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What Are Locking Lug Nuts and How Do They Work? We Examine 3 Different Types

Do you have expensive taste in shoes (for your car)? Whether you’ve invested in an eye-catching set of aftermarket wheels or need to replace the lug nuts on your vehicle’s factory wheels, locking lug nuts are an inexpensive way to get peace-of-mind when it comes to deterring wheel theft. Locking wheel nuts, also known as locking lug nuts, require a specific attachment or “key” for removal that discourage wheel shopping thieves carrying regular sockets.

Locking Lug Nut on US Mags wheel

Locking wheel nuts look slightly different from regular lug nuts. Every locking lug nut set has a specific notch pattern made to fit the unique locking wheel nut key that it comes with. Only the key provided with the set will loosen or tighten the lug nuts. For newer vehicles that come with locking lug nuts from the factory, the key can usually be found in the glovebox, under the seats, or where your vehicle’s spare tire kit is stored. The owner’s manual may also give you clues to where the factory hid the wheel nut key.

Locking Lug Nut on Equip Wheel

What if the locking lug nut key is lost? That's the one drawback to this system—if you lose the key, the wheels aren’t coming off easily. The part code to find an easy replacement from the manufacturer would appear on the storage box or bag, but if that’s not available, you might consider replacing the existing locking lug nuts with a universal set. DIY tools for removing locking lug nuts without the key do exist, but aren’t reliable and usually damage the nuts during removal.

Locking Wheel Nut components

Universal locking lug nuts are available for a wide range of vehicles and are less expensive than factory replacements. Typically, locking wheel nut patterns are specific to the company that makes them. Each manufacturer provides a limited number of locking lug nut patterns, so other drivers could have the same key, but finding another vehicle with the same exact set near you is unlikely.

Three Common Locking Lug Nuts

Locking wheel nuts typically come with four to a set with only one locking lug nut per wheel needed, leaving the other standard nuts in place. There are three common types, each with a slightly different look and functionality.

typical locking lug nut or locking wheel nut with removal key

Good: The Typical Locking Lug Nut

The most popular option is also the most simple: Keyed head locking wheel nuts use a socket (or key) placed over the keyed head to remove or secure the lug nuts. There are several manufacturers offering this style of locking lug nut. The set pictured below is from McGard.

McGard Keyed Head Locking Lug Nuts

Better: Spinning Collar Locking Lug Nut

An even more secure option is the rotating or spinning collar wheel nuts. The spinning lock nut is very difficult to remove without the matching key. A free-spinning security sleeve that surrounds the nut prevents removal with pliers or similar tools and makes it difficult to use standard wrenches or sockets for removal. Gorilla Guard offers quality lug nuts featuring free-spinning sleeves (pictured below).

Gorilla Guard spinning collar wheel nuts

The Uncommon (and not recommended) Locking Wheel Nut

The least common of the three options are shear head bolt locking wheel nuts, like this set from Arnold Clark Autoparts. This style is most often found on newer French vehicles like Citroen, Renault and Peugeot models. Shear head locking nuts are designed to shear off if any tool other than the matching key is used. This makes it difficult for thieves but can also be inconvenient for vehicle owners left with a sheared locking nut. Replacements are typically found directly from the vehicle manufacturer, but because the shear head style is prone to failure even when used with the key, it’s recommended to replace all shear head locking nuts with aftermarket keyed head or rotating locking wheel nuts.

Shear head bolt locking wheel nuts from Arnold Clark Autoparts

Are Locking Lug Nuts Worth it?

Even if your vehicle is equipped with locking wheel nuts as a theft deterrent, when determined criminals really want something they will find a way to get it. But, generally speaking, theft is dependent on ease, so if your wheels are more difficult to steal, the criminal might move on to a car with wheels that are easier to get—which justifies using locking lug nuts. Always keep in mind basic vehicle security, including parking in well-lit areas when in public and keeping your vehicle close to your dwelling or in your garage when home.

  • Still not sure which lug nut is right for your vehicle? Follow this link to learn more.
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