Try Not To Get All Fired Up . . .

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Forget about the American Express card – there are more important things the classic car owner should never leave home without.

A portable fire extinguisher. Do you have one for your antique/special interest vehicle? If you don’t, remember: All it takes is a leaky fuel line or a bad backfire through the carb to ignite an underhood conflagration that can reduce your prized antique/collector vehicle to a smoldering ruin in few minutes. I learned this myself – the hard way – back in the late ’80s, when I lost a VW Beetle to a run-amok engine compartment fire. Unless you’ve experienced it firsthand, you probably don’t realize how fast an oil/gas/grease fire can consume a car. You’ve got maybe a minute or so to get it under control. After that, it’s time to break out the Hebrew Nationals, be Zen about it and enjoy the blaze.

A fire can happen to any car, but if you own an older machine – especially something built before the 1990s that has a carburetor (instead of fuel injection) or a car built shortly after fuel injection became widespread in the late 1980s but before the mid-1990s (when our “gas” began to be systematically adulterated with ever-increasing concentrations of ethanol alcohol) extra vigilance is called for.

Carbureted older cars often have leaky carbs. Raw fuel sometimes just seeps out and puddles around the base. Carbs also expose raw gas/fuel vapors directly to the atmosphere . A backfire – especially if the air cleaner is off because the bitch won’t start and you’ve just shot some ether into the throttle bores – can (and often does) lead to an engine fire.

Early EFI cars, meanwhile, can have issues with fuel leaks arising from aging seals/hoses that were never designed to handle ethanol-laced (and more corrosive) “gas.” Also, EFI operates at much higher pressure – 30-40 psi or more vs. the typical 4-6 psi for a carbureted car. So even a small leak can lead to big trouble, fast.

Older vehicles – carb’d or EFI’d – are also more problem prone by dint of just being old. Add long periods of just-sitting-there between occasional pleasure drives, aging rubber seals and gaskets, loose hose clamps and maybe some frayed wiring on the verge of grounding out and arcing sparks just inches away from the raw gas vapors wafting out of your Q-Jet and you’ve got all the makings of an auto-da-fe.

Even if you have full coverage insurance, money won’t bring back your beloved antique/collectible vehicle – perhaps a machine you’ve sweated over for the last 20 years. All that work and man-to-sheemetal-bonding … gone, forever.

But the part you’ll be regretting most is that the whole thing could have been avoided had you spent the $40 or so it costs to get a good quality automotive/shop fire extinguisher – and had the sense to keep it with you in the car. Instead of the small hassle of having to clean up a slightly crispy engine compartment – and maybe having to tow the thing home for repairs – you’ve got a burned out hulk and memories.

If the prospect of such a grisly – and unnecessary – death is not enough to move you, then maybe only the school of hard knocks will learn ya. But smart gearheads will see the wisdom of acting pre-emptively; many already have. If you are around the hobby long enough, eventually you will need some way to put out a fire fast – whether to save your own car or someone else’s. And, check your insurance policy. Some classic vehicle  policies  have caveats making coverage in case of fire  damage contingent on  having  an extinguisher  with the vehicle or present where it’s garaged. At the least, you may qualify for a discount.

There are compact models on the market designed specifically for carry-it-with-you automotive use. These smaller units are in the 1-2.5 pound range and typically come with brackets so that you can install them snugly wherever it’s convenient. Most use dry chemicals; some of the newer ones (such as are offered by H&R) use Halon or some other inert gas, which is less messy but a bit more expensive. What matters most, though, is that the model you buy is “ABC” rated for flammable liquids, chemicals, gasoline, grease and electrical fires. Don’t hose a car fire down with water. You may just spread the flames and make a bigger mess. In a pinch – if you have a shovel handy – dirt works. If you have neither dirt nor an ABC-rated fire extinguisher, forget it. Call 911 and back away.

Also: Remember to check your fire extinguisher regularly for over or under-pressure and replace (or recharge) it as necessary every few years. A car fire will ruin your day but it’s really miserable to experience a car fire, reach for that fire extinguisher you bought for just such an emergency…pull the pin and press the trigger… and nothing happens. Embarrassing, too.

Don’t let it happen to you!


  1. Very good advice. I keep one in my classic Vette, but I keep one in my new one and two in my truck as much to help others I find stuck on the side of the road as for myself. Thankfully I haven’t had to use them.

    I have seen an older car’s gas tank explode only 20 feet in front of me while driving in heavy Dallas traffic. A fire extinguisher was of no use as the whole car was literally engulfed in flames within 30 seconds. No one was hurt. And it was nothing like the dramatic explosions in the movies. It was a rather subdued “thump” and a pillow of fire rolling out from under the back end. This started a second fire under the hood such that the car was on fire at both ends. Within 2 minutes the entire car was a burnt out hulk on the shoulder.

    Keep an eye out for rectangular piles of ashes on the shoulders of the roads you travel. Each one of those represents some car that went up in flames. Keep the extinguisher within easy reach, not locked in a toolbox where it’ll take longer to get to.

    • Thanks Brian – and, welcome to the site!

      I learned my lesson those many years ago. Now I consider having ready access to a fire extinguisher to be as important as having ready access to one of my pistols…


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