Classic Car Ignition Switch Locations

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Image: 1966 Ford Thunderbird instrument panel

The 1964-1966 Ford Thunderbird placed the ignition key to the right side of the steering column, tucked in the corner where the instrument panel and console meet. This was a convenient location, easy to access, yet still out of the way during normal driving.

Over the years, the location of the ignition key in classic cars has moved around quite a bit. When it became an anti-theft item, its location was finally standardized

One of the most unusual locations for an ignition key in an automobile has to be Saab's placement of the lock and ignition switch on the transmission hump between the front seats. If you didn't know it was located there, it would take some time to locate it. Familiarity with an automobile is an important consideration, as the driver must know how to operate the various controls, and should be able to locate them at a glance. The placement of the ignition switch has moved around quite a bit in various makes and models during the classic years, and thankfully the location of this necessary control must be identified before the car was able to be moved!

The Ford Thunderbird had the ignition to the left of the steering column from 1955-1963. This was a good location, as the keys dangling from the ignition switch were generally out of the way, but it could be awkward for right-handed people, who were not used to using their left hand, and it resulted in a pretty big jumble of wiring in that location behind the instrument panel, as normally the headlight switch was also in that area. Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury generally were alone at this time with the ignition location on the left of the steering column, at least among the automobiles covered on this site.

The ignition at this time was often placed in line with the headlight switch and an air vent knob or warning light. It was integrated into the overall instrument panel design, becoming a part of the design itself. In 1964, Ford relocated the ignition to the right of the steering column, which is where it had been for most other cars for some time. On the Thunderbird, it was placed down low, in the corner under the instrument panel where it met up and became one with the center console. This was a great location, as it was easy to find, and it kept the keys handy, yet out of the way.

In 1967, the ignition key remained in the same place on the Thunderbird, but was recessed a bit more and was more difficult to find. The headlight switch was mirrored in the same place, on the left side of the steering column, and it too could be difficult to locate in the dark. Thunderbird moved to a new standard front bench seat configuration in 1968, and kept the ignition on the right side under the instrument panel. It was out of the way, but again was a bit difficult to find in the dark. On Thunderbirds of this era with the optional bucket seats and console, the ignition remained in the nook where the instrument panel and console met, but was now tilted toward the driver's seat. No doubt Ford thought this would be helpful, but it wasn't. It meant you had to twist your wrist to an awkward angle to operate the key. Thankfully, the headlight switch was moved up from beneath the instrument panel for 1968 and incorporated into the control panel better, but the windshield wiper controls were hidden now, something that many of the automotive writers at the time complained about. (That's another story, though.)

During the mid-fifties, Cadillac incorporated the ignition switch into the instrument panel design, with the key located low to the right of the steering column, under the cigarette lighter. It was given a more prominent location in the design of the 1959-1960 instrument panel, which consisted of four round pods placed one above the other, with two on each side of the instrument panel section in front of the driver. The top pods were larger than the lower pods, and housed controls for the optional speed control in the left pod and the standard clock was placed in the right side upper pod. The smaller, lower pod on the left contained the headlight switch, and the smaller one on the right the ignition switch. This location met all of the requirements: high visibility, so it was easy to find, not in the way of other controls, or with keys dangling in a bothersome manner, and it was a part of the overall design, so it blended in well.

Chrysler's flagship Imperial also incorporated the ignition switch to the right of the steering column, and normally it was located up among the other controls, where it was easy to reach; however, with the 1967 redesign, the switch was moved below the panel, and recessed into an area cut out especially for the ignition. It remained there for 1968, and then in a somewhat unusual move, was relocated to the left side of the steering column for the new 1969 Imperial. The Imperial's new instrument panel design stretched from one side of the car to the other, and its rectangular shape had a center cavity section, in which the instruments and controls were placed in an inclined plane for better visibility. The placement of the ignition key to the right of the steering column on this design would put center front seat passengers at risk of injury to their legs or knees, so the decision was made to move it to the other side of the steering column.

By 1968, the National Highway Safety Bureau began looking at anti-theft devices in a new light. They could also be considered safety devices as well. So it was decided that for 1970, all cars would be required to have anti-theft ignition locks on them that not only locked the ignition when the key was removed, but they also locked the steering wheel and automatic transmission shifter. Chrysler fought this mandate, stating it required additional time to design such a device, asking for it to be pushed back to 1971, but their request was denied.

General Motors was ready to go with the ignition/steering wheel/transmission shift lock for 1969, and included it as standard equipment on all of its cars. Ford was a year behind GM with its design, which debuted on the 1970 Ford models. Chrysler purchased GM's device for 1970, and had its own ready to go for 1971.

All of these designs placed the ignition switch on the right side of the steering column, between the steering wheel and transmission shift lever. The new ignition switches were uniform in their operation: the key couldn't be removed from the lock unless it were in the "LOCKED" position. This was a safety design, as statistics at the time showed the majority of cars stolen had been left unlocked, with the key in the ignition switch! The ignition switch provided several different key positions. If the lock were rotated counterclockwise, or toward the driver as far as it would go, this was the "ACCESSORY" position. Turning the key clockwise, or toward the instrument panel, provided "LOCKED," "OFF," "ON/RUN," and "START" functions.

Why was the safety bureau so interested in anti-theft devices at this time? Because the anti-theft ignition lock could reduce traffic accidents. It was estimated that over 600,000 cars were stolen in 1967, and almost 20 percent of them were involved in an accident, which was about 200 times the normal accident rate. So, taking steps to prevent theft would increase safety on the nation's roadways.

The odds of having a car stolen in 1957 were one in 211, and by 1968 were one in 125, according to the National Auto Theft Bureau in 1968. GM began installing buzzers on its 1968 cars to remind drivers to remove the ignition key, and it was an effective reminder, but some owners disabled the noise maker, rendering it ineffective.

We've always thought it was interesting where auto makers decided to position and locate the ignition switch, and how well they were integrated into the design, or in some cases, almost hidden from view. What we didn't realize was that safety was the main consideration for the ignition lock system introduced in the late sixties and early seventies.


Image: 1961 Ford Thunderbird instrument panel

1961 Thunderbird (above) placed the ignition switch to the left of the steering column, nestled between a parking brake warning light and the left floor air vent control, which left the area to the right of the steering column free of controls.

Image: 1963 Buick Riviera instrument panel and console

The new for 1963 Buick Riviera located the ignition to the right of the steering column, and just to the left and slightly below the console-mounted controls for the headlights and windshield wipers.

Image: 1969 Continental Mark III instrument panel

1969 Continental Mark III placed ignition switch under instrument panel, to the right of the steering column. It was a bit of a reach for the driver to get to. 1968-1969 Ford Thunderbirds shared the same location.

Image: 1969 Cadillac Eldorado interior

1969 Cadillac Eldorado was one of GM's '69 models that introduced the lockable steering wheel and transmission lever as an anti-theft device, which relocated the ignition switch to the right side of the steering column.

Image: 1971 Continental Mark III instrument panel

1971 Continental Mark III ignition switch knob can be seen just under the right steering wheel spoke, to the left of the radio dial in the image above. This became the standardized location for American cars for many years.