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Hassle-Free Hotwire

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Who needs keys when you can just use a screwdriver?

"To hotwire a vehicle faster, repeatedly press LT or RT."
— On-screen tip, Grand Theft Auto IV

Our hero, either a Badass detective or an Everyman caught up in a dangerous situation is running, pursued by the Big Bad's team of murderous henchmen. The henchmen are closing in and the protagonist needs a way to escape. They are hiding behind some cars in a parking lot, but they are trapped. So what does the character do? They pop open a locked car door, pull some wires down from under the steering wheel, and hotwire the car in under five seconds. They roar off in the car to the surprise of the startled henchmen...

Wait a second. That looked a lot easier than it actually is, and that character shouldn't even know the first thing about hotwiring the car!

That's where this trope comes from. When needed, everybody can hotwire a vehicle at any time. All they need to do is yank the protective covering off of the wires, rip out two of the wires and connect them together. This not only starts the car but it also defeats the steering column's locking mechanisms and overrides the key fob's computer chip security measures.

This may well be on the way to being a Discredited Trope, as more and more cars either require the key fob to be present before they'll start, or incorporate a necessary processor into the key itself. You may still see it in Period Piece shows and films set in the 1970s and 1980s, when cars were low tech.

This trope applies to the improvised and unauthorized starting of any vehicle or ship, whether it's a car, motorcycle, boat or starship.


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    Anime & Manga 

    Comic Books 

    Film — Animated 
  • In Planet 51, Chuck is able to hotwire an alien car with pretty much zero hassle. Later on Lem is able to do the same despite only having watched Chuck perform the hotwire once (though his case is slightly more realistic given that he's likely to be more familiar with hovercars than Chuck).
  • In Stitch! The Movie, Stitch hotwires not only Cobra Bubbles' car, but Jumba's spaceship.
  • In WALL•E, Captain McCrea, someone who's never done anything in their entire life, including standing, is able to hotwire the ship's public address system in a second with no thinking. One can argue that, since he's the captain, he should know a thing or two about the ship, but, then again, he needs help turning the pages of a book.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Used in Battle: Los Angeles. Played with in that it takes several minutes to perform and the character is shown having difficulty with it.
  • The Bourne Series: Bourne hotwires a car really really fast in the trilogy. He's hurt, people are chasing him, and he still does it in less than ten seconds.
  • Chev Chelio hotwires a car in Crank: High Voltage with the usual movie method of ripping out wires in the car and connecting them.
  • Crime Thief: Possibly the silliest example ever, when Jean steals a car by sticking a pen knife in the ignition.
  • In Dante's Peak Pierce Brosnan's vulcanologist can hotwire a pickup in about two seconds.
  • Averted in Die Hard with a Vengeance.
    McClane: You know how to hot-wire this thing?
    Zeus: Of course I can, I'm an electrician. Only problem is...
    [Zeus turns the ignition with his pliers]
    Zeus: It takes too fuckin' long.
  • In Godzilla (1998), Philippe starts a car by just pulling out his knife, flicking out the key barrel, and jamming the knife in it's place.
  • Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny: At the Syracuse airport,Teddy hotwires a light plane with minimal effort in order to chase the bomber carrying the abducted Indiana Jones.
  • In the Mouth of Madness: When Trent tries to leave Hobb's End, his brainwashed partner swallows his car keys as they're being surrounded by a mob of ax-wielding townspeople. He uses a screwdriver to dig into the base of the steering wheel and activate his car that way.
  • Averted in the second The Matrix. Trinity has to ask their (literal) Voice with an Internet Connection to make her able to do so via a (again, literal) Powers as Programs system. Of course this proves unnecessary, as she's escorting a rogue computer program who literally has the ability to open any lock.
  • In My Stepmother Is an Alien the alien starts "borrowed" cars just by touching ignition locks.
  • A bit averted in National Security when Martin Lawrence has to hotwire a car carried inside a semi trailer with a bit of struggle of having to know the design and the model year. He ends up turning on the wipers and then the alarm, letting the bad guys know something's up. Naturally, when Hank first asks him to hotwire the car, Earl bristles at the notion that all black people know how to hotwire cars.
  • In one of the Police Academy movies, Zed (a convicted criminal turned police officer) hotwires a car by ripping out the appropriate wires and biting them.
  • In Shock Treatment, Betty can somehow hotwire a car with her hairpin by sticking it under the hood.
  • Bizarre Double Subversion in A Sound of Thunder: the protagonists encounter an SUV-like vehicle (this is the future, mind you). One of the scientists mentions it has a special lock, and starts listing all the equipment they will need to break it. However, before she can finish, the team's doctor breaks the window with his gun and hotwires it in a flash. When everyone stares at him dumbfounded, he just says "How do you think I put myself through medical school, hmm?" So... yeah.
  • Terminator:
    • Arnold's Terminator never hotwires anything, he does one better. He smashes and rips away the steering column cover, along with the lock cylinder, and then turns the ignition lock shaft with his fingers, which was clearly shown in the first film, and then repeated again in the second. Incidentally, due to its strength the whole process literally takes it 5 seconds, about as fast as most people take to start a car with a key.
      • Subverted when he steals the police van in Terminator 2; in that case he looks for, and finds, the spare key stashed in the sun visor, as a demonstration of his ability to learn.
    • Kyle Reese easily hotwires a car in the first film as well. Presumably he learned these skills in his post-apocalyptic Scavenger World. Possibly justified in that the film is set in 1985 and the car he steals looks like a 1970s-era model, when many cars didn't have anti-theft mechanisms like a locking steering wheel.
  • In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Erin hotwires the van.
  • Averted in Vincent Wants to Sea: when Dr. Rose loses her car keys, Vincent's father has to hotwire her car and break the steering lock, which takes some time. This later causes them trouble when they get pulled over in Italy - the officer is understandably reluctant to believe they didn't steal the car, especially since Dr. Rose doesn't have ID with her.
  • Wanda: Mr. Dennis finds an unlocked car and quickly hotwires it to start. Wanda, who gets in the passenger seat, then plucks the keys that were hanging off the sun visor and says "Why didn't you use these?"
  • One of the young punks in The Warped Ones needs about ten seconds to hotwire a car before he and his fellow teen criminals can go to the beach.
  • Wrongfully Accused had Ryan hotwire the car rather quickly. However, he also activates the hydraulic system and the car horn singing "La Cucaracha".
  • X2: X-Men United: All Wolverine needs to hotwire Cyclop's car is to ram his claw into the ignition lock.

  • The Adventures of Fox Tayle: Fox attempts this once or twice when the FBI is chasing him.
  • Downplayed in Andromeda Klein. Some of Andi's friends hotwire their parent's car with a screwdriver in the ignition, but they can't get it out of reverse gear. So they drive backwards on the highway all the way to a friend's house.
  • Averted in Animorphs: Rachel discovers that jamming a six-inch-long grizzly bear claw into the ignition and turning works just as well as the actual key.
  • In the BattleTech Expanded Universe novel Star Lord, Duncan Kalma and Sir Trane end up having to hotwire a BattleMech in order to stop a raid. As one might expect, 'Mechs are usually secured with all manner of safeguads to prevent them from being stolen, but the pair manage to shanghai a Warhammer with very little trouble. Trane doesn't believe it could be that easy since modern technology makes grand theft Battlemech almost impossible, but Duncan explains that he realizes that this is a much older model, one old enough to be tricked by the simple combination of a strong magnet on the security computer and forcing all the important moving-and-shooting protocols to start and therefore take all the priority runtime before the anti-theft safeguards can kick in.
  • Circle of Three: Discussed and Subverted when one character gripes that, just because she grew up in an Orphan's Ordeal getting bounced between foster care and fending for herself, people expect her to know how to hotwire a car and MacGyver a bomb out of Noodle Implements. In both cases, she cannot.
  • Averted in the Stephen King story Dolan's Cadillac. Not only does the narrator have trouble making it work (even after being shown how it's done), but King says in a note to the story that he deliberately wrote that scene incorrectly to avoid giving car thieves specific instructions on how to hot-wire.
  • In The Magician King, Julia proves able to hotwire cars through on-fly Blood Magic, simply by cutting her thumb and touching it to the ignition - an early hint that she's had a lot more practical applications for her powers than Quentin and the others.
  • The kids from Maximum Ride are all able to hotwire cars with ease, thanks to training their sort-of adopted sort-of dad, Jeb, gives them. While Max tells the readers that it works nothing like how it's shown on TV, she refuses to go into specifics for fear of inspiring a bunch of readers to steal cars.
  • Stim: During Chloe's manic episode in Kaleidoscope, she attempts to rob a store with a toy pistol. When the owner calls her bluff, she takes twenty seconds to hotwire his car, manages to drive it most of the way home despite the fact that she Does Not Drive, reports the theft from a phone booth, and then walks the rest of the way home.
  • Alice hotwires some very expensive cars when she and Bella are in Italy in Twilight: New Moon.
  • In the Underdogs novel "Tooth and Nail", Mark, Kate, and Simon flee after their raid on Oakenfold Special School in a car that Mark hotwires in a few seconds.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Played with in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode "T.R.A.C.K.S.": Coulson and Ward are evading some enemies in an Italian vineyard when they find a small truck. They prepare to hotwire it, only to find that the ignition wires are already exposed, so they only need to reconnect two wires to get going. It is later revealed in a flashback that their partner May had previously hotwired it to facilitate their escape. The trope is still basically played straight, given how it's a hassle-free "connect two wires and go" setup.
  • The Bill. The Sun Hill detectives are tracking a gang of professional car thieves, and watch in disbelief as they lift up the hood and instantly deactivate the car alarm, then hotwire the car.
  • Played straight and somewhat plausibly in Buffy the Vampire Slayer when Giles hotwires his clunky old Citroen in "Dead Man's Party". Not only is it an older car, it's implied that Giles, being a Former Teen Rebel, has a lot of experience hotwiring cars. He even says that it's "Like riding a bloody bicycle"note .
  • Used often in Burn Notice: the cast members steal a lot of vehicles (though they usually try to return them in one piece). Sometimes justified:
    • In the season 2 midseason finale, Michael steals a parked motorcycle by jamming his knife into the ignition lock and then kicking the handlebars to break the steering lock. He comments in his Internal Monologue that "The steering lock on a smaller bike breaks pretty easily."
    • In the season 3 premiere, Fiona and Michael's old friend Harlan steal a garbage truck for use as a ram. Michael narrates that you don't encounter a lot of alarm or anti-theft systems on garbage trucks because there isn't much of a Black Market for vehicles that size.
  • Bundy from Future Cop can hotwire a forklift in about ten seconds, thanks to his past as a juvenile delinquent.
  • The Grand Tour: May tries to invoke the trope by assuring Hammond he can hotwire a truck so he and the others can escape a Simulated Urban Combat Area. Instead, he electrocutes himself. Adding insult to injury, Hammond invokes Key Under the Doormat on their next attempt, and successfully finds the keys in the truck's sun visor.
  • In one episode of iCarly, Spencer accuses Carly's new boyfriend of doing this after taking his motorcycle for a joyride before being told he left the keys in the ignition.
  • Prison Break:
    • In the episode "Flight", Sucre sings the song quoted above when attempting to hotwire a car. It doesn't work, however: turns out the car is missing its engine.
    • Throughout series two and four the characters have little difficulty commandeering and obtaining vehicles undetected.
  • Sense8: In the first season finale, Capheus is able to hotwire an ambulance using the wires in the engine. He drives a matatu for a living and claims he learned how to hotwire because his bus keeps getting stolen, forcing him to steal it back from the thieves.
  • Stranger Things has Eddie hotwire a camper having been taught to by his old man while other kids had been taught to fish or play ball.
  • Supernatural: In the first episode of Season 4, a mysteriously Escaped from Hell Dean hotwires a car he finds at an old filling station. Justified as the car is a few decades old, and Dean has been shown to know how to not only repair but completely rebuild classic cars.
  • Top Gear: Richard Hammond fell victim to this in one challenge where the hosts all bought similarly-aged, second-hand BMW convertibles so they decide to test which one is in best condition. One test is how secure the vehicle still is. Hammond is smug as his car has been fitted with a secondary lock and an immobilisation system. His car ends up being the only one successfully "stolen" as the lock barrels have been worn down to nothing, so you could start it with any flat object.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • Dick Tracy: Averted in the first BB Eyes story: Tracy and Patton have the gangster's mooks on the run and one suggests that they take one of the police cars for a faster getaway. That is shot down immediately by another roaring that they have no time to hotwire one.

  • Heist!: Willie Burnett steals a car simply by connecting two wires together.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In the popular zombie apocalypse tabletop game All Things Zombie, this trope is played straight and inverted. Every character can try to hotwire any vehicle on the board, and chances are he or she will eventually succeed. However, a special rule named "The car won't start!" makes it much harder to hotwire the car if there are zombies near the car closing in.

    Video Games 
  • In Alone in the Dark (2008), Edward can get in to any car around Central Park, pull a few wires out and there's a little minigame for you to get the right pair together. Can be slightly difficult when you've got a few enemies bearing down on you though.
  • Implied in Grand Theft Auto, as stationary cars can be stolen and start up just as fast as ones taken while running. In Grand Theft Auto IV, Niko Bellic can be seen ducking under the dashboard to start the engine whenever he jacks a car outside of a mission; the process is mostly automatic once you press the gas button, but if you keep hitting it, Niko will do it faster. The DS version of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars requires work on the touch screen to hotwire a car.
  • Liberal Crime Squad does it mostly straight, with the only limitation is requiring skill points in security.
  • Resident Evil 6: Ever-so-briefly discussed by Leon as he and Helena attempt to flee in a commandeered police cruiser and ultimately averted once he secures the hidden car key.

    Web Comics 

    Web Original 
  • In the YouTube series An Emo Life, one of the characters hotwires at least one car and an airplane.

    Western Animation 
  • American Dad! averts this in one episode, where Francine loses her keys right when they need to do something important, and Steve offers to hotwire her car for her. Turns out he has no idea what to do, and ends up electrocuting himself touching random wires together.
  • The Ren & Stimpy Show: Ren does it, only to realize that a policeman is in the car and looking at him.
  • The Simpsons: In one episode, Bart gives Grandpa advice on how to hotwire a car.
  • The Venture Bros.: In "Ghosts of the Sargasso", the Pirate Captain is able to hotwire the X-2 on the first try, despite having never hotwired a hydrofoil before. He even points out how surprisingly easy it was.

    Real Life 
  • In real life, this is harder than it looks, even in cars where it is conceivably possible. A main stumbling block is the sheer number of wires that pass under the steering wheel column.
  • Joyriders and twoccers manage to hotwire cars with what seems to less-skilled onlookers like unfeasible ease and rapidity. It's partly due to the amount of practice they have and partly due to the petty-criminal trait of not caring about collateral damage, which often causes non-criminals to overestimate the difficulty of overcoming physical security measures.
  • Some vehicles can be started by exploiting an engineering flaw. One such case is the Vauxhall Nova, which is done by removing the emergency light button, re-inserting it upside-down, and pressing it to start the ignition. This is demonstrated on Top Gear here.
    • Top Gear also showed that if your key barrel is sufficiently worn a blank key may actually work to start it. Richard Hammond was very upset when it took less than 5 seconds for the "thief" to start his BMW and drive off.
  • The SAAB 9000-series was notorious for its poorly built locks, culminating in a demonstration in which the car was unlocked and started in less than 10 seconds with an ice cream stick as the only permitted tool.