Towing a car when you don’t have the keys is a complex and potentially dangerous procedure, and that’s why most people will quickly assume that you simply cannot safely tow a car unless you have a way to get inside and set it to neutral and disable to handbrake as needed.
Tow companies and vehicle rescue services can and do tow cars without keys on a daily basis, however, and they have the necessary training, tools, and procedures to do so without causing damage to the vehicle. If you have access to the right set of dollies, you may also be able to tow a car even if you don’t have the keys to it. For the most part, towing a car without keys is usually done by lifting its drive wheels off the road.
Depending on the situation and the towing equipment you have at your disposal, you may have several ways that you can tow a car even without having the keys to it.
That said, there’s the question of whether you can legally tow a car in park – that’s an entirely different matter, and we’ll touch on that later on in this guide. For now, let’s work on the assumption that you are fully within your rights to tow a car. Let’s say you are towing your own car, or you are towing the vehicle of another person that is asking for your assistance.
Can You Tow a Parked Car?
With the right equipment and process, can you tow a parked car? The answer depends on the circumstances. In general, though, you can ask to have a parked car towed if it is parked on private property without the consent of the property owners.
The situation can become complicated if the car owner is present, or if there is a pet in the car – in these cases, the simple way out is to simply call a towing service and have them deal with it.
Do I Need Any Special Equipment To Tow A Car With No Keys?
The equipment and tools that you need to tow a car without keys depend on the situation that the car is in. For the most part, a car in park and with the handbrake engaged may still be towed if you have a set of self-loading tow dollies or a flatbed trailer.
You will also need a a few towing accessories, which can range from something as basic as a set of tow hooks and tow straps to a complete tow package with trailer hitch, flatbed trailer, and upgraded tow vehicle.
Self Loading Dollies:
A self-loading dolly is a heavy duty frame that supports one wheel such that it is locked in place and raised off the ground. The dolly may have four or more small wheels. High speed self-loading dollies will usually come with larger wheels equipped with tires, and these can handle a wider range of road conditions compared to self-loading dollies with small wheels.
The latter is usually more suited for moving cars inside work bays or garage workshops, so if you plan to tow vehicles out on the road, you need to consider self-loading dollies with larger wheels and sturdy brackets.
Self-loading dollies are also made to accommodate a specific range of wheel sizes. You may need a different set of dollies for larger vehicles with bigger tires. You will also need at least two self-loading dollies to tow a car without keys.
Two self-loading dollies may be enough to tow away a car without keys if you are able to raise the drive wheels of the car up and off the road with the dollies. In this case, all you will need to tow two wheels up is a couple of dollies, a set of tow hooks and a tow strap or tow rope.
Sometimes, though, you may need to tow the car with four wheels up. One common combination to tow a car with all four wheels off the ground is by using two self-loading dollies with a tow dolly. Two of the wheels of the car are loaded onto the tow dolly, and the other two wheels are then carried off the road by the two self-loading dollies. The tow dolly itself is then connected to the tow vehicle via a trailer hitch.
Using A Flatbed Trailer:
If you happen to have a flatbed trailer, then you may also be able to tow a car without keys. Flatbed trailers are also a better choice for towing heavier vehicles that may exceed the maximum weight that self-loading dollies and tow dollies can safely carry. If you do decide to tow a car using a flatbed trailer, then you will need to fasten it securely before driving around.
To tie down a car on a flatbed trailer, you will need a set of tie-down accessories. Reinforced nylon straps are a popular choice for tying down cars on to flatbed trailers. Some of them may come with steel hooks at the end that you can hook onto the car’s frame, in which case they are referred to as V-straps.
They may also be used with basket straps which are used to secure the wheels of the car being towed to the trailer bed eyelets. To ensure a tight, secure fit, a steel ratcheting mechanism is often used to gradually tighten the tie-down nylon straps.
Towing a Car With No Keys Using Dollies
The first step is to determine the dolly setup you will need to move the vehicle. To do so, you will need to determine if the car is a front wheel drive or a rear wheel drive vehicle. To tow a car without keys, you will need to raise the drive wheels up and off the ground to avoid damaging the transmission.
The best source of information on whether a car is a front wheel drive or a rear wheel drive model is the owner’s manual.
Front Wheel Drive, Rear Wheel Drive and AWD:
Front wheel drive vehicles have the drive wheels at the front – that is, the engine transmits its power to the front wheels only, while the rear wheels are free to spin as they are pulled along. Front wheel drive is the most common setup for most modern cars, so it’s likely that you will be towing a car by lifting its two front wheels off the road.
Rear wheel drive vehicles, on the other hand, are just like the term describes: the rear wheels are the drive wheels, and they receive the power as transmitted by the engine.
The front wheels, in this case, are for steering only. Rear wheel drive configurations are usually seen on older cars, such as those built during the 1970s or earlier. They are also found in sports cars if you happen to have a chance to tow away one.
Many trucks and SUVs will also have a rear wheel drive setup. Again, the best source of information to confirm this can be found by consulting the owner’s manual.
Rear wheel drive vehicles, as you might expect, are towed by raising the rear wheels off the ground. Some towing operators prefer to tow these types of vehicles in reverse.
Of course, four wheel drive vehicles will need to be towed with all four wheels up. In this case, you will need enough dollies to lift all the tires in order to safely tow the vehicle. With all four wheels off the grounds and locked in place, you avoid damaging the drivetrain and transmission of the car being towed.
Don’t Forget About The Parking Brake:
You will also need to consider if the car being towed has its parking brakes engaged. Most hand brakes lock the rear wheels of the car only, so if you are towing a rear wheel drive vehicle, you may be able to do so just by lifting the two rear wheels off the ground. On the other hand, a front wheel drive vehicle that has its rear wheels locked by the parking brake will need to be towed with four wheels up.
How To Load The Car On To The Dollies:
Once you have figured out the dolly setup you need, then it’s time to load the vehicle on the dollies. If you are just using self-loading dollies, then you may need to place them under the front wheels of the car (for front wheel drive vehicles) or under the rear wheels (for rear wheel drive vehicles). You may also find yourself in a situation where you will need to place self-loading dollies under all four wheels of the car.
Once you have raised the right set of wheels off the ground, then you can attach the tow strap to the tow vehicle. Tow straps with hooks will work well enough for most towing applications, but tow straps with loops at the end are significantly safer to work with.
Another way to do a two-wheel tow is by using a tow dolly, which can hold two wheels at the same time. Tow dollies are usually connected to the tow vehicle using a receiver mount or a ball mount, and they can tow larger or heavier vehicles more reliably compared to using tow straps.
If you need to tow a vehicle with all four wheels off the ground, one good way to do it is by a combination of self-loading dollies and a tow dolly. The self-loading dollies are placed under the wheels that are immobilized by the parking brake – in this way, you can now easily load up the vehicle’s other two wheels to the tow dolly.
You may also use the self-loading dollies to help you load a vehicle to your flatbed trailer. Keep in mind that you need to tie down the vehicle to the trailer before you should even think of driving away.
Once you have the vehicle secured on your dollies or trailer, then it’s time to drive off. Keep in mind that there is no driver on the vehicle being towed, so you do not get the benefit of having someone apply the brakes on the car being towed in order to keep a consistent distance from the tow vehicle. You will need to drive very slowly, especially if you are using a tow strap.
Towing a Car With No Keys By Putting It In Neutral
If you don’t have enough self-loading dollies, or if the situation really calls for it, then you may be able to disconnect the linkage on the car you plan to tow. Doing this will effectively put the car in neutral, which may let you tow it with all four wheels on the ground.
The specific procedure for disconnecting the vehicle’s transmission varies from one brand to the next, and different models will have their transmission levers in different places. Again, the best place to find out is by checking the owner’s manual If possible.
Since this method requires you to get under the vehicle, it’s important to keep the car still even after you’ve put it in neutral. You will need to keep the car from rolling by placing wheel blocks in front or behind the wheels to secure the car in place while you crawl under it. You will also need a flashlight to see which lever you need to use to put the car in neutral.
The next step is to turn on the flashlight and slip under the car. Most linkage switches are located near the engine, so depending on the drive configuration of the vehicle, near the engine bay is usually the first place to look. For most models, you will need to trace a cable that has a switch lever and that is connected to the transmission. Once you find this switch, then you may be able to disconnect it by pushing backward on the lever.
Once this cable is disconnected, then the car should be free to roll (assuming that the park brake has not been engaged). You can now connect the car to the tow vehicle, and then carefully remove the wheel blocks before driving off. Again, keep in mind that you don’t have anyone on the other vehicle assisting you with braking since you are towing it without keys.