Car trouble
February 9, 2020 6:19 PM   Subscribe

In Colorado visiting my ill, elderly dad. Have been using his old (2004?) Pontiac Grand Am for 2.5 weeks. Tonight I tried to start the car but the key simply would not turn. The lights turn on, so the battery isn't dead. I have never been able to actually turn the key to the off position (see photo at this link). Instead, it has been in the ON position always and I turn it to the start position for it to start. What do I do?

I feel super stupid typing this out, like of course I should have been turning it to OFF. But as usual with my dad's cars, this car is quirky. The turn signals work roughly 50% of the time. I tried to turn the key to OFF but it refused and I just didn't worry about it. Now the key is refusing to turn in any direction. Help me, dearest hive mind. My dad is dying and I was hoping to make a 4th visit over tonight because he hates the evenings most of all. Is there a cheap, an easy, or any kind of fix a gal with zero experience can attempt? If not, how do I solve this problem without dropping a lot of bucks on a car worth maybe $500?
posted by Bella Donna to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total)
Best answer: The key is typically connected to the steering wheel lock.

You've probably already tried jiggling the key in all different directions, including up/down, in/out, etc.

Something to try is to do this again, but jiggle the steering wheel at the same time.
posted by Nameless at 6:29 PM on February 9, 2020 [14 favorites]

If you've been driving it short distances the battery will not charge much so may be too low to start the car. If you have AAA or roadside assistance through your insurance they could jump it for you and probably test the battery. A new battery would be 100-150 bucks at an auto parts store and they can usually install it for you.
Really sorry about your dad and hope you are able to get the car going on the cheap!
posted by bookrach at 6:36 PM on February 9, 2020

Seconding trying to turn/twist the steering wheel at the same time as you try to turn the key. I lock my steering wheel accidentally ALL THE TIME and it's very annoying.

Good luck!
posted by cooker girl at 6:45 PM on February 9, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I didn't want to give you what I assume are my certifiably terrible ideas, but I started looking for answers on the internet:

2003 Pontiac Grand Am and when I put the key in it wont turn at all. (JustAnswer Pontiac)
If there's no way to get the key to turn even trying with a different key the ignition lock cylinder needs to be drilled out and the lock cylinder replaced.
Pontiac Grand AM: My 2004 Grand AM Key wont turn in the ignition… (JustAnswer Pontiac)
If the cylinder won't turn you have to drill out the tumblers. Starting with a small bit and going bigger until the tumblers are all drilled out, then it will turn with a screwdriver. It is a lot easier to take the entire switch out and drill it in a vise.
Pontiac key will not turn (2carpros)

If you step on brake pedal, does shifter move to all positions?

If so, then ignition lock cylinder or key itself.

You can call a locksmith to repair ignition cylinder onsite.


Thanks for this information. It is a 2004 Grand Am and therefore, the shifter will not move when the key is in the lock position.

I took someone's advice and used WD40 on the cylinder and it is now working. Not that it is a permanent solution, but I can now move the key and it is working.
So I was totally thinking WD-40, but I am also seriously not a car person.
posted by katra at 6:48 PM on February 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

Besides the steering wheel trick, is there any chance the transmission isn't shifted to park? That's gotten me a couple of times: some unusual combination of circumstances results in me cutting the ignition while the car's still in gear, then it refuses to start again and I'm like WHY??? until I realize I have to shift to park first.
posted by XMLicious at 6:53 PM on February 9, 2020 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Thirding trying to wiggle the steering wheel (and or/holding down the brake pedal and trying to shift in and out of park while you do) - you may also be able to get a butter knife in to press down the pin of the steering wheel lock if you can't get it to move by other means; I've done this on 80's era cars but haven't had to try it on anything more recent.
posted by jordemort at 6:55 PM on February 9, 2020

Riffing off of XMLicious, sometimes my decrepit Jeep wont start when it’s in park so I have to apply the brake and put it into neutral to get the engine to start.

Also thirding the locked steering wheel suggestions.

Fingers crossed for you!
posted by kimberussell at 6:58 PM on February 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This forum has a few detailed descriptions of ways to "JiggleItAlittleIt'll work" and seems to echo the idea of a locksmith as a lower-cost repair if that doesn't work: Key won't turn sometimes in ignition lock cylinder (ericthecarguy)
Other than what I call "JiggleItAlittleIt'll work" principle, I'd replace both the lock cylinder on the steering column and get new keys for it. Rather than going to a dealer, to save some dough, take it to a good locksmith.
And in other ideas: The key will not turn in the ignition (2003 Pontiac Grand Am) (Repair Pal)
Pop your hood and go to the fuse box. Pull all the ignition fuses and then put them all back in as long as none of them are shot. There you go your key will turn now.
posted by katra at 7:27 PM on February 9, 2020 [4 favorites]

Is that a broken key in the lock? So you just keep the key in there all the time?

If it's a key remnant in the lock, pull it out with pliers and get a fresh new copy made. If not, and that's just where the tumbler ends up and releases the key, then it could be a problem with the steering column itself. But...

More on the mechanics.. it could be the fuse to the starter. Everything could be fine, but the little electrical jolt needed to get the engine goes through a fuse, and sometimes that goes. I'm not familiar with the Grand Am, but I had a similar problem with a 4Runner where the battery was fine, but the car wouldn't even 'click'.

Also, the batter *could* be just low. Lights and everything else will work - just not enough juice for anything else.

Transmission also - if it's an automatic, then it may not be in 'Park', releasing the key lock. If it's a manual, make sure you have the clutch and the break pedals pressed.

If you have AAA, that's the best bet - if you don't, it may cost a couple hundred to get someone to come on-site, but at least they'll likely be able to fix it quick.
posted by rich at 6:38 AM on February 10, 2020

Response by poster: I jiggled the hell out of everything last night to no avail. This morning, however, it did not work on the first jiggle but it did start on the second jiggle while I had the brake down. Thanks, folks, and a special shout out to Katra for her awesome search skills.
posted by Bella Donna at 8:25 AM on February 10, 2020 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Update: My key stopped working again. So I called a locksmith who explained that my problem was common, especially with certain types of cars. He explained that my dad's car ignition was a wafer lock rather than a tumbler lock. (Nope, I do not know why that matters.) He told me to tap the end of the key several times with a small screwdriver. In the absence of that, I used my small Swiss Army knife and tapped it about 10 times. Nothing happened.

The locksmith was still on the line. Keep tapping, he advised, and I did. The key turned and the car switched on. The locksmith said little slivers of the key metal wear off over time, get into the wafers, and clog up the works. He prescribed a healthy dose of W-D40.

The W-D40 has not worked its magic yet, so I am still tapping the end of the key every time I need to use the car. Future readers, you are welcome.
posted by Bella Donna at 4:04 PM on February 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Once you get the lock freed up you want to flush the WD out with a graphite spray because the WD will attract dirt and gum things up.
posted by Mitheral at 5:20 PM on February 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

I had a similar problem with a minivan about 12 years ago. Sometimes I could take the key out, flip it over, and put it in and it would work, but one time it just decided to stay in the ignition and not work at all anymore. I had to get the van towed and have the lock/ignition/keyhole replaced. Once I did, I never had issues with the key again.
posted by tacodave at 5:40 PM on February 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Final update: About a week after this post the tapping-key trick stopped working. I called the same locksmith who came out and cut a new key. That was possible because the car was so old and did not use an electronic device to start. As $75 was less expensive than renting a car for a week, I considered it a bargain. The end.
posted by Bella Donna at 3:46 PM on February 27, 2020

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