up hard on the tool, pull out the cylinder. Take the cylinder to a Ford dealer's Parts Dept. along with a GOOD ignition key. Have them key the new cylinder to the old unbroken key.

With key inserted into the new cylinder, just line it up and press it into the column until it snaps in. Done!
The solution should be easy and inexpensive -- go ahead fix it. These types of problems tend to accumulate rendering a perfectly good car into a pos. Take care of the little problems and the car should treat you well in return.
Thanks, Telly, that's what my Haynes says and I'll give it a try if I have to. I like the idea of re-keying the new cylinder to the old key (if I can't punch the old broken key outta the cylinder from the other side).

It'd be my first visit to a Ford dealer since the 1970s.

The only reason I care to fix it is a nagging suspicion that the People's Republic of Hawaii car inspectors will object to the status quo. Unfortunately the annual inspection is due before the end of the month... so we'll see what happens tomorrow!

BTW, John, it must have been a while since you've searched for & tightened all the screws, nuts, and plastic fasteners on a Ford's interior. The car reached the POS stage about five years ago, but it only has 90K on it and that 200K-potential engine (with a rebuilt tank transmission) will probably drag the rest of the POS around for at least another decade.
Since I can't/won't do anything on a car more complex than installing a battery or changing a bulb, malfunctions
do tend to accumulate. Our 1991 Jeep Cherokee has no
A/C, the power antenna doesn't work, the rear wiper is snapped off, the alarm system is funky and the power locks don't function on one door. None of this is really
essential to have so we live with it. I do keep it looking sharp though. Always get favorable comments when people learn how old it is. Anyway, I wish I could fix these things but it may be a blessing that I can't.
I can't get to half the stuff on my list now. Working
on our vehicles would just add to my angst :)

John Galt
I know exactly what you mean. I'm responsible for my girlfriend's 1994 Escort. She says it has 70K miles. Get inside, and it looks like 170K. It should have died 18 months ago, but I revived it. It is easy on gas! Plastic panels are popping off, roof leaks (fixed), headliner needs glue now. Hatch opens 50% of the time.

I'm trying to stay ahead of these problems on my sube (80K). The door lock broke -fixed, now the roof is rusting near the windshield (need to fix), thanks to strapping wet surfboards to the roof.
I've had good experiences with all of the Ford products I have and have had. But then none of them were small cars.
I've had good experiences with all of the Ford products I have and have had.  But then none of them were small cars.

Don't get me wrong, I think I have gotten quite good value out of my Escort. Considering that it was a very inexpensive car to start with and thet maintenance, repair and operating expenses have been very low, I think it has been a real trooper. I have never been stranded by the car in 10 years of ownership. I was even in a moderate accident with the thing and not only did I walk away unharmed, but I was able to drive home. Its just that after 10 years, it is on the faster end of the curve in terms of things starting to go.

There is a tool that can remove a broken key from a lock tumbler. It is normally part of a "pick set". It looks like a very flat, thin tweezer. It slides in, grips, then extracts. A friendly locksmith could loan you the tool. Or buy or own starter set. Practice a bit, then amaze your friends. Most of these lock problems are ultimately just simple mechanical puzzles. But these may be considered burglers tools in your state so caveat emptor good buddy.

Well, I had to fix it.

Thanks to all for the suggestions... this could easily have degenerated into a $200 repair bill.

We breezed through the safety inspection-- left the engine running and told the inspector we wanted to keep charging the battery. He didn't care.

But we almost got stranded yesterday when the cylinder's horns (on the steering column) just spun around without engaging the ignition. Apparently that big head on a key is good for something, and just an inch of broken key in the cylinder doesn't work reliably. I finally got the engine running after five minutes of fiddling under adolescent supervision. ("Can I try it, Dad? How 'bout if you...")

I tried all the usual extraction tools, even a chip puller. (Remember when you used them to manipulate the nine-pin 64K RAM chips on an expansion card?) Getting a grip wasn't so hard, but I just couldn't hang on while pulling. 10 years of junk shoved into the ignition makes a potent glue.

So, as Telly suggested, I pulled it all apart. The cylinder is split lengthwise enough to pry the broken key out with an icepick. I had to pull the cover plate off the column to find that stupid little cylinder release hole, and the entire cylinder seems to be filled with springs & pins that fly apart at the slightest provocation. But it all cleaned up just fine and went back together with hardly any problems.

Our kid is now the proud owner of her first car key (both parts). She can use it as soon as she puts it back together!

Actually this whole incident has dampened the "teach me how to drive" gimmes, so some good has come out of it.
Hi Nords,

Glad you got it fixed. Sounds like you pulled the pin holder off of the side of the cylinder!!! Those different pin lengths is what makes a lock key-specific! Put them all back in the right place!

Hopefully you figured out what caused the key to break in the first place, so it doesn't happen again. I've never had one break. Now if someone was using their keys as a swiss army knife, that could explain why it fatigued!
Hopefully you figured out what caused the key to break in the first place, so it doesn't happen again.
Our kid now understands the meaning of the words "operator error".
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