Unsung Heroes : The Austin-Rover bendy key

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Craig Cheetham

The Austin-Rover bendy key. Probably designed by a bloke.
The Austin-Rover bendy key – probably designed by a bloke

Today, car keys come in all shapes and sizes. Indeed, some are not even keys at all – the one for my daily driver, for example, which is a German mid-size estate car, is a blob of plastic that has buttons to lock and unlock the doors and another to release its gimmicky electric tailgate, but to start the thing you have to dip the clutch and press a starter button on the dash.

The ‘key’, meanwhile, floats around in your door pocket or cupholder as there’s no convenient slot into which it can be inserted – best not start me on the subject, though, or I’ll go all ‘grumpy old man’ about it. Let’s just say that, like many blokes, I have anatomical issues that make driving around with a hard chunk of plastic buried in my trouser pocket a little uncomfortable.

Indeed, it was when having such a ‘grumpy old man’ moment with a work colleague, who runs a similar company car and is equally irritated by this ultimate of first world problems, that we got round to discussing the good old Austin-Rover bendy key.

So, why would a key hinge in the middle?
So, why would a key hinge in the middle?

As regular AROnline readers will know, I’ve had (and still have) many Austin Rover cars, but have never really, truly appreciated the bendy key for its simple design practicality.

Remember, these were cars that came out before the dawn of the now mandatory ‘flip key’, where the blade disappears into its own plastic housing. Indeed, I recall my dad, when I was a kid, frequently having to ask my mum to sew his trouser pockets back together where the keys to the family Avenger had worked their way through the fabric, dived down his leg and landed on his shoe – a problem that most modern motorists will never encounter.

Imagine the table is your thigh. Suddenly, it all makes sense...
Imagine the table is your thigh. Suddenly, it all makes sense…

The bendy key, then, was dual purpose. First of all, it would protect your clothing by bending with your upper leg as you sat down, rather than jabbing its way through your pocket fabric. Secondly, and of benefit more to men than to women, it would avoid the pointy end of your car key jabbing you in the crown jewels – never a pleasant experience, yet one I’m occasionally reminded of when I have the key to my wife’s 2000 Discovery Td5 in my pocket. Long blades, pointy edges and no bendy bits are a bad combination and, when Rover moved away from the bendy key for the 75 and aforementioned Discovery, I can’t help but think it was a retrograde step.

If you’ll excuse the pun, I think they should have had the balls to keep it…

Yes, there was even a sporty version...
Yes, there was even a sporty version…

 

 

Craig Cheetham

A serial impulsive car purchaser, Craig has had his name on over 200 V5s over the past 20 years. 10 per cent of those have been either 800s or Austin Allegros, with between 10 and 20 cars usually owned at any one time. Started out as a local newspaper journalist then worked for car mags including Auto Express, Classic Car Weekly and Land Rover Owner. Worked inside the car industry for a decade as an employee of General Motors, now works for a news distribution agency. Home based, which is dangerously convenient for further irrational heap purchases. Lover of all makes of car since childhood, with a particular leaning towards Austin-Rover... Father of three boys, so hoping to spread the car love. Other passions include rugby union, travelling and eating out.

39 Comments

  1. Saab key is embedded within the keyfob, you insert the whole thing into the centre console to start it.

    The “key” can be prised out, if the drivers door ever needs to be unlocked manually. Used this once when a dodgy heater resistor drained the car battery.

    No key to jam against the leg, though as the tallest button likely to be accidentally contacted is not a switchkey button (as per VW group / old Xantia keys etc.), but rather one of the fob buttons, you’re more likely to open the doors / boot / set of alarm if left in a tight pocket within range of the car. For that reason, the key gets left in the hallway.

    A bending key such as Rovers is such a simple touch, yet considerate, the kind of thing that the engineers got right time and time again.

    • The location of the ignition lock in the centre console of Saabs was done for one simple reason – safety. Saab’s engineers recognised that in the event of a severe collision where damage to the bulkhead could result in the dashboard moving towards the driver, the positioning of the ignition key (as a rigid object) in the side of the steering column could potentially impale the driver’s knee cap and therefore potentially reduce their ability to escape from the damaged wreckage.

      So many motoring journalists ridiculed MG Rover Group for retaining the legacy flexible hinge design for its ignition key used for older models such as the 25/ZR, 45/ZS and MG TF. I, for one, could ever see why journalists could not recognise the benefits of a flexi-key design based on the points raised by Craig in his article. I guess it was seen as yet another opportunity to partake in that traditional British ‘sport’ of “knock the legacy of Longbridge”…

    • Most modern Audis from the current A4 onward also use the fob style starter whereby you stick the whole “key” into a hole in the dash to start the car. There is a more advanced version where you keep said fob in your pocket and start by pushing a button on the centre console. Even on the latest VW Group models that still have an olde worlde key lock on the steering column – this is no longer hard wired to the starter motor circuit – it connects to the engine ECU which issues a command to the starter to well…start.

      I read an interesting article about the vulnerablilty of these keyless systems to hi-tech car thieves who steal to order, with laptops now that the physical lock has been removed and everything is multiplexed into the vehicle’s on-board computers, and it is the prestige cars particularly in London that they are going after.

  2. MG-Rover might have gone onto Pektron remotes but the bendy key remained right until the end.

    The key for my 45 often reminds me of illustrious models that went before it!

  3. The reason for the famous bendy key was a cheap and easy safety ‘upgrade’ from the old rigid keys.

    The position of key in the ignition barrel on the steering column caused many pierced kneecaps in accidents, so in their typically cheap but ingenious manner, the BL designers came up with the bendy key. The top would then yield rather than stab your kneecap (although I suspect in reality it still went in but not quite as far).

    • I’d also assumed that to be the principal reason for the bendy key, and avoided bending mine too often in case they could only be bent a few times before snapping. Most other marques made lower column shrouds from thick plastic with a shrouded keyhole, which I’d assumed was a few pence dearer to manufacture.

  4. It’s actually really handy having the maker’s name on the key – and on the fob – in BIG LETTERS. A few years ago, my wife and I were visiting Rhyd Ddu in North Wales in our Vauxhall Omega. I was quite happy waiting to photograph the first train in 70 years to pass that way, but she was cold. “Give me the car keys”, she said, in a commanding tone. The car was 50 yards away, but I could hear her complaining, “IT DOESN’T WORK!” So I walked over, and showed her that if she used the Vauxhall remote control, rather than that for the Rover which was on the same keyring, the Vauxhall doors would unlock.

    • I didn’t think you were supposed to keep both your remote fobs on the same key ring, let alone ones for different vehicles. Doesn’t this confuse the signal being sent when starting up?

  5. Ken – You’re brave, if I pointed that out to my better half I am sure I would be testing the benefits of a bendy key!
    Craig – Agreed, the fob rattles about in the cup holder whilst I am driving.

  6. I think my R414 HHR had a bendy key like this – never gave me any trouble though – neither did the car itself!

  7. The bendy key was a delight when you wanted something to fiddle with in a moment of idleness. A minor design classic!

  8. My Mum’s Metro had a bendy ignition key with the AR logo moulded into it. This was when many manufacturers used to have a separate key for the doors. We ended up getting a lockable petrol cap & a new boot lock after is was forced open to make 4. I still have the set around.

    I remember seeing one of Ford’s new style keys in the late 1980s & wondering how it worked because it looked so different, even more than the 1980s Vauxhall keys.

    Considering how gadgety car keys are now the one to my Dad’s Qashqai is quite simple, with only the remote buttons stopping it looking like a key from something 30 years earlier.

  9. I was just a shame that so many of the ignition locks were made out of toffee.

    The Saab was eminently sensible. I had one. It also stopped people stealing car keys by reaching into an open window.

    But I can also remember the days of having one ignition key (large size), locking fuel cap key (medium size) and a door lock key (small size). Inevitably, the drivers door lock would wear out first and it was virtually impossible to but a matching one except to special order with a 16 week wait (ask me how I know this) so there would inevitably be one key that opened the driver’s door and another that opened the boot and passenger door.

    Adding on the house keys and maybe the garage key could mean walking round sounding like Marley’s Ghost dragging a chain.

    These days I have only 3 keys, one for the car, one for the house and one for the garage. Bliss.

  10. I can speak with a bit of authority on both topics because I had two Saab 99s (not at the same time) in the late 70s/early 80s and always thought the gear/ignition/lock arrangement was a great idea which other makers should have copied. No problem with it.

    And in the 90s I had an R8 and an R3 (separately) and I’d forgotten about the bendy key. They never gave any trouble but I remember being worried that it might be possible to over-bend them if you used too much pressure when the key was in the ignition lock.

    But now I’m happy with remote blippers.

    • Another advantage of the Saab lockable gearbox is the car is less likely to roll away when left in gear.

      With my current car I very rarely need to use the actual keyhole in the door, only when the battery in the key is low.

  11. A truly frightening key was that for the Toyota Carina E. It was easily a 6cm blade. I always feared for my reproductive health with that thing in my pocket (especially when seasick after driving down a bendy road or too many roundabouts).

  12. My Opel Monza had a normal key but the ignition barrell itself had a sort of handle you had to lift in order to get the key out. Always wondered why.

    • Another safety feature. In the early days of steering column locks the manufacturers needed a way to make it harder for us to take the keys out while the car was still moving.

  13. I was rather bemused by the bendy key when I first came across it. I now, however, realise its point. The hinge don’t just make it more comfortable in the pocket – I think it also limits the chance of the blade itself accidentally twisting, bending and becoming useless.

    Another case of “the simple solution is the best solution”.

  14. I remember back in 2004 I bought a very early Honda Civic (MB and Rover 45 shape) and that had a bendy key then back in 2011 I bought another Civic last of the (MB) shape X reg and that had a one piece key not bendy at all. Thing is the two cars had the same style ignition lock.

    I always thought that since the two cars shared the same platform that the Rover would follow the Civic and change to the one piece like Honda did. I wonder why.

    • And the indicator stalks – my 64 reg Defender are identical to my 82′ Metro – to say nothing the interior door pulls which I’m sure are at the very least Allegro era – adorable

  15. I had to get a second key for my recently bought R8 SEi and was most disappointed when what I thought I’d bought on ebay was a bendy key wasn’t…

  16. Life changes. In the pre central locking era you could open a Cortina with a nail file, or start it with a screwdriver. However, the changes in technology now mean your car is far less likely to be stolen, which is welcome.

    • Or a Marina. I once got into a Marina with a lolly ice stick just to prove a point (I kid you not) and I could start it with my Triumph Dolomite key.

      To be fair mose BL, Ford and Vauxhall cars were of a similar standard.

      • I wasn’t there but my Mum once locked her keys in her Metro, & managed to get in by asking another Metro owner to try their keys & once fitted, or so my Brother claimed.

        • I managed to open someone else Ford Fiesta in a Tesco car park – it was an L-reg Mk3 which was the same colour – I was sat in it before I realised I didn’t have a velour interior… and those keys were supposedly secure!

  17. Just bought my first ever Rover bendy key. Bit expensive but it did come with a very nice free Rover Tomcat 1.8 VVT!

  18. Ah yeah, the delights of German car locking systems… until fairly recently I worked as a delivery and collection driver. Always had to hunt for the button to open the passenger door when ferrying colleagues, and when doing a vehicle inspection I’d forever be having to perform a little ritual (whilst facing Munich) in order to get various other doors to open. Just what you need when its February, pissing down, and 3 hours behind schedule…

    German car manufacturers just love to complicate even the simplest of operations, such as indicator switch levers that don’t stay in position, so you end up indicating right/left/right/left when manually trying to cancel them on the motorway. Or the world’s faffiest built-in Sat Navs or stereo systems…

    Give me simplicity any day, and the AR flexy-key is a simple idea, well executed.

  19. My 82′ miniMetro has the same bendy Key that my 2005 Rover 45 had – except it has the Austin Rover logo rather than Rover.

  20. I was constantly jabbing the old ‘Frank & Beans’ with my old Wilmot Breeden key for my 1979 Dolomite SE what a joy it was when I traded it for a MG ZR in 2001 and got a bendy key – I did wonder at the time ‘WTF this key looks odd’ but soon realised its merits.

  21. I know this makes me sound really stuffy, but it would make this site much more pleasant if people moderated their language.

  22. I had several Saabs (99/900/9000), and I always thought that whilst Saab recognised the security aspect of a steering lock (you can’t drive a car you can’t steer), the safety side of their brain couldn’t bear the thought of the lock activating whilst you were driving. So for the security aspect they came up with the gear lever lock idea.
    Of course this was right at the beginning of steering lock technology, and the spectre of defective steering lock activation, was shown to be unfounded. Indeed, pilot error activating the steering lock whilst on the move was far more of a problem.

  23. The first steering column ignition locks were on the left hand side with the indicator stalk and choke on the right. I think Fords were always keyed on the right, BMC/L and Rootes had the key on the left at first. So you’d do a cold start with the left hand on the key and your right pulling out the choke. I guess the key on the left was some sort of safety consideration or at least you didn’t bang your knee getting out of the car.

    As time went on the ignition/column locks all went to the right, because most people are right-handed? The Renault 18 must have been one of the last cars with the key on the left and indicators right, although that was likely an accident of LHD to RHD conversion on the cheap.

    The indicator stalk on the right really should have been kept as standard on RHD cars, using the same hand for the gears and signals is probably why you see so much late indication these days – you know, first you see brake lights then the indicator when behind someone going to turn.
    I think Ford are to blame for the indicators being on the stupid side of the steering wheel!

  24. I did wonder about the ignition being left or right handed.

    IIRC some LHD Porsches have the ignition on one side to it’s easier to start in a hurry.

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