Burning question: why do cars catch fire?


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It’s always been a bit of a mystery to me. You listen to the traffic report on Radio 5 Live, and find out the jam you’re stuck in is the result of a car on fire a couple of miles up the road. But how and why does a car suddenly self-combust?

I suppose the same question must have crossed the mind of poor Helen Clements, who was driving her two children through the lion enclosure at Longleat Safari Park at Easter when flames started shooting out of the engine of her 4x4. Imagine that. Your car is on fire, your 12 year-old daughter and 10 year-old son are in the back, and the only escape option is to get out of the vehicle and hope Leo isn’t wandering by, wondering about what’s for lunch.

I’d sort of assumed it must only be ancient rust-buckets that would ignite, but Ms Clement’s car – at least when viewed through the smoke and long grass – seemed to be a modern family MPV. So does that mean we’re all at risk? Causes of conflagration The answer is that pretty much any car, not looked after properly, is a potential fire risk. I’ve asked around a bit, and here’s five things that could mean smoke gets in your eyes…

  • Overheating:  Engines get hot – fact. They also have ventilation and cooling features that should stop this being a problem. But if something corrodes or goes kaput, there’s a chance the intense heat could result in something catching fire.

I used to trundle around in an old Peugeot which got smoky hot under the bonnet, especially, for some reason, when crossing Barton Bridge on the M60. My solution was to turn the heating fan on full in the belief it would draw heat from the engine – and while it always worked for me, I wouldn’t necessarily rely on that technique if your temperature needle strays past the perpendicular. Stopping (safely, of course) and letting the engine cool down is the better option – with a trip to the mechanic a subsequent priority.

  • Maintenance: Or, rather, the lack of it. There are lots of flammable fluids in a car, so any kind of leak is a threat. Another good reason to have the vehicle serviced regularly.
  • Electrics: Whether it’s the wiring or the battery, there’s a chance sparks might fly at some point, igniting some of the flammable muck that gathers in the nooks and cranny of an engine. Again, a maintenance issue.
  • Cabin accidents: These would mostly involve cigarettes and carelessness, but there have been instances where strong sunlight has been focused on some point in a car’s interior and caused a fire. So go easy with those coffin nails, and park in the shade if possible.
  • Design fault: This would probably be my cause of choice if I found myself saying “Hello, puss-puss” to a big cat as I fled from my burning saloon. At least I could dodge the blame and point the finger at the manufacturer, opening the door to all manner of potentially lucrative lawsuits.

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There are other potential causes of car blazes, of course. It might catch ablaze as the consequence of a road accident, or it might be deliberately set on fire by an arsonist or particularly vicious vandal. But those you hear about on the radio while you drum your fingers on the steering wheel? One of the above is the culprit, I suspect. And if you think it couldn't get much worse than your car going up in flames, spare a thought for this poor family who's car caught fire in the middle of a Longleat Safari Park's lion enclosure...  

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