Fifty years ago, if someone told us our car would unlock itself as we approached it, and could start itself up at the same time, we would have thought we were living in an episode of The Jetsons. Cars were a marvel of engineering to us in our boomer years, and the key to harnessing its power was just that — a key.
Most boomers recall the elation of getting their first car; the thrill of personal freedom rang out the second you were handed the keys. In the 1950s and ’60s, cars had two keys: one that unlocked the doors, and that also fit the ignition switch to start the vehicle; and another to open the trunk. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, cars began to feature a pull switch installed in the interior of the car to pop open the trunk, which precipitated the shift to a single key for all locks on the car.
Mister Boomer remembers a car key story that happened when he was walking home from school one day. He was all of eight or nine years old when he saw a 1955 Chevy parked in a driveway with it its trunk wide open, keys dangling from the slot in the middle. He knew the car model because his uncle had one just like it. Thinking the owner forgot the keys, Mister B pulled them from the trunk as he closed it, and walked up to the front door of the house. He knocked and a man quickly answered. Mister B held out the keys and said, “You forgot your keys in the trunk lock.” The man was perturbed and responded that he did not forget them at all, and admonished Mister B to mind his own business and put them back where he found them. He walked down the steps to the car and, slipping the keys back in the lock, he unlocked the trunk. Once it swung up to its maximum height, he could hear the house door slam shut. Mister B resumed his walk home, a little dumbfounded at the exchange. Mister B thought he was being a good Samaritan. The man thought this kid should have kept walking. There was certainly an attitude about keys — especially car keys — that existed in our day. Many people left their cars and houses unlocked. By the mid-60s, boomer households became less trusting.
Fast forward fifty years, and Mister B found himself renting a car while visiting his home state. He was handed what he learned was a “key fob,” a palm-sized device that actually held no keys at all. It is also referred to as a car remote, echoing the name of another invention boomers learned about in their early years, the TV remote. He had heard of a watch fob (a chain that secured the watch to a pocket or belt loop), because his grandfather had one attached to the pocket watch that he carried with him. But a key fob, while not entirely new, seemed to advance in the intervening time between Mister B’s car rentals. If you don’t own a current model vehicle, and rent a car while on vacation, then you know what he means.
Once upon a time not so long ago, people had a small plastic case attached to their car keychain. It usually held two or three buttons to unlock the car, open the trunk, and activate the car alarm. Some had the ability to start the car, a welcome addition for colder climates. These days, however, the key fob is an electronic brick. It sends a signal to the vehicle as you approach it, automatically deactivating the alarm system and unlocking the doors. Some even start the car when you open the door. There is no longer any need for inserting a key into an ignition switch! If the car didn’t start on its own, you’ll find a start button on the steering wheel column where the ignition switch used to be located. We have achieved the push-button world envisioned in 1950s and ’60s futuristic prognostications.
Mister Boomer had to admit, sitting behind the wheel of one of those new models, he was panic-stricken. Ultimately, he swallowed his pride and went back to the car rental counter for some help. One advantage to being older is people don’t expect us to understand new technology, though Mister Boomer has used a computer at work every day since 1986. Nonetheless, as the rental assistant walked him back to the car, the key fob in Mister B’s hand unlocked the doors when they approached. As the agent swung open the door, a perplexed Mister B pointed to the digital dashboard and asked, “How the hell do I turn on the headlights? How do I turn on the windshield wipers if I need them?” The man didn’t even chuckle. He just patiently showed Mister B what to do, as if this were a regular occurrence. Feeling ancient, Mister B imagined the agent saw a blinking 12 o’clock reflected in Mister Boomer’s eyes. Easy to operate switches, dials and hand-crank windows were all Mister B ever had in the cars he has owned. It’s a brave new world, boomers.
How about you? Have you embraced car technology or long for the days when turning a key started a car and “programming” a car radio meant pulling out a button and pushing it back in?