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Hot Wheels: Why Cars Catch Fire

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Why Cars Catch Fire

You may want horsepower, but you don’t want a chariot of fire.

You are driving down the highway on this beautiful day, and you smell something funny.

“Something’s burning,” you say. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have abandoned that leftover Rapid Fired Pizza in the car last night.”

You look to your right, and straight ahead is a parked SUV engulfed in flames off to the side of the road, creating a thick mushroom cloud in the sky.

This was me years ago, except I didn’t have Rapid Fired leftovers in my car because the pizza chain did not exist then. Those were some dark days. Of course, there is no such thing as leftover pizza when I visit the restaurant.

Getting to the point, perhaps you have found yourself in this situation. You may have been responsible enough to dial 911 for help and get a “Thank you, we know” response.

First responders may know about the car on fire, but do you know why cars roast like a turkey on Thanksgiving Day?

Many factors strike the match on real-life “Hot Wheels.” They can individually be the underlining factors or collectively cause your grille on four wheels to transform into a grill for four meals. Here are some reasons why cars catch fire.

Overheated Engine

An overheated engine is a prime example of one problem leading to another. It won’t ignite your vehicle into a great ball of fire, but it will cause your oil, coolant, transmission fluid, brake fluid and power steering fluid to rise to hazardous temperatures. This leads to these internal fluids spilling out throughout the engine bay and exhaust system, creating a recipe for a bonfire you will not admire. The culprit for an overheated engine can be a leaky seal or gasket or a malfunctioning radiator. If you find that your engine is constantly overheating, seek out an auto mechanic immediately.


No one may bear a grudge against you, but that does not mean your car could still be set on fire. Criminals may strike a match to cover up a burglary or to participate in the sick practice of vandalism. There is also insurance fraud, but I am going to assume a good person is reading this and avoid that motive altogether. To prevent your lit ride from going literal, I’d suggest you keep your car parked in your garage or out of sight overnight. During the day, keep it parked in an environment where there are surveillance cameras and security.

Fuel Leaks

Fuel leaks are very common reasons for cars catching fire. They can be random like that one girl and mom knocking on your door one evening selling Girl Scout cookies after you just made dinner. At 45 degrees Fahrenheit or above, gasoline can ignite effortlessly with a spark, and gas that hits 495 degrees Fahrenheit will light itself. Checking for leaks in your garage and monitoring your miles per gallon will help you steer clear of heated exchanges with your vehicle.

Overheated Catalytic Converters

You may have experienced burnout in life, but if there is one part in your vehicle you don’t want to overwork, it’s the catalytic converters. These are often the hottest elements in your car and run the entire span of your vehicle in the exhaust system. If they burn off more exhaust pollutants than they can handle, things can heat up fast. Whether they are overworked or clogged, catalytic converters can quickly go from 1,200 to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, endangering your cabin’s insulation and flooring. One thing you can do to thwart your car’s cats from being abused is replacing your spark plugs.

Catalytic Converter

Photo: Ballista

Car Accident

No matter how your vehicle is built, heavy damage to your car can have an impact on your ride exploding into flames. The most vulnerable impact sites are the engine, battery and gas tank. Regardless of where the collision occurs, a fluid leak or spillage is probable during a car crash. If you are not trapped in your vehicle following a car accident, get out immediately, and make sure you are a safe distance away from it. If you are trapped inside, call 911.

Car Accident

Careless Maintenance

Let’s face it. We are all human. Some days we don’t feel like putting forth effort. We want to stay in our pajamas, curl up on a couch and watch reruns of Dukes of Hazzard. I know because like Peter Parker, I too am brilliant and lazy. However, ignoring your dashboard notifications or forgetting to change out parts in your car when it is time has consequences. So be a good ol’ boy –or girl— and get your vehicle serviced when duty calls. If you are careless, you will eventually be car-less.

Car Battery and Electrical Wiring Failure

Whether you own a hybrid, electric vehicle or normal car, car batteries can breed danger. A battery’s charging sequence can set in motion a buildup of unstable hydrogen gas under the hood of your vehicle. This makes proper car battery maintenance all the more essential. The streams of electricity from the battery along with any flawed wiring can then unleash a vehicular hell only nightmares are made of. Sparks fly, cars fry, and you will cry. Electrical wiring runs throughout your car, so it is important to be aware of any electrical issues.

Car Battery

Faulty Designs

Fortunately, there is no red button you press in your cabin to set your vehicle ablaze. If there was, I would simply advise you to not press that red button and end this article. Nevertheless, car manufacturers do find flaws in their products and issue recalls. While a design defect will not directly fire up your set of wheels, no car company wants to burn their customers. Check your email often and stay informed online. If your car is recalled, take action. Your life may depend on it.

These are just some common ways your car could run a hotheaded fever. Proper care and knowing the symptoms of fiery vehicle problems will save you cash and spare you the event of driving in a burning ring of fire.

Source: How Stuff Works