The last thing a driver expects when he gets behind the wheel is that his vehicle will catch on fire. Unfortunately, for thousands of drivers over the years, this has been the reality. While some automotive fires may be random, other cars have been prone to catching on fire or even exploding — causing property damage and even taking lives.
The Ford Pinto may be the most well-known of these explosive cars, but it certainly isn’t the only vehicle known for self-combustion. In the 1980s, Pontiac faced scrutiny for its sometimes-flammable Fiero and more recently, General Motors faced a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigation of its new Chevrolet Volt. These are just a few examples of famously fiery and explosive vehicles from the past four decades.
The Ford Pinto’s fiery history was rooted in the 1970s. Ford was facing increasing pressure from Volkswagen in the small-car department and brought what would soon become the best-selling subcompact in the nation to market. Unfortunately, Ford’s rush to get the vehicle on dealer lots left consumers holding the bag — and driving a vehicle with a faulty design. The placement of the tank, a mere 9 inches away from the rear axle, left the entire car vulnerable in the event of a rear-end collision.
Writer Mark Dowie focused on the explosive Ford Pinto in his extensive investigative journalism piece that appeared in a 1977 issue of Mother Jones magazine. In the article, a conservative estimate of 500 burn deaths could be attributed to the Pinto’s faulty design, with less conservative estimates reaching as high as 900.
While the Pinto story brings back old memories, the Chevy Volt’s problems are relatively new -- with headlines that are more explosive than the car itself. In December 2010, General Motors introduced its first range-extended electrified vehicle, the Chevrolet Volt. The Volt is capable of driving up to 50 miles in all-electric mode, and a gasoline-powered system extends the driving range another 325 miles.
As would be expected with any new-to-market vehicle, the Chevy Volt underwent extensive testing by the NHTSA. About three weeks after the Volt was put through a side-into-pole crash test (along with other rigorous and extensive testing), the car caught on fire. This led the NHTSA to probe deeper, specifically addressing if electric vehicles were more likely to catch fire than their gasoline-powered counterparts.
Ultimately, the NHTSA closed the case, saying that electric vehicles did not pose a greater fire risk than gasoline-powered vehicles. As for the Volt, General Motors is enhancing structural protection of the lithium-ion battery and began repair work in February.
BMW also has a current and potentially fiery problem on its hands with the January 2012 recall of nearly 89,000 Mini Coopers that might spontaneously catch fire. The culprit is an electronic circuit board on certain turbochargers. The circuit board has the potential to malfunction and ultimately overheat, and the result is a smoldering water pump that may lead to a fire in the vehicle’s engine.
Fortunately, the scale of the problem was nowhere near that of the Ford Pinto. According to official NHTSA documents, “by November 2011, there were 81 known cases of auxiliary water pump failure worldwide. Four of these cases included a burned engine compartment…” and no accidents or injuries related to the issue were reported.
Recalled models include certain turbocharged versions of the Mini Cooper S, Cooper S Clubman, Cooper S convertible and John Cooper Works produced between model years 2007 and 2011. For more information on the specific vehicles involved in this recall, view the NHTSA Recall Acknowledgement.
Let’s roll the clock back again and go back to the 1980s. Early in the decade, General Motors brought a sporty two-seater to market, the Pontiac Fiero. Although the vehicle was an instant success in the sales department, General Motors stopped producing the car a mere five years later, partly due to Ralph Nader’s declaration that the Fiero was another flaming mess of a car.
Like the Pinto, the Fiero’s fire problems were in the back of the vehicle, specifically the engine compartment. The Fiero ran hot and was prone to oil leaks and in some cases, the leaking oil would drip onto a hot exhaust manifold, causing a fire. But this wasn’t the only known cause of fire in the Fiero. Reports from a GM proving ground test showed that a faulty radiator hose led to a fire during a test drive.
Ultimately the multitude of reported fires led to a recall notice by General Motors for all 244,000 Fieros manufactured. In the notification of recall sent to then NHTSA Office of Defects Investigation Director Dr. Michael B. Brownlee, General Motors stated, “from our studies we have concluded that improper owner maintenance and improper service procedures continue to be the principal causes of engine compartment fires in four-cylinder Fieros.” That’s right, every Fiero fire — including the one that happened at the GM proving grounds — was a direct result of faulty maintenance and not related to a possible design flaw on General Motors’ part.
Ferrari 458 Italia
The fires in the 458 Italia quickly consumed the entire vehicle. (Photo: Spanish Coches [CC by 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons)
Automotive recalls aren’t limited to automakers that manufacture millions of vehicles a year. Luxury Italian automaker Ferrari had its hands full with the 2010 recall of the $230,000 458 Italia. In some instances engine heat could cause the rear wheel housing and heat-shield assemblies to deform. Once deformed, the units were dangerously close to the exhaust system. If the exhaust generated enough heat, an adhesive on the shield assemblies could overheat and catch fire.
Unfortunately for several unlucky Ferrari owners, the assembly didn’t just catch fire locally; some fires quickly engulfed the entire vehicle. Although Ferrari takes its time when manufacturing its luxury supercars, the vehicles can be destroyed by fire in mere minutes. (That's the aftermath of a fire above.)
Ferrari ultimately issued a safety recall on Sept. 2, 2010, of the 303 Italias affected by the design flaw. Thankfully for Ferrari owners, the fix was simple and new protective heat shields were installed to rectify the problem.
Ford’s mega recall
Ford executives thought they had a media relations nightmare on their hands in the 1970s, but at least it prepared the organization for a more recent series of fire-related recalls. During a 10-year period that stretched from 1999 to 2009, Ford Motor Company issued eight different recalls for a total of more than 14 million vehicles equipped with a faulty cruise-control deactivation switch.
In October 2009, the largest single recall in Ford’s history was announced when 4.5 million vehicles equipped with the faulty switch were recalled. Models in that recall included the popular Ford Windstar, Ford Explorer and Ford Ranger. At the time, owners were advised to park their vehicles outside and away from any structure until they received official recall instructions.
The faulty switches, manufactured by Texas Instruments, were known to leak hydraulic fluid. The leaking fluid could overheat, smoke and possibly catch fire, even when the vehicle was parked and turned off. Over the course of that 10-year recall period, hundreds of fires were reported and thousands of complaints were logged by the NHTSA.
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