By on June 11, 2019

1981 Cadillac Fleetwood in Colorado wrecking yard, V8-6-4 engine - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

Without fire, society as we know it could not exist. The combustion of flammable fuels is what warms most of our homes, cooks much of our food (perhaps indirectly), and drives the bulk of our many modes of transportation. Long ago, people considered fire one of the essential elements, like air and water.

A beautiful thing to behold, yet fire’s destructive power remains ever-present in the back of our minds. Uncontrolled fire takes lives, scorches homes, and can lower the value of your vehicle to zero. Maybe this has happened to you.

It hasn’t happened to your author, but it easily could have. My second vehicle came from a two-piece set — a brace of 1993 Chevy Corsicas bought by my father at a government auction in 1997. At the time, the two identical, grey, V6-powered LT trim sedans were by far the most modern vehicles to ever appear in our modest driveway. The price for both came to $8,000.

Naturally, as both vehicles were identical save for the license plates, the cars were referred to as “Corsica 1” and “Corsica 2,” like we were all agents on a protection detail. I later bought Corsica 1 for the tidy sum of $1,000.

What happened to Corsica 2, you ask? Well, after a Saturn SL2 joined the family, Corsica 2 went to live at a family friend’s house, where it was driven by that family’s university-aged daughter. Corsica 2 met a fiery end in their driveway one night. The cause of the blaze was never determined, but this family had few — if any — enemies. Blame GM.

Given the climate of your author’s home country, corrosion was a familiar friend. Happily, Corsica bodies came heavily galvanized, but the same could not be said for the fuel lines. Corsica 1 soon sprung a fuel leak below the driver’s side rocker panel (one must assume Corsica 2’s leak occurred in a less benign locale), and your devil-may-care author revelled in attempting to hit that small spot of pooled fuel with a lit cigarette after pulling away from the curb. Usually, this bit of target practice took place after pulling a U-turn and stopping across the street, thus lining up the pooled gas with the driver’s side window (and preventing a reputation-bruising immolation).

Memory fails to recall a successful hit. Ah, youth. Regardless, the fuel line eventually underwent replacement and the threat of fire abated, never to return. I’ve never lost a car to fire, though my current ride was recalled the day after signing the note for just such a possibility (the circumstances under which this could happen were very specific and highly unlikely, and thus did nothing to temper my Lordstown-sourced bliss).

From Tesla to BMW, Hyundai to Audi, fires and potential fires fill today’s headlines. Does your automotive history contain such a blaze?

[Image: Murilee Martin/TTAC]

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43 Comments on “QOTD: The Unforgettable Fire?...”


  • avatar
    seth1065

    Sadly it does, many many years ago like 1986 I was helping my girlfriend buy a car, this is when you could buy a car for like $500 bucks, hope to get a year out of it, we were maybe 20, no money but she needed a car to get to work. I just missed out on a 78 accord for her and she needed a car quick so the local gas station had a 76 Ford Granda, good body, cold AC and it ran decently enough. Fast forward maybe a year, my girlfriend is driving to the store to buy something the day of a bridal shower for my brother’s wife, smoke starts pouring out , flames follows, she pulls over knocks on some front door b orrows the hose and in a dress tries puts out the fire. Fire Dept was called car was toast This not only soured her on Ford but since that time she has never bought a American car, 2 VW’s a Audi, 2 Volvo’s and Honda but no Fords. She still brings it up to our kids how dad tried to kill her with that car. We are car shopping for her now and I will not even bring up a Ford orGM car to her.

  • avatar
    TR4

    I was about 14 when my home-made minibike caught fire. The gas tank was located below the exhaust and had a leaky cap. After the fire, all that remained of the carburetor was a blob of aluminum.

  • avatar
    FerrariLaFerrariFace

    I’m imagining the author flicking that cigarette and casually putting on his aviator sunglasses. The butt hits that spot and explodes in a massive fireball while the author peels out and drives away, his arch enemy now vanquished. Roll credits.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    Photo of a V8-6-4?
    I recently say a woman in a late 2000’s S class on the side of the road, driver door open, and smoke pouring from under the dash. I have an extinguisher in my car so I went to help. I discharge the entire thing under the dash, but by then it was too late. I bought some time but the fire managed to reignite and by the time the FD arrived there was no saving the car.

    • 0 avatar
      Jeff Weimer

      Yep. That’s apparently from the “Big Sexy” junkyard find from back in April.

      https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2019/04/junkyard-find-big-sexxy-the-v8-6-4-powered-1981-cadillac-fleetwood-brougham/

  • avatar
    labelnerd

    Here I thought this was just another Tesla self-immolation article. Fortunate not to experience these issues.

  • avatar
    ToddAtlasF1

    When I was maybe five years old, my mother’s ’71 Scamp had the hose that connected the fuel line to the carburetor split in the parking lot of Sears Roebuck. The owner of the local Pepsi distributorship came to our rescue and fixed the leak before a fire could occur. All he asked as thanks was that we drank Pepsi. Sadly, nobody in my family ever liked Pepsi and my sister and I were only served sodas on road trips, as I remember it. Years later, the Pepsi Samaritan and I were in the BMW CCA together. I got some wheel time in his then-newish E34 M5, but I still can’t stand Pepsi.

    The ’71 Scamp was my car briefly in high school. It had serious hot-starting problems. One day my mother walked out of the house just in time to see flames shoot six feet in the air from the carburetor, after I’d removed the air cleaner cover in an effort to resolve either flooding or vapor lock. My parents decided to help me buy a new car shortly after.

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    Never have been involved in a vehicle fire, but I came perilously close once. While riding a Honda Hawk GT through Montana, I stopped for gas. I did my normal refueling thing which was to straddle the bike and keep it upright so I could fill the tank fully. I saw the fuel rising in the tank, released the fill handle, and.. the nozzle continued to flow gasoline, coming up out of the filler neck, spilling over the sides of the tank, and then boiling off of the hot engine and sizzling off of the exhaust pipes. I’m frantically grabbing at the handle trying to get it to shut off. Finally, after a few seconds of this, it does shut off and I can put the nozzle back on the pump.

    I go inside to pay for the gas and to tell the attendant that the nozzle stuck. Her response? “yeah, it does that sometimes”. Sheesh. If the gasoline had ignited it could have been fatal.

    • 0 avatar
      FormerFF

      Actually, I have been involved in a vehicle fire. When I was a teen my father owned a small apartment building. I was cutting the grass there when I heard a noise and looked up to see an elderly driver crossing the road in front of the apartments, then piling into two cars in a motel parking lot. She looked absolutely stunned, so I ran over to see if I could offer assistance. A couple of adults came over as well, and since she was not injured, we got her out of the car and started to walk away from it. I had just taken a couple of steps when I hear a “whoomp”, and turned around to see her car burning. Now I took off in the other direction to find a phone, as this was in the days of land lines. The fire department came by in short order and put an end to the fire. No one was hurt, but three cars were destroyed.

    • 0 avatar
      Dan

      “… the nozzle continued to flow gasoline, coming up out of the filler neck, spilling over the sides of the tank, and then boiling off of the hot engine and sizzling off of the exhaust pipes.”

      That’s describing every single time that anyone has tried to fill anything with an EPA spec gas can.

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    Corsica from Lordstown? I’m dubious

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    My father often tells the story of the carburetor of a nondescript Ford he owned catching fire. He had no access to water so he got up on the bumper, unzipped his zipper and did what any resourceful man would do to extinguish the flame. He and the Ford survived

    • 0 avatar
      loner

      I dunno, man. If my car were on fire, I’m not sure my bladder would cooperate with such a plan. Heck, I can’t even pee if someone is standing at the stall next to me!

      • 0 avatar
        Lie2me

        I know mine wouldn’t, when under pressure my body has a tendency to shut down normal functions

        • 0 avatar
          sgeffe

          Ah, paruresis! “Bashful bladder!” “Performance anxiety!” Phobia of public urination!

          When I had what turned out to be kidney stones a year ago, I spent an extra 90 minutes in the ER because I couldn’t produce a specimen! Finally, after fifteen agonizing minutes (on the second trip to the bathroom to attempt the feat), I was able to fill the specimen cup enough for the sample!

          I don’t think I could produce enough in that situation to be able to wet down a fire, even after consuming more than my share of beer!! Hell, I’d be worried about a backdraft or something else!

  • avatar
    loner

    ’83 Honda Accord. Left the lights on at school, so had it jumped and headed home.

    After 15 minutes or so, I arrived home and went into the house, unaware of any problem.

    However, after another 5 minutes I went back out to the car and found the front right corner on fire, which is the area of the battery.

    We stopped the fire quickly, but even a small fire can melt a lot of plastic in the engine compartment and do a lot of body damage. The car was totalled out.

    I always figured the battery was the source of the fire but never really figured out a mechanism.

  • avatar
    MiataReallyIsTheAnswer

    Never have, and I’ve owned several Fieros. They were GT’s, though, and what most people don’t realize is the fire issue was just the early 4 cylinders. I think if I owned a 4 cyl Fiero I might welcome the flames.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    No fires, but, my ’76 Vega GT used rigid steel fuel line running from the gas tank (factory in-tank electric pump) to the firewall, then a piece of 3/8″ rubber fuel hose to connect to another section of rigid line mounted in brackets, running forward to the inlet (fuel filter housing) on the carb.

    Vega engines (except for the Cosworth) didn’t use a crossflow head design, so the fuel line ran above the intake and exhaust manifolds. The combination of air conditioning and Texas summer heat would cause the 3/8″ rubber hose to harden and deteriorate over time, and one time while I had the hood open and the engine running, I noticed fuel dripping on the exhaust manifold and boiling off, a definite “Oh sh-t!” moment. After seeing that, I replaced the rubber hose, and replacing the hose became an annual ritual (a five minute process).

    • 0 avatar
      TimK

      Vegas routinely emitted flame from their carburetor when turning off the ignition enticed the engine to run backwards in some miracle of automotive engineering. Good times…

  • avatar
    danio3834

    Yes. An incident involving a 1992 Grand Marquis and roman candle fireworks.

    Also, ’93 Corsica V6? Hot. I had an ’89 4 cylinder back in the day and I could only dream of keeping up the V6 hot rods.

    • 0 avatar
      MiataReallyIsTheAnswer

      That 3.1L hauled butt in those small cars. Even better in about ’94 when they upped the HP about 30 and dubbed it “3100”.

      Same engine as in bigger stuff like Lumina and the dustbuster vans, so in the smaller stuff it was a lot of fun. My pick is the optional 3.1L in a Cavalier wagon, had to look for the badges on the front fenders as the only telltale. Basically a Z24 wagon.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    I have seen a few car fires over the years, and I now carry a 5lb. A-B-C dry chemical extinguisher in the Tacoma (it might help me, or someone else, someday).

  • avatar
    TimK

    My daughter drove a hand-me-down ’96, 5-speed Accord that would not die. Twenty years old and everything still worked. Some a-hole at the oil change shop didn’t put the filter gasket on right and enough oil dripped out onto a wire bundle to make a wick… The fire was small, but it destroyed the wire harness and totaled the car.

  • avatar
    285exp

    I got out of my 1977 320i in the parking lot of a local watering hole and found smoke pouring out from under the hood. Fortunately, one of the patrons was leaving the establishment with a full beer, which I effectively employed to extinguish the blaze. Try that on a Tesla. A leaking valve cover gasket allowed oil to drip onto the exhaust manifold and it ignited when I stopped. Replaced the ignition wires and the gasket and all was well, at least for a given value of well when describing a 1977 320i.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Air cooled VW’s I knew a few people who had to deal with a real Reichstag. A neighbors gold Sunbug went up in flames due to a rotten fuel line. My next door neighbors 412 sedan had a electrical fire resulting in a insurance settlement. A high school friends 411 wagon caught fire in the parking lot of a nightclub. That was fuel related.

  • avatar
    volvo

    93 Volvo 945T. Driver’s power seat motor caught fire. Pulled to curb and homeowner put out with hose. Damage only to seat and airbag controller below seat.

    Insurance wanted to total the car (pretty much do that whenever fire is mentioned).

    I found replacement seat on Ebay and replaced it myself.

    Lots of electronics in that seat for motion, heaters and airbag controller.

  • avatar
    MBella

    Never happened to me, but I’ve been involved with the repair of a few. The one thing I would say, is that if the vehicle is fully insured, don’t try and put the fire out.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve shared this story previously. Had a customer with aftermarket taillights on their ML350. The seals were not good, and water leaked inside. It filled up the rear cargo area, and submerged the pump and electronics for the power tailgate in water. This shorted out, and caught the vehicle on fire. The customer noticed this, and proceeded to get some buckets of water to put out the fire. He was successful. By the time the fire department arrived, they asked him why he didn’t let it burn? When it arrived at the dealership, he was asked the same thing by nearly everyone. Even the insurance adjuster asked the question. If he would have let it burn itself out, the insurance would have totaled the car and wrote him a check. Now he had to wait for the body harness to be made, and everything back there to be replaced.

  • avatar
    Dilrod

    I’ve seen a couple doozies over the years. Heading south on I35 I saw a new (early 90s) Suburban, pretty 90s graphics on the side, with smoke pouring out of the open doors and two men frantically trying to disconnect a small trailer.

    A few years back there was a car fire in our apartment parking lot. A young cop tried putting it out with an extinguisher but beat a hasty retreat when all he accomplished was making more smoke. There was a red Mustang parked in front of it that sustained a badly melted front end. I suspect the Mustang owner just kept the check, or bought it back if totaled, as she continued to drive it like that for a couple years.

  • avatar
    chris724

    When I was about 13, my dad’s Porsche 912 caught fire a few blocks from our house. I will never forget turning around and seeing the flames. The fire dept put it out fairly quickly, and the car was eventually restored.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    After she retired my mom bought an 88 Tempo, pleasant enough little car. Tranny went south after 5 years or so, she sold it to my brother’s father-in-law.

    Brother is in his shop working with his volunteer-fireman partner when the scanner starts squawking about a car on fire. “Hey, isn’t that your father-in-law’s address?” asks partner. Sure enough, the car spontaneously combusted as he was driving up the dirt road to his house. RIP Tempo.

  • avatar
    NeilM

    In 2008 a friend and I drove out to Watkins Glen in my M3 track car to help the local BMW Club chapter with instructor training. Never having been there before I went out with a local instructor to learn the track, after which he jumped in my car to give me a quick couple of laps coaching.

    As we rounded the Outer Loop (Turn 5) acrid smoke started to pour out of my footwell. My passenger quickly waved me over to the cut-through that the Nascar racers use for the short course, eliminating the turns 6-9 ‘boot’ section. I pulled over on to the grass and we both jumped the hell out of the car. You’d be surprised how quickly you can shed a 6-point harness when sufficiently motivated! I had turned off the key and saw that the smoke stopped almost immediately, so realized the the fire was electrical in nature. I do have a Halon extinguisher mounted to the roll hoop behind the driver, but didn’t have to use it.

    After being towed back to the garages I pulled the inspection panel in the driver’s footwell, finding a bundle of fried wiring. Not going to be fixed here, now, or by me. A Good Samaritan at the track loaded my car on his race trailer so we could take it to a shop in Rochester, about 90 miles away. I left it there for repair and picked up a rental Camry at the airport, then went back to the track to complete the weekend.

    Since I didn’t have my own car to drive on track I used those of our instructor candidates. One was a Porsche 911 Super Cup car that the guy had bought used — “one owner, only driven weekends” — when the formula rules had changed. That was fun!

    After driving back to Indiana in the rental, I flew out to Rochester 3 weeks later, picked up my repaired car and drove home without incident.

  • avatar
    macmcmacmac

    A friends Fiero 2m4 lived up to its name one year. Something about an oil leak onto the exhaust manifold that was apparently a well known issue with this car.

    I also watched in wonder as a guy attempting to install a new stereo sent his obvious “pride and joy” Ford Ranger up in smoke when he neglected to install a fuse on the 12V supply wire. It’s ahrd to work the hood latch when flames are licking at your fingertips.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Loving the stories, I hate working on fire jobs .

    When I was working in the L.A. Mayor’s garage we still had 1972 Chevy Impalas and one boob caught the same car on fire TWICE the same day ! .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    Marc Ramsey

    At the tail end of my alleged college years (’76 or so), I picked up a used cheap but still very quick ’74 Alfa GTV 2000 (they were all cheap after 2 or 3 years in New England) and my then kinda girlfriend was driving us to her apartment one night down the main drag in Worcester, MA when she spots a 427 Cobra up ahead (it had to be real, replicas weren’t a thing back then). She catches up to him at a the next light and starts chatting with him (he had the top down, of course, despite it being 10F or so). I know what she’s planning next (the car was fast, but that was totally non-sensical), but I’m more like whoa now, why is there smoke coming out from under the hood? She’s pulls over reluctantly, when I pop open the hood more smoke (or, uh, vapor) billows out. I yell for her to cut the ignition, then note that one side of the engine compartment and the block is almost completely wet, quick finger tip taste says gasoline. As should have been expected, I suppose, the fuel lines between the forward (high pressure) fuel pump, and the (mechanical) injection pump were made of crap rubber, after a few years of salt spray, the return line split open. Luckily, gasoline doesn’t necessarily ignite easily. I pulled out my toolkit (it was an Alfa, after all) and while I didn’t have a hose the right size, I did have electrical tape, which was enough to get it back home. Proper fuel lines went in the next day. That car pretty much disintegrated into a drivetrain and seats surrounded by rust a two years later, but it was fun while it lasted. I replaced it with a new Le Car (complete with cloth sunroof, bad idea in urban areas) and while it had it’s own set of fun stories, the fuel lines did remain intact during my ownership.

  • avatar
    55_wrench

    Fall of 1975 or so, my daily driver was a 1965 Corvair Monza. At one point I installed an IECO ram air system that used a single Rochester 2GC 2bbl instead of the stock twin 1 barrels.

    It was fussy when cold, ran great at WOT when warm and even returned 32MPG during the 1975 CORSA convention economy run meet in Seattle.

    The carb sitting up so high left little or no room for a proper air cleaner, so I just went without.

    One morning turning left into the JC campus, it started running poorly, probably a stuck float. With the resulting extra fuel flooding the carb, all it took was one backfire thru the carb and the barbeque was on. Flames all over the engine compartment…

    Local FD was called and it took 6 huge dry chemical extinguishers to put it out.

    A reporter from the campus newspaper asked for a comment, I asked him to not run the story and sure enough my baked Monza ended up on the front page of the next issue.

    It cooked the carb, battery and wiring harness and all paint aft of the firewall, but I was able to rebuild it..but the smell persisted for about a year even after the repaint.

    And I went back to the twin 1 barrel carbs and stock air filter after that.

  • avatar
    dividebytube

    My first roommate in college had a beater 80s Ford Escort that started on fire. He was driving home and noticed a wisp of smoke coming from the hood. By the time he pulled over, it had turned into an inferno; destroying the entire car.

    The guy was walking bad luck – lots of weird things always happened to him.

  • avatar
    dividebytube

    I forgot my own story until now: I was mucking around with my 355 powered Monte Carlos SS. There wasn’t enough room for a proper air cleaner so I had one of those cheap Edelbrock foam units that was a chrome triangle. It looked cool but…

    I got a backfire that started the foam on fire. While it was burning, I unclipped the brackets, pulled off the metal case, and plucked the burning foam (What was I thinking?) off the carb with a bare hand. That carb was never the same after that – and luckily my hand wasn’t badly burnt.

  • avatar
    jdmcomp

    I remember my father, a used car dealer, who was driving a 1960 Thunderbird he had traded for several times, it just kept coming back. On a buying trip the carb burst into flames on the interstate so he pulled over quickly and walked away from the car. A helpful truck driver stopped, grabbed his extinguisher and opened the hood. Soon the fire was over but the 460 CI engine was missing a carb. The truck driver took one look at my father and said, “I am sorry”. The car was insured and my father was rather tired of seeing it.


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