ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
His nickname is “Magic,” and his trick is to open locked cars.
The simple tools he uses make it appear that a sorcerer’s spell is somehow at work.
Merlin Funk of Hillsboro is employed as a full-time mechanic at Webster Auto Service in Marion, but he also has a sideline business of unlocking car doors for stranded motorists in Marion County.
And he has some tricks and advice that have helped many car owners in the past and hopefully in the future.
“My nickname is ‘Magic’ from Merlin the magician is how that got started about 20 years ago,” Funk said.
Funk worked at Hillsboro Ford for 16 years before joining Barry Allen at Webster’s in 1999.
“It was at Hillsboro Ford where I started the unlocking business,” Funk said.
“Everybody would test drive the cars. Then they’d bring them back and think they would do us a favor and lock up the vehicle. And I’d go out there and have to unlock the cars.”
In the early days, Funk used a tool called the Slim Jim-a 2-foot-long flat metal piece that was inserted on the outside of the window and went down inside the door. It unhooked a rod attached to the door-lock mechanism.
“Being a mechanic, I got into taking door panels off and looking inside so I would know where to hook the rod to unlock the cars.”
To thwart car thieves, car manufacturers changed the door configuration on cars made after the 1990s. And after that, a Slim Jim wouldn’t work.
“They put in more security metal strips so you can’t get this tool in there-there’s not enough room,” Funk said.
Funk has an arsenal of tools he can now use on all makes of cars, including ones made after 1990.
He categorizes his tool options as Plan A, Plan B and Plan C.
The first gadget out of the magician’s bag is Plan A-a tool called the BigEasy. It’s used on cars with or without electric-lock mechanisms.
The BigEasy is a thin round piece of steel about four feet long, has a handle on one end and a rubber tip on the other end.
It’s probably made of spring steel, and that tip on the end helps grip and grab onto the buttons inside the vehicle, Funk said.
“And I have a plastic wedge that spreads the door open a little bit first,” he said.
“Then I go into the top-rear corner of the door opening and slide the BigEasy inside the vehicle.
“I can reach down and hit the power-lock switch and unlock the power lock or otherwise hit the door-lock knob. It usually has a little notch, and the tip grabs good enough on that.”
Funk paid about $45 for the tool that also comes in a green glow-in-the-dark version-an option he decided not to purchase.
There’s also a LittleEasy-a smaller size for smaller cars, like imports, but Funk said he rarely needs to use that one.
Plan B is the Loch Tech tool.
“This is the one I tell the little kids-if they’re there-how I can do a magic trick for them,” Funk said. “This little tool’s going to go inside their car, and they just ‘ooh and ah’ and say, ‘No way.’
“More than likely, I would use that on a GM product.”
Also made of steel, it is rooster-shaped and designed to go inside the door.
“It goes on the outside of the window, down underneath the bottom of the window and can touch the door-lock knob,” Funk said.
“A lot of people call it the GM Slider.”
The Loch Tech tool came in a kit that cost about $50 to $60, Funk said.
The kit also included other tricks of the trade, such as an S-hook, a gas-cap pick tool, a J-tool and a door wedge.
And Plan C?
“Plan C is when I tease people and say that I’ll get out the hammer. We really hope we don’t have to get to Plan C.”
The only time he was unsuccessful in unlocking car doors was prior to the 1990s-before the BigEasy, Funk said. Since then, his success rate is 100 percent.
Funk will only go on calls in the Marion area during the day.
He’s on call for Markley Service in the evenings. That’s when he will go outside Marion and unlock car doors after work hours and on the weekends, including Sundays.
Funk offered the names of others technicians who will unlock cars such as Webster’s employee, Alan Kruse, who will typically unlock car doors for friends.
Also mentioned by Funk were Darvin Markley of Markley Service, who will take in-town and Marion County Lake calls; Hillsboro Ford, set up to unlock during and after hours and respond to out-of-town calls; and Mike’s Service Center in Marion, willing also to go out of the area to unlock.
Typically, frantic motorists will call him from a cell phone for help, or they will contact the sheriff’s office, and that office will call Funk.
In the past, the police also unlocked cars for motorists, but due to car-damage liability concerns, they stopped doing it, Funk said.
If called during the day, Funk said he usually is able to go out immediately to unlock a car door in the Marion area.
It’s not unusual to get called out about once a day, and that number increases over holdays and fair days.
The typical cost for Funk to unlock a car door in Marion is $20.
“If I go out of town, for like a 10-mile trip, it’s about $30,” he said. And if I go to Florence, it’s $35 to $40, depending on mileage time.”
The furthest he’s traveled to aid a motorist has been to Ramona, and that was a $40 call.
Although Allen supports Funk’s side-line business, he doesn’t ask for a percentage of the money Funk collects.
And it’s not a problem to let him go out on a call, unless he’s working on a customer’s vehicle that he can’t break away from, Allen said.
“This is just one more service we can offer that helps people out,” he said.
Unlocking a car these days, with the BigEasy, usually takes about five minutes, Funk said.
“It depends on the vehicle. Some of them, I’ve had take up to 30 minutes to an hour. That’s why I charge $20 in town, unless I get one of these that takes a long time, then I’ll go higher.”
There have been times when Funk used the BigEasy and marred the car paint a little bit as he worked to maneuver it in tight spaces, he said.
“But most people are so happy to get into their vehicle, that the little bit of paint flaw-they don’t complain about. And usually, it’s in a place where you don’t see it.”
The only time he ever damaged a car-door mechanism was about 10 years ago at the Arts & Crafts Fair, Funk said.
“I did unhook some rods in a vehicle and had to take the door panel off and hook up the rods again, but that was just one time.”
And that was prior to the BigEasy.
Although most cars are easy to get into with the BigEasy, he said he was hesitant to say where he bought it because he doesn’t want to encourage car thieves.
“We don’t want to promote that, but they can get ahold of this if they want to,” Funk said.
In the past, he said the scarriest moments in his side-line business were when he had to unlock car doors with children inside the vehicles.
“This summer, I had two kids in a vehicle, and they were really sweating,” Funk said. “The police were there, and I got called by the sheriff’s office to unlock that one-it was urgent.”
And the most humorous incident was a woman who called him from the county lake at about 10 p.m. He unlocked her car door and got another call the next night at about the same hour to unlock the same car.
“And then it happened two days after that, I think-three times in one week,” Funk said.
By the second and third call, she was “very embarrassed” that he had to return, he said.
Funk said he cautions motorists to keep a spare key in the house and in a magnetic key case that can be hidden on the outside of the car.
“And there are some manufacturers you can typically give them your VIN (Vehicle Identification Number), and they can make a key off of that,” he said.
“That’s part of road-side service, and they’ll typically make it if it’s during working hours.”
But when those two options aren’t available to a frantic motorist, Funk said he is willing to work his magic.
“I enjoy doing it,” he said. “I do it because I like helping people out. That’s what I do during the day, too, is work on people’s vehicles and help people out.”