How to Unlock a Steering Wheel

When your steering wheel locks it is usually at the worst time. The good news is that it is an easy fix. The steering wheel locks for many different reasons. The most important is a safety feature of the car that does not allow the wheel to turn without the key being inserted into the ignition. In addition, the steering wheel locks to allow the vehicle to be towed and to aid in theft prevention.

This article will cover what to do to repair a steering wheel that has locked up in two parts: freeing the locked steering wheel without repairs and repairs of the lock assembly.

Method 1 of 2: Freeing a locked steering wheel

Materials Needed

  • Screwdrivers
  • Socket set
  • WD40

Step 1: Turn the key. The first step and the one that works in most cases is to turn the key in the ignition cylinder while turning the steering wheel left and right.

This will free most steering wheels that have become locked on accident. When this is performed, the steering wheel may seem to not want to move but you must turn the key and the steering wheel at the same time. A click will be heard and the wheel will free up allowing the key to turn all the way in the ignition.

key comparison

Step 2: Use a different key. In some cases, the steering wheel may become locked due to the key being worn out.

When the worn key is compared to a good key the ridges will be much more worn down and the patterns may not match. Most vehicles should have more than one key. Use the spare key and see if it turns all the way in the key cylinder, allowing the steering wheel to be unlocked.

The keys become worn in the ridges or, in newer cars, the chip in the key may not function anymore, causing the steering wheel not to unlock.

spraying into ignition cylinder

Step 3: Using WD40 to free up the ignition lock cylinder. In some cases, the vehicle’s lock tumblers are frozen solid resulting in a locked steering wheel.

WD 40 can be sprayed into the lock cylinder and then the key inserted and rocked back in forth gently to try to loosen the tumblers. If the WD40 works and frees the lock cylinder, it will still need replacing as this is only a temporary repair.

Method 2 of 2: Replacement of the ignition lock assembly

If all of the above steps have failed to unlock the steering wheel, then the ignition lock assembly may need replaced if the key still won’t turn. In some cases a professional service can rekey the new ignition lock assembly to use the old keys if they are in good shape. Otherwise, a new key may need to be cut.

steering wheel column panel removal

Step 1: Remove the steering wheel column panels. Begin by loosening the screws holding the lower steering wheel column in place.

Once these are removed the cover has a few tabs that when pressed will release the lower half from the top. Remove the lower half of the steering wheel column cover and set aside. Now remove the top half of the column cover.

Step 2: Press the release tab while turning the key. Now that the ignition lock cylinder is visible, locate the release tab on the side of the cylinder.

While depressing the release tab, turn the key until the ignition cylinder is able to move backwards. This may take several times to free the the lock cylinder.

  • Warning: Some vehicles may have a specific method for removal and installation of the lock cylinder that differs from what is listed above. Consult the repair manual for your vehicle for exact instructions.

ignition cylinder being placed into new ignition

Step 3: Install the new ignition lock cylinder. Remove the key from the old lock cylinder and install it into the new lock cylinder.

Install the new lock cylinder into the steering column. Make sure the lock tab is fully seated when the lock cylinder is installed. Test that the key turns fully and the steering wheel is able to unlock before reinstalling the panels.

Step 4: Reinstall the column panels. Install the top half of the column cover panel to the steering column.

Install the lower half, making sure that all clips engage and they are locked together. Install the screws and tighten.

Now that your vehicle’s wheel is unlocked, sit back and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Often a simple turning of the key fixes the issue, but in some cases the lock cylinder must be replaced. In cases where the lock cylinder needs to be replaced but the job seems too much, YourMechanic is here to help, and be sure to Ask a Mechanic for any questions you have about the process of unlocking your wheel.


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