In car parks around the country you'll see executives performing tribal routines
Saturday 16 August 1997
This new R-reg car wasn't the only one giving problems in early August. The RAC and the AA have received a record number of calls this month from owners unable to fathom the complexities of their immobilisers.
I hate immobilisers in general. Sure, the idea is worthy enough: fit a clever electric circuit breaker into the ignition so that if the wrong guy wants to drive off with your new Wizzo GTi, the engine won't start. Trouble is, for every crook who's immobilised, 1,000 honest owners are stranded. The ancient art of inserting keys into ignition, and turning them to activate engines, is slowly being lost.
Now, increasingly, you have to point key fobs containing magical plippers at cars to open them. Many of the plippers won't work unless they're aimed at exactly the right place. Which explains why, in many executive car parks around Britain, you'll often see besuited executives in front of their new N- or P-reg motors doing strange primeval dances, thumbs and fingers performing odd tribalistic routines. They look like they're paying homage to the God of 20th-century consumerism: the motor car.
Once behind the wheel, the routine doesn't get any easier. Remember when you would simply use the same key that unlocked the car to turn on the ignition and then, once the engine started, you'd drive away?
Nowadays, in many modern cars, such convenience is a thing of the past - as old-fashioned as the notion that banks would respect your privacy, instead of selling your address and details to any two-bit mail-order company.
Now, on many cars, you need to key in a security code, otherwise your car won't start. On others, you must plip the plipper one more time, to bypass the immobiliser and start the engine. On others, you must plip twice when behind the wheel. Some cars automatically shut down if there is a 30-second delay between unlocking the car and trying to start the ignition; others wait longer. To conclude, the simple art of starting cars is now one of the most arcane and complicated in modern-day motoring. (Obviously these immobilising devices were created by childless bachelors, as any parent knows it takes well over 30 seconds, and often a few minutes, to strap young children into the car before you start the engine.)
I got into trouble with the 406 coupe while refuelling. After I'd paid the bill, the car wouldn't start. Suspecting the immobiliser, I discovered that the car would only start if I keyed in the correct code - even though, during my previous six days of motoring, I hadn't used the code at all.
Trouble was, I didn't know the code. I guessed. It was wrong. I tried another code. Wrong. One more guess. Wrong. Then the car emitted a dull, persistent beep, as if to taunt my stupidity. (Three goes and you're out!)
A quick look at the handbook and I discovered that, after three incorrect code attempts, the car's engine automatically shuts down for 30 minutes. The Fina garage at Chiswick has few entertainments for those forced to spend half an hour there.
I have been wrongly immobilised by immobilisers, and the wretched alarms that often aid and abet them, before. I remember once being unable to get a pounds 200,000-plus Bentley convertible going, after dutifully switching the engine off at a railway crossing. Other motorists, whose second-hand Fords and Vauxhalls seemed to be going just fine, thank you, were amused. I was not.
Another Bentley locked itself - keys inside - in a car wash. A pounds 50,000 Jaguar XJR also decided to lock all its doors - but with engine running - when parked across my drive. Fortunately I had a spare set of keys and a spare plipper, otherwise - well, otherwise I don't know what I would have done. Once, in a Mercedes, with family and chattels on board on the way to a weekend break in Wales, the immobiliser just couldn't be persuaded to stop immobilising. It happened after refuelling. No matter how many times I pressed that damned plipper, and in what sequence, the engine wouldn't engage. Finally, inexplicably, it went, and we duly had our family weekend break in Wales rather than at Watford Gap services on the M1. I still don't know why it decided to go.
The other day, my wife was completely flummoxed by an unfamiliar Renault Megane Cabriolet's immobiliser in the car park of a sports club. Had it not been for a couple of big-hearted car-washing guys, who were more familiar with the vagaries of modern car gadgetry, she would probably still be there, plipping plippers, hoping to unlock the magical sequence that would ensure action.
A few car-makers do get it right. Among them is Ford, whose immobiliser is a simple device fitted into the key. If the right key is inserted into the ignition, the engine starts - just like it used to do on old-fashioned Cortinas and Escorts. This prevents hot wiring. But it also prevents car park war-dances and stationary luxury cars on garage forecourts and level crossings.
It may not be quite as thief-proof as complicated plippers and whatnot, understood by only the most computer-literate of car owners. After all, any crook could take off in your Ford, if you leave the key in the ignition. With other systems, the thief would have to push buttons and make strange hand gesticulations before scarpering.
Personally, I'll take the risk. Give me keys and locks any day. And cars that start when I want them to, not when some unfathomable computer programme says it's OK.
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