Can’t Unlock Steering Wheel? Join The Club : Autos: More car owners are finding that they have to call a locksmith to remove the anti-theft devices.


“Ask for The Club,” goes one promotion for locks to prevent auto theft.

But some car owners say that when they attach such devices to their steering wheels, what they have to ask for is help.

Call it the lock that sometimes works too well. Lauren Clarke found that out this week when she got into her car, thinking that she was going to the tanning salon and the bank. She was as thwarted as any thief.

“I went to unlock it and it wouldn’t turn,” the 27-year-old Van Nuys resident said. “I messed around, messed around, and ended up breaking the key off. And then I thought, oh, great, now what do I do?”


The Automobile Club of Southern California and area locksmiths say the popular bar locks--known by such brand names as The Club, Nightstick, and Big Stick--can deter owners as well as auto thieves.

“There are more and more incidents,” said Automobile Club spokesman Jeff Spring. The locks, which cost from $30 to more than $100, are attached to steering wheels, making them unusable.

Problems with jammed locks or lost keys have not been statistically tracked, Spring added. But the club refers motorists with such problems to contract locksmiths, he said, and they are reporting “between three and six a week.”

Companies making the device said such problems are rare.

“Any mechanical device sometimes doesn’t work,” said James Winner, vice president of Winner International, the Pennsylvania-based maker of The Club. “Sometimes people are trying to put their car keys in the club. . . . The locks get dirty (with) month after month of people throwing it under the seat.”

Winner said that bar locks have become increasingly popular since he introduced his product in 1986. He noted that more than a dozen similar competitive devices are on the market. Jay Smith of Anes Security of Irvine, makers of Big Stick, estimated that as many as 7 million bar locks have been sold. Problems with the devices should be judged “relative to the numbers out there,” Smith said.

Nevertheless, the number of calls to remove bar locks has increased just in the last year, said locksmith Bruce Schwartz, owner of Security Unlimited, which serves the San Fernando Valley. While other locksmiths in the area gave estimates ranging from two a year to two a month, Schwartz said he handles three to five calls a week.


“I just came back from one,” the Sepulveda-based locksmith said one recent morning. “Businessman, in suit and tie, with a 1991 Chevrolet Blazer. He was in a restaurant having breakfast and when he came out he couldn’t get his car going.”

The Auto Club referred motorist Clarke to Schwartz to liberate her black Chevrolet Cavalier. She said it was the first time the bar lock had been a problem. The device was given to her by her husband a year ago, she said, after the couple scared off thieves trying to steal her car.

To dismantle the bar lock, locksmiths pull the lock cylinder out and drill the bar off or use large bolt cutters. Schwartz says the reaction to how quickly the device can be removed is predictable.

“The scenario is always the same,” he said. “They think the car is theft-proof and you come in and cut them off like they’re butter. They get upset.”

Clarke was “very surprised,” she said. “It took two seconds.”

Consumer Reports, in a recent issue, questioned the effectiveness of the locks against resourceful thieves after after testing seven brands. “We could easily slice through the steering wheel and slip the lock off like a ring from a finger,” the consumer magazine reported.

Company spokesmen Winner and Smith disputed whether steering wheels could be easily cut, and Smith said anyone using bolt cutters had to be unusually strong.


Some auto thieves are even more inventive.

“We’ve had thieves come along with their own steering wheels, dismantle the steering wheel, pull it off and put their own on,” said Los Angeles Police Detective Mike Brambles, who is in charge of auto theft investigations at the West Los Angeles Division.

This is not common, Brambles said, and he believes anti-theft devices can be useful. “Anything you can do to deter the common thief is advantageous,” he said, “whether it be a Club or just chaining the wheel to a bolt in the floor of the car.”

But against the uncommon thief, nothing helps, Brambles said. “If they want your car, they take it, period.”