Change an Ignition Switch Without Removing the Dashboard





Introduction: Change an Ignition Switch Without Removing the Dashboard

About: I miss the days when magazines like Popular Mechanics had all sorts of DIY projects for making and repairing just about everything. I am enjoying posting things I have learned and done since I got my first ...

This Instructable will show how I replaced the ignition switch in my car without removing the dashboard.

In a recent Instructable I discussed problems with the instrument cluster on my 1999 Oldsmobile Alero. In that previous Instructable I had believed my ignition switch tested good and I soldered some metal-on-metal connections to by-pass oxidation that may have added a critical amount of resistance to the circuit. Still, the same difficulties returned a few days later. I read articles like this one to see if my 12 year old car with 110,000 miles could be suffering from an ignition switch in the early stages of failure. I decided I wanted to remove the ignition switch from my car for examination and possible replacement, but do it without removing the dashboard. 

The Oldsmobile Alero has some "cousins," like the Chevrolet Malibu. But, the dashboard trim in the Malibu is different from that in the Alero. In the Malibu the bezel around the radio simply pries off, and when it is removed the two bolts that hold the ignition switch in place are fully accessible. The Alero is different, though. The same two bolts are hidden behind the dashboard.

For this Instructable I needed:

A 10mm open end and box end combination wrench that I could sacrifice.
A couple of screwdrivers.
A nut driver with a 7mm wrench socket attached.
A torch for heating and bending the wrench as needed (I used a carbon arc torch on an electric welder.).
A vise (for holding the wrench while heating it for bending).
A hammer for making the bend in the wrench as sharp as possible.
A Dremel tool with a cylindrical grinding bit and a burr bit.
A mechanic's inspection mirror.
Auxiliary lighing (flashlight or a mechanic's trouble light)
A Haynes manual for my car.
A multi-meter.
A new ignition switch. 

Step 1: Ignition Switch Bezel

Before beginning it is a good idea to disconnect the negative lead from the battery to keep the air bags from deploying accidentally. If your car has an anti-theft code set for the radio, deactivate that first. 

The ignition switch bezel lifts off when pried around its perimeter with a common screwdriver. I will trim away some of the dashboard behind the ignition switch bezel and use the extra space to access the bolts.

Step 2: Working With a Dremel

I used a burr tool on my Dremel to chew away some of the plastic dashboard so that there is a chance I can get a wrench onto the two ignition switch mounting bolts. See the yellow text boxes for the location of the two bolts, each with a 10mm hex head. My plan is to remove dashboard plastic right out to the edge of the ignition switch bezel, but not so far that a gap is visible. This works because the ignition switch bezel fastens to the ignition switch and not to the dashboard.

Step 3: A Suitable Wrench

I decided to buy a 10mm combination box end and open end wrench for this project. But, I needed to modify it to work within the spatial confines presented by my dashboard. I decided to use the 12 point box end portion of the wrench, but it was too thick. So, I ground it from both sides to make it thinner. It would not fit between the inner surface of the dashboard and the top of the bolt heads before grinding. It really needs to be no thicker than the bolt head is high. I also heated the wrench to bend it in two places for a large offset. For heating prior to bending I used a carbon arc torch on a 230 volt stick welder. See additional details in the text yellow boxes.

Step 4: Fitting the Wrench Onto the Bolt Heads

In these two photos you can see how the wrench fits through the opening around the ignition switch and onto the bolt heads. After the bolts were a little bit loose, I was able to reach around through the instrument cluster opening and turn the back end of the upper bolt by hand. I could also get enough of a finger into the area around the ignition switch and push at the bolt heads to speed their removal. This also helped during installation of the new switch. I could twist the bolt between 1/12th and 1/6th of a turn before I had to reset the wrench on the bolt. This was slow, but it worked fine and I was able to get the bolts as tight as I wanted.

Before beginning I had some concerns about either of the bolts falling out of its hole when fully loosened and lodging down low behind the dashboard. I considered stuffing some newspaper behind the dashboard under the ignition switch, but that really was not necessary. Although the bolts tipped precariously, they never fully came out of their holes and they stayed in place quite well.

Step 5: Removing the Instrument Cluster

First, lower the steering column and remove the top half of the steering column cowl. Fingertip pressure is enough to separate and lift the upper cowl. (1st photo) Remove two screws from the upper part of the instrument cluster bezel. (2nd photo) Pry the instrument cluster bezel loose on opposite sides of the steering column. (3rd photo) Disconnect the wiring harness at the switch on the bezel that changes the odometer display between the trip meter and the odometer reading. Remove the instrument cluster bezel and set it aside. Remove the four mounting screws around the perimeter of the instrument cluster. Tip the instrument cluster and pull it from its nesting place. Disconnect the wiring harness. (4th photo)

With the instrument cluster removed, you can see the upper portion of the ignition switch from the lower right portion of the instrument cluster opening. 

Step 6: Access the Switch

The ignition switch can easily be accessed through the opening for the instrument cluster once the cluster and its bezel have been removed. At this point you may want to consult a repair manual for your vehicle. Some things are certain to vary. The harnesses connected to the ignition switch restrict the degree to which the switch can be moved for better access. I found a mechanic's inspection mirror and a flashlight very helpful when something would not release as I thought it should. Also, some things cannot be removed from the ignition switch until the lock cylinder has first been removed. Consult a manual before forcing something with more leverage.

My ignition switch uses an interlock cable to connect the gearshift lever to the ignition switch so the car cannot be started unless the transmission is in Park or in Neutral. The Haynes manual fails to mention that this cannot be separated from the switch until the lock cylinder has been removed. The lock cylinder is removed by inserting the key into the ignition switch and turning it to its Run position. There is also a metal retainer in a rectangle on the side of the ignition switch. Press it inward and the lock cylinder can be pulled from the switch. Also, the Passlock wiring harness (white and yellow wires) cannot be removed until the lock cylinder has been removed.  

Step 7: The Switch

The 1st photo shows the old switch viewed from the front, but with the lock cylinder removed. Notice the two arms with metal threaded sleeves to receive the mounting screws. The switch is turned counter-clockwise just a little. The lower threaded sleeve would be at 6 o'clock and the upper at 2 o'clock when in place.

See the 2nd photo for a view of the back and underside of the switch. The two wiring harnesses and the interlock cable attach here. Even though I pressed the releases on the wiring harnesses, both were very difficult to remove, especially in the confined space behind the dashboard. 

The 3rd photo shows the metal tabs in each of the two harness connectors on the switch. The diagram below is from the Haynes manual. Not all tab positions shown in the manual are filled with a metal tab. The table below tells which sets of tabs should have continuity in the various key positions. In my previous Instructable linked in the Introduction I mentioned a test at the fuse panel by which I decided the ignition switch was good. However, when I tested the switch using this table, some of the tab combinations failed the continuity test. At that moment I decided I would spend the money and buy a new ignition switch. 

The auto parts store I use is part of a chain. I was able to go onto their web page and locate the specific ignition switch my car uses and to determine my local store had one in stock. The price was also listed. These things were good to know before I had removed enough things that the car no longer starts.

Step 8: Finished

This is an actual photo of my dashboard after I replaced the ignition switch without removing the dashboard. Nothing in what you see hints that some of the dashboard has been cut away behind the ignition switch bezel with a Dremel tool. And, my car now works as it should. Although a new ignition switch is almost $100, I can avoid buying a new car for a while. I sacrificed a wrench that I may yet use again for another special job in the future, but it was well worth the extra cost of a few dollars.



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    39 Discussions

    how would you replace this with no key,

    1 reply

    I found an aftermarket keyless ignition module at Amazon. It was for a motorcycle and too large to fit this space.

    A few years ago I took the dash and ignition switch cover off a car, trying to see if I could improvise a remote start system. It was a company car and I was on a construction project in a way below zero Winter. I was smart enough (that time!) to quit when I realized some of the wiring I was messing with went to the air bag.

    1 reply

    Yes, I would not want an air bag firing unexpectedly when I was too close. Thank you for looking.

    Could you have used magnets on the bolts attached to something metal in case they fell?

    1 reply

    I have a flexible "grabber" with a magnetic end. It probably would have retrieved a bolt that fell, unless the bolt wedged itself into a small space. But, the magnet on my grabber is not very strong either. There would also have been the possibility of simply buying a new bolt of the same size and leaving the old one wedged someplace I could not reach. I also could have crumpled just enough newspaper to make a ball and wedged it between the dashboard and each bolthead until the time came to catch the mounting threads on the new switch. Thank you for looking and for commenting.

    Great instructable! Your making of a specialized wrench reminded me of growing up working in my Dad automobile repair shop. When we would run into needing a specially shaped wrench to save having to remove a lot of unnecessary parts, we'd grab a wrench, saw it up, and weld it to the shape we needed. All of these "custom wrenches" were stored in a drawer in the middle of the shop so that any mechanic that needed such a thing would know to look there first. One of my contributions to the process was making a custom tool that allowed you to replace the clutch on a 1970 Toyota Corolla without having to first pull the engine. Yep, the book said you had to pull the engine on this car back then simply because of two bolts located in a really bad place on the bell housing. Specialized tools are great.

    1 reply

    Thank you for your comment and the story about your father's repair shop. Congratulations on finding a better way to change the clutch on the '70 Toyota. We had a '79 Chevrolet station wagon. A bolt inside the differential has a smooth section followed by a threaded section followed by the bolthead. These tended to break at the transition between the smooth and threaded portions. I needed to remove the broken smooth section from a hole deep within the differential. I was able to make a drill extension with a centered hole for mounting a relatively small size twist drill so I could make a hole for an easy out. The process was what I described in this Instructable. It worked, but I must say I have never had to use that special tool again. It was worth its weight in gold that day, though. In the early '90s I replaced the clutch in my daughter's '86 Pontiac Grand Am. There was at least one bolt I had to remove that I never saw until it fell out on the ground. It was a matter of turning the wrench 1/12th of a turn, flipping the wrench and locating it on the bolthead again to turn it another 1/12th turn until the bolt was out.

    Great job, I know a friend who is having similar problems with the same model of car, this might just help!

    Also a word of warning don't do this in the middle of the night in a parking lot while wearing a ski mask.... you might just get a nasty surprise haha

    3 replies

    I shuddered every time I thought I would need to examine the ignition switch because I was certain I would need to endure the pain, time, and expense of taking the dashboard out and all that goes with it just to access the ignition switch. The good news is the ignition switch can be replaced without any of that. The other possible cause is a bad body control module (BCM), and that could happen if there was a water leak from the windshield, but the problem is most likely the ignition switch.

    When I was still in school I had an after hours job in a bank. One night we were later than usual leaving the bank. I had gone through a car wash early in the day. Water had gotten into the door locks and froze as temperatures dropped. I got some complimentary book matches from the bank lobby and was kneeling down beside it in the parking lot heating my key and pushing it into the lock until the lock was free again. An armed guard saw me. He first thought I was breaking into a car, but realized I was having lock trouble when I did not run. After a couple more minutes the lock was free and I was on my way.

    oh god, don't remind me about the BCM, I have a Saturn sl2 2001 and the bcm has been an utter nightmare. (it was problematic in that series anyway)...

    Be comforted. Most problems are due to simpler, cheaper things. When it comes to repairs, always pick the low hanging fruit first.

    Check the cheap and easy things first, like blown fuses and obviously poor connections. You may want to check my earlier Instructable referenced in this one. It dealt with the instrument cluster. If those things pass, you could need an ignition swtich.

    I have similar symptoms. I have a 2001 Alero. What happens with mine is. Once i run the car and turn the engine off and remove the key and close the door. The car still "dings" as if the keys are still in the ignition or I left the headlights on. Also, my power doorlocks do not work. I have at times experienced the same problem with my instrument cluster not giving readings right away. My trunk will also pop open on it's own. Now in order to drive it and keep the battery from going dead I have to pull the negative terminal whenever I park the car which is not very practical. I was told by 2 mechanics to start with the ignition switch and you just gave me the final go ahead and change it with your instructable.

    2 replies

    A friend has a 2001 Alero with lots of problems. The windshield had a water leak. That means water got to the body control module (BCM) located on the passenger side behind the blower motor for the heater. I saw a post on an Oldsmobile forum that says the BCM is likely to short out if water got to it. The BCM can be a source of problems visible in the instrument cluster, and might possibly be the source of some of your problems. You are probably due for an ignition switch. If that does not solve your problems, it might pay to have an electronic diagnosis to see if the BCM is identified as faulty.

    You have some more serious symptoms I did not experience on my car, but I would not be surprised if your ignition switch is failing. So very many things go through the ignition switch in addition to the actual ignition related circuits. It is difficult to predict ignition switch failure in a direct correlation with miles on the odometer. One driver may drive long daily commutes which require starting the engine relatively few times, while another with the same miles on the odometer started the car many more times for a very large number of very short trips. But, the age and mileage of your car is probably commensurate with ignition switch failure. The Haynes manual for my car officially covers only 1999 - 2000 model years, but I expect your car is nearly identical in all matters important to replacing the ignition switch. I tried to give all of the critical details in this Instructable so you can do the job without the manual. The exception to that would be the exact test points for continuity on the switch connection tabs. I could send those to you by private message, assuming they are the same on your vehicle. Compare your switch to photos of my switch when you get it out. Also, Amazon has two different ignition switches, only one of which was for my exact car. If I could have waited for delivery and had known in advance exactly which I needed, I could have saved a bundle of money. Let me know if I can be of assistance to you from a distance. The good news is I do not think you will need to remove the dashboard. I was able to do the whole job in about two hours. With the advantage of some things I learned and included in this Instructable, you may be able to do it a little more quickly.

    Thank you. I hope it gives you an idea you can use sometime for a job you need to do.