E28 Lama Locked Out String Trick 535i

The day began like many others: I went out to the garage and backed the Lama, the 5 Series, partially out to make room for doing some work on Kugel, my 2002tii, which was sitting on the mid-rise lift. Then I remembered that I’d left some tools in the Lama’s trunk. I opened the trunk, took out the tools, and closed the trunk lid. I closed it a little hard, sort of a semi-slam. I didn’t intend to; it just got away from me.

And then I heard it: GSHWACK. The unmistakable sound of the central locking system actuating.

I stood stunned for moment as I wrapped my mind around the fact that the keys were in the car and all the windows were up. Like Krieger in an episode of Archer, my first thought was “No no no No No No NO NO NO!”

But it was done. Somehow, my semi-slamming the trunk lid had tripped the central locking system. I methodically walked around the car and tried every door. Nope: locked. To quote Mike Demone in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, “I woke up in a great mood. I don’t know what the hell happened.”

Oddly, the combination of the GSHWACK sound and the fact that it involved an E28 reminded me of something. I felt like this had happened to me before, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. But I had a car to unlock, so I put that thought aside.

First, I searched to see if I had another key to the car. I didn’t recall any, but sometimes I find such things in a folder with a car’s paperwork. But sadly, no.

Next I tried the key I had with the closest form factor, the one for the ’79 Euro 635CSi. Sure enough, it slid into the door and trunk locks, but it did not turn them. But oddly enough, when I pulled it out of the driver’s-side door lock, the tumbler came out with it. I realized that I’d never tried to lock the Lama. The tumbler had been sitting there, unsecured, for all the months that I’d been driving the car.

The fact that the tumbler came out was curious but ultimately coincidental.

So what do you do? I could’ve simply called AAA. I mean, one hates having to experience adversity, but it is nice to use the membership you’ve been paying for all these years once in a while. I recalled locking my keys in my 911SC about ten years ago; someone from AAA came and did basically what I would’ve done. They wedged the top corner of the door open with something non-marring, and worked what was little more than a coat-hanger inside to grab the push button and yank it up.

The door lock button on the E28, fortunately, isn’t recessed, and does have enough of a golf-tee flair at the top that a coat-hanger should be able to grab it. My skills in this area are pretty rusty, but I thought I’d have at it.

I wedged the corner of the door open with the rubberized handle of a pair of pliers, then spent the next two hours with a coat hanger. It was torturous: The end of the hanger had to be bent into a hook at a right angle to the rest of the hanger, and getting that angled hook past the door seal was very challenging. I did hook the push-button, but was unable to close the deal and pull it up. Then I saw that the rubber had worn off the handle of the pliers and I was starting to cause visible damage to the trim on the B-pillar.

The coat hanger and rubber-handled pliers were brought to bear on the problem.

Sooooo close…

I stopped, came inside, and posted my misadventure to the E28 group on Facebook. I described what had happened, including the fact that the tumbler had come out of the door. I was momentarily buoyed by the idea that I could reach in through the hole formerly occupied by the tumbler, but after exchanging a few messages with E28 guru Paul Muskopf, I learned that there wasn’t an unlocking component directly behind the hole that could be easily grabbed.

Several people described a technique for unlocking the trunk that involved drilling a small (1/16″) hole above the trunk lock. I searched myE28.com and found it described here. I thought that if the trunk was unlocked, then maybe I could probably trip the actuator from there. But then I looked at the trunk lock on the Lama. The area that needed to be drilled isn’t flat; it’s an angled conical piece that sits around the trunk lock. It wasn’t going to be as easy as it sounded in the forums.

Layne Wylie chimed in with the suggestion that I simply take the car’s VIN to my local BMW dealer and have them cut a key for me. I put that in the mental queue of back-up plans behind calling AAA. Then I realized that there might be a problem, since I couldn’t prove that I owned the car. After all, the registration was locked in the glove compartment.

But then, FB friend Zach Mann pointed me at a Youtube video titled “How to unlock your car with a string.” In it, a young man shows a nifty trick you can do by simply taking a length of string, tying a slipknot in it, pulling the string past the upper corner of the door frame, maneuvering the slipknot over the lock button, pulling it tight around it, and then yanking the string upward to unlock the door. The fellow is so confident in the ease with which this procedure can be performed that, in the video, he throws his keys in the car, locks the door, and proceeds to do it on camera. Sure enough, in about a minute and 15 seconds, he has the slipknot looped over the push-button and the door unlocked.

Eager to try it, I scoured, the garage, then the basement, then the house, for string—and came up empty-handed.

In the video, the young man uses string that’s sort of like the thick round shoelaces you find on hiking boots. I remembered that had a bag of old shoes that we were planning on giving to Goodwill, and I pulled a long shoelace out of an old boot. I didn’t really notice that the lace was flat rather than round, and even if I had, I might not have thought it would cause a problem.

Which of course it did.

But the first problem was simply getting the string threaded around the corner of the door and past the lip in the door seal. I first tried to do it as shown in the video, with nothing prying open the door’s upper corner, and I got nowhere. So as I’d done with the coat-hanger, I wedged the upper corner open with the rubber handle of the pliers— but still the string kept hanging up on some lip that I couldn’t see. It was immediately reminiscent of the problems I had with “the rope trick” used to install a windshield, where the videos show a trivial-looking procedure in which you pull the rope out and “roll the lip” into position, but that took me and my professional mechanic friend Lindsey Brown hours. I must, I thought, have done something in a former life to anger up any procedure involving glass, rubber seals, and string.

Eventually I used the coat hanger to push the string past the unseen lip on which it was hanging up, and then I was rolling.

Even getting the string started at the corner of the door wasn’t easy.

After that, things basically went as shown in the video, but I’ll add the following tips:

  • There are several advantages of the string over the coat-hanger. The first is that you guide the string into position from both ends, instead of just one end with the bendy ungainly coat hanger that seems to have a mind of its own. Another is that the string, due to its softness and flexibility, is likely to be less destructive to the trim and the door seal than the coat-hanger.
  • Once I got the string started around the corner, even with the corner of the door wedged open, the door seal was quite tight, and it was very challenging pulling one end of the string toward the front of the car and into position to guide the loop.
  • I tied the slipknot in the back end of the string (the end nearest where the door opens) after I had the front end in position (and here’s a video that shows how to tie the slipknot clearer than in the unlocking video). I made the knot as tight as I could so that it wouldn’t slip closed while both ends of the string were being pulled back and forth. I then raised the back end of the string up to where I had the corner of the door wedged open with the rubber handle of the pliers so that I could pull the slipknot through there; neither this nor the above point appeared to be an issue in the video. It may be that the seals in his door were simply a lot softer than in the E28.
  • If you accidentally pull the slipknot closed, as I did twice, you don’t have to pull the string completely out and start over; you can tie a new slipknot in the back end of the string and slide it through the gap in the door.
  • Once I had both ends of the string where they needed to be, the fact that I was using a flat shoelace became an issue, because it meant that the shoelace couldn’t easily be rotated in anything other than 180 degree increments. This made it much more challenging to rotate the loop into position over the push-button than it needed to be.

But even with these difficulties, it took me, start to finish, perhaps fifteen minutes to loop the slipknot around the push-button, pull both ends of the string to tighten the slipknot, and unlock the door. Hearing GSHWACK the second time was far more satisfying than the first.


With the car unlocked, I was curious: Why did this episode on an E28 seem so familiar? I went to my computer, searched my documents for the word “GSHWACK,” and found it.

In May 1992, I wrote a Roundel column titled Of Central Locking And Stupidity. In it, I described a similar episode with my 533i, the only other E28 I’ve owned. That car had been the victim of an attempted theft that left the door-lock cylinders messed up. I had pulled the battery out to temporarily use it in another car, and had closed and latched the hood. When I was done, I found myself locked out of the car; I had the key, but it wouldn’t work in the messed-up lock cylinders. I thought that I’d unlock it via the trunk, but realized that this won’t actuate the central locking if there’s no battery.

It was the mirror image of the situation I’d just faced with the Lama. I’d solved the problem by unscrewing the grille. I was unable to pop the hood latch open, but I found that I could reach the battery cables and jump-wire them to the removed battery. In that case, hearing GSHWACK wasn’t the “no No NO!” moment, but was instead the sweet sound of success.

I still don’t know why closing the trunk tripped the central locking, or why the driver’s door tumbler is detached. And yes, I’ll have the key duplicated so that I have an extra. But clearly, in this, the new year, I should resolve to steer wide of anything involving string, rubber seals, E28s, and door locks.—Rob Siegel

Rob’s new book, Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack MechanicTM Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning, is available here on Amazon. His previous book Ran When Parked is available here. Or you can order personally inscribed copies of all of his books through Rob’s website: www.robsiegel.com.




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