It was 2005, and Ford was delivering the new GT for a test drive. It had bright yellow skin and black stripes bisecting the hood, a piece of throwback American bad-assery. It seemed so special.
And then the delivery guy handed me the keys, and I was crestfallen. The fob was the same lump of sad plastic that came with any Ford vehicle of the era. It looked identical to those of a Crown Vic or Escape, with the same inelegant lock/unlock icons and a red panic button. How utterly uninspired.
This time around, Ford says the new car will come with a "GT" logo replacing the Ford badge on the back of the fob, not unlike the pony emblem found on the current smart key of the Mustang.
It's a beginning, one supposes, but for a car with only 500 made, I'd still hope for something a little more out of the box. Or, perhaps, more than just a standard plastic box. Something constructed of carbon fiber or inlaid with ceramic, or perhaps personalized, since Ford is picking each and every owner.
The key fob (or back in the day, simply the key) is the only part of a car you're likely to have on you all the time. A tiny totem representing the 3000- pounds of metal, leather, and wiring you left in your garage, living in your pocket or purse alongside your wallet. It should feel good in your hand and look nice to the eye. You should love it.
To be fair to Ford, few modern carmakers get it entirely right. Audi's oblong black-and-silver fob is functional but ho-hum; Mercedes's has its own distinctive shape and the bright bits feel like actual chrome. Still, it's not something a rapper would want to hang from his neck, like the old hood ornaments of yore.
BMW's remote key always flummoxes me. I can never seem to remember if the circular Bimmer logo nestled between the other buttons lock or unlock the car, so I end up fumbling around. Luckily, Bimmer's keyless system works really well, removing the need to physically activate the buttons very often.
Cadillac's fob misses the distinctive mark, so does Jaguar's. There are bits and bobs on these fobs, but nothing superlative. Porsche's is actually in the shape of a car, with the logo affixed to the "hood." In typical fashion for the company, you can get it painted the same color as your 911, but it will cost you. One of the most distinctive aspects of a 911 was physically placing a key—a real one—into the left side of the steering wheel to start up the flat-six. Yet another reason to go vintage.
The best unlockers in the business are probably by Aston Martin and Bentley.
Aston has called its key, a mix of crystal and steel, an "Emotional Control Unit." A silly name, but the all-in-one key/fob looks amazing and always feels cool to the touch. You push the hunk of glass inside a space in the dash and hold it there until the engine turns over. (On older models, I found this sometimes took repeated attempts for a naturally aspirated V12 to cough to life.)
But a keyless start will be standard on the DB11, and so the design is changing. Aston says the new key is still in flux, but the crystal will likely be replaced with brushed aluminum.
Which leads me to the loveliest key fobs, the ones made by Bentley. Of all the carmakers, the fob has the same type of materials and attention to detail as the interior of the car. It has heft, and its edges are knurled, just like the knobs in the car. The winged B logo spreads across the length of the back, a piece of considered jewelry. This is the kind of key that lives happily in the hand or in your pocket.
Still, I'd happily go back to the days of real keys. I always knew where they were: Either on me or in the ignition. The act of physically turning the key to turn the engine has a direct and elegant simplicity to it. I'm done with the "novelty" of all these stop/start buttons.
But things will change again, soon. Key fobs themselves will be imperiled. You can see this evolution in the fob available on the BMW i8 and new 7 Series. It has a 2.2-inch LCD touchscreen, which shows information such as fuel or battery levels. It is oversized—almost the size of cell phone—and you have to plug it in occasionally . . . just like a cell phone.
Which begs the question: Why not just put all those functions on your cell phone? It is inevitable and yes, it only makes sense. And then, one day not so long from now, we'll feel the same sort of nostalgia for key fobs as we do today for a good old-fashioned key.
Jason Harper, a contributing editor to Road & Track, has tested and written on cars for two decades. His scariest drive was a rally race in an original Lancia 037, his first drive of a supercar was the Porsche Carrera GT, and the only time he's gotten a speeding ticket was in a base Mini Cooper. His column, Harper's Bizarre, runs every Wednesday.