CC Toolbox: A Panopoly of Factory Tool Kits

An original Ford Model “T” tool set and bag. The jack and jack handle are not shown. This is the granddaddy of factory tool kits.

If you are the owner of a car of a certain age, especially of an imported car, and you have all of the original equipment and accoutrements, you might find more than just a jack and a lug wrench in the trunk. Factory automotive tool sets have a long history, though they seemed to have exited the field much more quickly in Detroit than they did in much of the rest of the world.

A universal air-cooled VW tool set. Fairly minimal and simple, as were the cars. This is a reproduction set.

Beyond a lug wrench, a jack, and perhaps something with which to pry off a hubcap, many cars offered nothing else. But until relatively recently, a small set of tools, often carefully arranged in a fitted bag, was the sign of a “fully equipped” import. The bag or fitted box of tools was some sort of expected equipment, and a car was not considered “complete” without a few hand tools, never mind that the tools were often left neglected in a corner somewhere, or forever separated from the car at some point along the line. After all, while the owner’s manual and a spare set of keys are specific to the vehicle, hand tools are not. An owner who used his tools, and was aware of them, quite likely would keep them when he sold or traded in his car.

A reproduction tool set for the Citroen DS. One would think that a car with such unusual mechanical fitments would mean that the tools would be unusual as well. But it is simply not so.

The granddaddy of universal hand tool sets was Ford and the Model “T”. Vehicle repair, back in the day, was considered déclassé work, akin to blacksmithing or butchering. Cars were not necessarily equipped with any tools, as the owners wouldn’t typically have known what to do with them. Brass Era cars were expensive devices, and wealthier people did not get their hands dirty on their cars, by doing their own repairs or maintenance.

An original but restored Ford Model “A” set of tools, fitted into an aftermarket box. This set was originally carried in a bag. Quite a complete set of tools, appropriate for the careful and tidy engineering and design of the “A”.

However, Ford and his Model “T” were designed and built by hardy “salt of the earth” types, to be sold to people similarly situated. Field repair of simple things, along with the knowledge of what repairs might need to be done, and also the manual skills necessary to actually carry out the repairs, were expected of poorer, more rural owners. Ford offered a rudimentary tool set with each “T”, and the tradition carried on through the Model “A” and into the early years of the Ford V-8 era. The supply of a small tool set in the trunk of a Ford appeared to quickly go away either just before or after World War 2. Meanwhile, other manufacturers did not appear to offer tool sets at all, and I found no evidence of, say, a GM or Chrysler tool set ever having been supplied in the trunk of a car. Not to say it didn’t happen, but in Detroit, a factory tool set seemed to be a Ford thing.

A Ford flathead V-8 tool set, in this case an original tool set with a reproduction bag. The jack and lug wrench are not shown here. A more minimal set of tools, compared to the earlier Fords.

There was even a “Ford Wrench”, which looked something like a monkey wrench, but which was squared up and tightened up in its operation, to provide the capacity for nuts or bolts to be easily tightened, if they didn’t need much torque on them. Later, the adjustable Crescent Wrench replaced the function of the Ford Wrench, but the popularity and universality of Crescent Wrenches didn’t come until later. Much as cars were not standardized, and the various engine and drivetrain elements had to be developed to fill a need, over time, so it was with tools. The mostly standardized function and interchangeability of tools today (think of the “mix and match” that can be done with sockets and handles between various manufacturers currently) was not a “thing” early in the 20th Century. Tools of all sorts of dimensions and standards were out there, and the functionality and universality of any given wrench or set of pliers simply did not exist early on.

The “Ford Wrench”. It looks like a monkey wrench, but functions like a Crescent Wrench. Still manufactured and sold today, and often used in aviation repair and maintenance work.

Back to the Ford tool sets, they were contract manufactured by various tool manufacturers of the time. Collectors like to build out their complete Ford tool sets for any given year, and take shots at figuring out which manufacturer made which tool. While Ford used only the best materials and finest manufacturing tolerances for its cars, the tools were considered to be of a lesser quality. They were good enough to fill out the tool kit, but they were no way “professional quality” tools (though that term had yet to be defined yet, back in the day). Additionally, people often kept the tools when they junked or sold their Ford, so the supply of cheaply made Ford tools is huge, relative to the demand, even today. Most of them were not marked “Ford” on them, so the old, unbranded, loosey-goosey black metal set of pliers in your extra tool box just might be a Ford tool.

A reproduction early Jaguar E-Type/XKE set. The tools are numerous, and of a uniformly higher quality and consistency of presentation, as was the car they came with.

These tool sets sometimes had a strangely shaped or proportioned tool in them. That is to accommodate some odd bolt or adjustment, typically for ignition timing or for peculiar clearance issues. Professional tool manufacturers would sell their “Buick” socket or their “Ford” tool, but, very occasionally, those little tool sets might get a dedicated tool as well.

An original MG tool set, as used through the MG-TF. A bit of mix-and-match, with some unique sizes and shapes thrown in. Much like the cars they came with.

The makeup of a tool kit also tended to follow a pattern. Besides the jack and the lug wrench, they often contained screwdrivers, pliers, wrenches, and a spark plug wrench. Older sets had tire spoons or tire irons, with which people could demount the tires and change the inner tubes in the field. The early Ford sets also got a hand air pump, which looked and functioned much like an old-school bicycle tire pump. The tool kits always got two tire spoons, as the technique required two. Sometimes, one would also see a hammer, an oil can, a small grease gun, and perhaps a tiny cache of little spare parts. Japanese tool kits often included a small can of touch-up paint, matching the exterior color, and always seemed to come with a folding metal wheel chock. European tool sets often carried a spare drive belt.

A more modern Toyota tool set, which was delivered in a small bag. The Japanese sets from the different manufacturers tended to be minimal and universal (as long as you wanted metric wrenches), and were typically of a fairly high quality, with good presentation.

The basic wrenches, pliers, and screwdrivers would often multiply into sets, for the fancier cars. The high-end European cars often had rather comprehensive sets, and of a high manufacturing quality. It was a sort of statement the manufacturers made by doing up the tool kit in a big way. Perhaps that is why, given Enzo Ferrari’s competitiveness and need for one-upsmanship, the Ferrari tool kits were more elaborate and comprehensive than those of just about anyone else. I have not been able to determine if all of these sets came with the cars, as a matter of course, or whether the tool sets, especially the more elaborate ones such as the Ferrari set, were either optional with the car or had to be purchased separately. It is slightly difficult to believe that the Ferrari set, as shown here, was included with each car. But perhaps so. Maybe knowledgeable readers can chime in.

An original and comprehensive tool set for the early 60s Ferrari 250. Because more is better, and Enzo wants only the best. This original set now sells for $45k.

While tool kits in Detroit were a Ford thing and disappeared from Ford around World War 2, many European manufacturers continued with the practice. Most cars came with a basic kit, and even today, some high end cars and especially SUVs still get tool kits. The Japanese never generally went for “fancy” tool kits, but the basics of a reversible screwdriver (blade/Phillips), adjustable pliers, and a Crescent Wrench, along with a spark plug wrench and two or three open end wrenches, was rather universal in many Japanese cars in the 60s and 70s. They were also of consistently reasonably good quality. In general, those manufacturers who stayed with tool kits later on, made sure the quality of the tools was high enough to enhance their image, rather than run it down. If one was going to make the effort (and the effort was increasingly only made in the high end offerings), then it needed to be done right. Note the consistency of appearance and presentation of, say, the later Toyota and Mercedes tool sets, versus the earlier MG set, or that of the old Ford sets, for that matter.

An original tool set for the 50s Mercedes 300SL. Comprehensive, but not excessive, and well presented, as was the car. This original set recently sold at auction for “only” $17k.

A reproduction tool set for the 60s and early 70s Mercedes 230SL/250SL/280SL. Simplified, but useful and of a good quality.

People can collect and build out factory tool sets, once they figure out what they need them to look like, as the tools often outlive the car. But the high-end sets, particularly the Porsche and Ferrari sets, can be mind-bendingly expensive to buy, and extremely difficult to assemble from pieces, both because of the difficulty in finding matched elements, and also because of the high number of tools in some of those sets.

A reproduction tool kit for the Porsche 356. Much more comprehensive than the tool set for the mechanically similar VW. Porsche drivers drive “sports cars”, and VW drivers do not. Sports car drivers need more tools.

A reproduction tool set for the Porsche 911/912. Similar to the Mercedes, the tool sets for the newer models were somewhat simplified, versus the tool sets for the older models.

Over time, the idea that people might be stranded in some out-of-the-way place, needing to make simple repairs, and also have the diagnostic and tool-wielding skills to do simple field repairs, has gone by the wayside. It’s back to a lug wrench and a jack, though some cars even dispense with the spare tire and all of that, now, too. Factory tool sets, such as they still exist, are typically a truck thing and a status thing for high-end cars, not a factory-supplied field resource for cheap cars in rural places. If one were equipping cars to meet today’s repair needs, perhaps an OBD reader and an Auto Club card for towing would be the hot ticket.