Workshop: teaching kids to steal cars


Last weekend I took my daughter Jane and her friend Anna to a workshop in Los Angeles to teach them how to break into cars, get out of a lock car trunk, and hotwire a car.

The workshop was part of Machine Project's "Good People Doing Bad Things" curriculum and was conducted by Tom Jennings (the creator of FidoNet, the founder of one of the first Internet service providers, and the founder and publisher of the fanzine Homocore) and Jason Torchinsky (an artist, author, and Boing Boing guest blogger).

Tom and Jason started out by explaining how the latching mechanism of a car door works.


Tom made a model of a car door latch out of cardboard paperclips and rubber bands.


Then we all went downstairs and outside to where Mark Allen's (Director of Machine Project) locked car was parked.


Tom and Jason showed the kids the tools of the trade for getting into a locked car: a putty knife, a coat hanger, and a pair of pliers.


They let the kids figure out what to do, and with a little guidance the kids were successfully able to unlock the car.


Next, Tom and Jason showed the kids how the trunk of the car could be opened if you happen to get locked inside. Today's cars have a plastic red tag you can pull to open the trunk, but on an older car there is no such tag.


Instead, all you have to do is pull on the cable leading from the latch release in the front of the car to the latch of the trunk. This was the kids' favorite part of the workshop, and they repeated the process several times.


Finally, Tom and Jason demonstrated how to hotwire a car, starting it without a key.


They didn't let the kids do this, because of the low voltage shock they might get. And in fact, Tom gave himself a couple of shocks during the demonstration, much to the delight of the kids.

My daughter Jane has been talking about the workshop for days. She told me she wished that her regular school was more like this. It makes me want to move to the Bay Area and enroll her in Brightworks, a hands-on K-12 school that my friend Gever Tulley is cofounding.

My friend John Park brought along his seven-year-old son Ronan and he wrote about the workshop at Make: Online.


  1. It’s good that these kids don’t have to learn this stuff on the streets. A proper education is essential to a bright future in the car theft industry.

    1. I wish I could go to a workshop like this. Haven’t you ever locked your keys in the car nixiebunny? And while I’m not sure that hotwiring a car is a skill my kids need to know just yet, I’d love for them to be able escape a locked car trunk.

      My 78 year old dad can hotwire a car, but he’s never used it to steal a car. Knowing how things work makes for an inquisitive mind.

      1. When I was a kid, our car was so old that it could be unlocked and started with the small blade of a pocket knife. So it was unnecessary to know this stuff, but I knew it anyways.

        By all means, give your teenage kids an old car that they can play with and take apart and put back together. We had several when I was growing up, and they provided years of learning and amusement. I still have one of them.

  2. Kids these days! When I was that age, we had a stick and a hoop… maybe a rock… and we LIKED not knowing how things worked!

  3. These kids will be prepared for post apocalyptic America, Mad Max style.

    Did they also teach how to recognize a bait car?

  4. As an early teen losing car keys on the beach, this would have been great. Since the spares were 1700 miles away. Pre-FedEx.

  5. When I was 10-ish I learned how to unlock crappy wafer tumbler lock by sticking the leg of a plastic toy animal in it and wiggling until it popped open. First hack ever!

  6. In the next lesson, we’ll learn how to find out when the neighbors are on vacation and pick the lock on their house.

  7. Not to sound like Mr. Negativity here…

    But were we actually attempting this on something besides that early 90’s Honda Accord?

    I mean emergency inside trunk release is required now a days isn’t it? (Not that that should stop anyone from learning how to get out of a trunk…as the pervs probably don’t drive new nice cars.)

    But can you even hot wire anything made with OBDII…heaven forbid push button key fob goodness?

    Learning is learning, and it’s neat and all…but in a way it’s like teaching kids BASIC or Assembly.

      1. I’m kinda inclined to think that this class is not actually intended to teach kids how to steal cars and bust out of trunks like they’re gonna be living a life straight out of a Michael Mann movie.

        Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it seems more likely that the idea is to instill an appreciation for pure mechanical problem-solving, which would lead to an enhanced sense of personal competence and agency on the part of the children. “Look kids: there’s nothing particularly magical about mechanical problems. Pulling this cable will turn that pivot, which opens this latch, and the door opens. Twisting a key in this lock cylinder simply connects these electrical circuits, so if you can connect those circuits by bypassing the actual ignition switch, the car will start… though it’ll probably make a spark.”

        Knowledge like this is incredibly useful, and not just as a foundation for a life of crime. If you’re not afraid to figure out how something works, and if you have the curiosity and self-confidence to get in there and get your fingers dirty, you’ll learn a hell of a lot, and suddenly you’ll wonder why people will spend so much money by hiring a mechanic/locksmith/plumber/electrician/contractor on certain occasions where they don’t actually need to.

        And holding these lessons in the form of “how to jimmy a car lock” or “how to hotwire a car” or “how to bust out of a trunk” are simply MacGuffins to get the kids interested in the first place. Movie antiheroes do this kinda stuff every day on TV, and for a kid to discover that it’s far from being incomprehensible woo-woo that takes years of specialized training, but is actually something that any curious and attentive kid with more fingers than thumbs could master… man, that’s priceless.

        They don’t need to master state-of-the-art car thievery, since theft isn’t the point. If it was, the kids wouldn’t get far without disabling the steering lock, which most cars even in the 80s possessed.

          1. Mark, Donald, you guys you are so totally on the mark with your thoughts on this. Having said that, have either of you seen my car?

        1. I agree with Mark, Donald. You are spot on. I’ve taught a workshop for Cub Scouts which, among other things, applies Bernoulli’s Principle to the concept of creating a orchestra of farts. Whatever gets them engaged and curious about the world around them is not necessarily a bad thing.

    1. It takes several minutes before a PATS will even let you program a new transponder – this makes being “Gone in 60 Seconds” very difficult. As irritating as I find it that cars have more and more computing modules spread around – they do make for a more theft resistant ride. The tow truck remains the vehicle nabber of choice.

      That said, I really like this workshop!

  8. This reminds me of when I was a dogwalker and accidentally locked four dogs in my car . . . directly in front of a fire station. The fireman on duty, with a thick Southie accent grabbed the slim jim, designed specifically to rescue idiots such as myself. He eyed the car, and in one shot popped the lock. I stood there in awe of his skills, as most folks I’d ever seen do this had to jimmy it for a while. He just looked back at me as he wandered back to the station and said, “I wasn’t always a fireman.”

    Maybe he’d been a teacher.

  9. When I first scrolled down quickly and saw this photo below the photo in the next story, I thought it was the same guy because of the similar facial hair (guy in the next story is a lot more silly looking, though).

    So is this workshop held regularly? Because it appears that the only people in attendance this time were people very closely connected to those who put the workshop on. Couldn’t it have been advertised beforehand, such as here on boingboing where many people might be interested? I would have been interested (although I’m out of town at the moment), for example.

  10. i met tom jennings at cfp2 in dc in ’92. he was getting an eff award for his fidonet work, so he had an extra bed he let me crash in. we watched silence of the lambs. he had long blond hair, a black leather jacket with anarchy slogans, and was full of cool projects like the book he wrote about converting his 63 rambler to run on natural gas. you guys could do a post on that book, it’s still relevant although 63 ramblers are harder to find. i had such a crush on him. the night before i had crashed with a high school nerd who had hacked his way into the convention by swiping my credentials, which i found out when we shared a table listening to bruce sterling give the keynote.
    tom’s “world power systems” has been doing interesting things with repurposing obsolete technology, possibly as art.

  11. When I was six an Engineer friend of my father’s taught me how to hotwire a car.

    I didn’t use it until I was twenty five or so – when a failed car theft attempt on my girlfriend’s car left her ignition unusable.

    I hotwired the car, allowing it to be driven home, and avoiding the expensive towing fees.

  12. You guys are colloquially known as fuddy-duddies. This looks like goddamn fun, and I’m an adult.

  13. Many years ago, i saw my girlfriend onto the train, and just as it started to move out, I realised she had the car keys in her pocket…
    So, right outside the station, I set to work to break into her car, obviously a girl’s car, with its accessorisation. Two policemen watched, uninterested as I eventually popped the door lock open, and set to hotwiring it.
    For two weeks, I practiced looking furtive whilst ‘stealing’ her car, in busy public places.
    Nobody ever challenged what I was doing.
    My current car is quite tricky to get into without keys, and with the steering lock and multiple systems ecu immobiliser, impossible for me to hotwire.

  14. This sounds like excellent fun. If I had kids, they’d be competing with me for places.

    “Today’s cars have a plastic red tag you can pull to open the trunk, but on an older car there is no such tag. Instead, all you have to do is pull on the cable leading from the latch release in the front of the car to the latch of the trunk.”

    I’m not from Americaland, so the above is comprehensible, but completely unknown to me. Probably a great idea to have an emergency release inside, but why would you want to open the ‘trunk’ from inside the front of the car? Never heard of this before.

    1. “why would you want to open the ‘trunk’ from inside the front of the car?”

      It is a convenience feature. When you reach your destination, you can open the trunk before you get out of the car – no need to mess with the trunk keylock. It can progress to the point where you ignore the trunk keylock entirely and open the trunk that way every time…

    2. Not really America-specific if you ask me. Cars from all around the world have that feature here in Europe. Depends on the model.

  15. My trunk release pull handle is yellow, not red. If you don’t knock them on the head hard enough, and they wake up before you reach the desert, they can escape.

  16. The yellow internal trunk releases generally have phosphorescent chemicals embedded, so that the handle will (usually, briefly) glow a soft yellow-green – making it easier to find in the darkness of a closed trunk.

    In some cars, the emergency handle is all you’ll find, as the cable will be concealed under body panels so it doesn’t get fouled on cargo.

    Many older cars have no cable *or* handle, so the trunk lock is the only release. You can still (usually) open those from inside, though it’s a bit trickier – and a pair of pliers makes it a lot easier.

    Electrically bypassing the ignition lock doesn’t disable the mechanical steering-column lock, so you may (or may not) be able to start the engine, but you won’t be able to steer the car.

    On most cars you can use a coat hanger to apply the same techniques as a Slim Jim – you don’t really have to pry up the weatherstripping and go in through the window (and that can save you the expense of replacing the weatherstripping).

    Sometimes, the Slim Jim techniques are the only ones that work, since many or most interior lock buttons these days are difficult-to-impossible to manipulate remotely. (On some expensive cars, even a Slim Jim won’t work.)

    Slim Jims are really handy, but in many states, unless you’re emergency personnel or a bonded locksmith, having one can get you arrested for “possession of burglary tools.” (Nationally distributed car-parts catalogues don’t always mention this.)

    My first four cars had mechanical defects (some fortuitous, some deliberately created) that allowed one to open and start them with – at most – a Swiss army knife; but they weren’t obvious to thieves. My favorite kind of security. :-)

    These days, I have AAA and a cell phone, so I don’t worry about it as much – but I DO keep close tabs on my keys when I’m out exploring our National Forests. :-)

  17. I once got stuck in an older car that the ignition went bad in… it cost more to fix it then the car was worth so I just hot wired it… drove it for two years that way… LOL works just had to watch where I parked it because I was afraid someone would call the cops when they saw me hot wiring my own car…

    when driving old cars it’s a good thing to know!!! very few people will ever steal a car and those who do will already know…

    hands on skills are always good!!!

  18. The easily-hotwired car is a thing of the past. For years, the most stolen cars (not the most carjacked) were almost all GM models, simply because they had that very vulnerable steering column. And bcsizemo has a good observation: they’re kind of stacking the deck by using a car that’s a few years away from antique status.

    The really useful thing here is opening your car if you’ve locked the keys in. It’s kind of absurd to spend upward of $50 to pay a locksmith to open your car with a tool that shouldn’t cost a tenth of his fee.

  19. Breaking into cars is an important skill, and fortunately all but one of the people who’ve broken into my van in the last couple of decades have had the decency to jimmy the doors or windows properly, as opposed to smashing their way in like the other guy. I usually have a spare plastic key in my wallet, but I have broken in with coat hangers or screwdrivers when I haven’t had it with me. My wife’s car has the newer button designs that don’t work with coat hangers, but the AAA folks have no problems using a slim-jim on it.

  20. Sooooo… here comes the “think of the childrun”…

    I really, really hope that they thoroughly explained to the children not to _ever_ try to repeat the opening of the car trunk from the inside trick without an adult present. I can think of several cases where kids were playing and hiding in a car trunk and then died of either a heat stroke or asphyxiation, so it’s really not just a funny little thing to do but something that can have serious consequences. It just sounds like a trick the kids would just absolutely loooove to show their friends, and it could end really badly if they then aren’t able to open the trunk (for instance if a bunch of them clims in and one starts to panic).

  21. Hotwiring is just another TV/movie trope.

    Just about every car made in the last 20 years has a steering lock, so you’d need to defeat that too.

    In most modern cars, the ignition system also includes an electronics control module (ECM). Basically it is a chip which cannot be hot wired, and the car will not run if the chip is not functioning.

  22. Have y’all ever played Half-Life 2? I’m reasonably certain that future generations will be living in a world like that. These skills are as important as ever.

  23. Using a slimjim on a door with electric locks has a good chance of damaging the mechanism so it probably isn’t a good idea unless you are desperate.

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