This past Sunday, something new happened to me me after almost 30 years of driving several different cars, all of them aged to 10+ years old and well into the “needing stuff fixed/replaced” part of their lives: my car caught on fire.
I was coming home from a road trip, having just driven 300+ miles from Annapolis, MD to Flushing, NY (in Queens, NYC), with a NJ Turnpike rest stop and refuel point along the way. I pulled into a supermarket about 2 miles from my home to buy supplies for dinner.
Upon getting back to the car after that 15 minute excursion, the car wouldn’t start.
And not in a way I was familiar with: the rr-rr-rr-rr of an engine that tried to start repeatedly with a weak battery, or the click-click-click and flickering dashboard of a battery too weak to engage the starter motor, or the total silence of a car that didn’t even attempt to start because the battery was 100% dead, or wasn’t entirely in “Park”, because of some immobilizer feature of the security system that was disengaging the starter, a non-functioning fuel injector, or (on a stick shift car) because I hadn’t put the clutch in (this car is an automatic, anyway).
I’ve experienced all of those, but this time it was different: the starter gave one “rr”, as if it was going to start the engine - but the engine didn’t start, and then it all stopped.
This is a 2008 Acura MDX, a ten year old car that I’ve owned for about 8 years (I got it “lightly used”).
I had just driven it 300+ miles from Annapolis, MD home to Flushing, NY, with a stop on the NJ Turnpike for food and fuel, with no problems, and had pulled in to a supermarket parking lot about 2 miles from my house; the car had been running fine just 15 minutes earlier.
The car has had a few aftermarket enhancements: a Viper car alarm with a remote start feature, and some aftermarket audio upgrades (amplifier, speakers, etc.), put in 8 years ago.
After 5 or so attempts at starting the car with the key, checking the usual reasons like “is the car in Park”, I gave the remote starter feature a try, which automatically tries 3 times before giving up. It had the same problem.
At this point, between my efforts by hand and the remote starter feature, I would guess I’d tried to start the car maybe 10 times total, when smoke began rising from under the closed hood. I popped the hood and I could see an open flame coming from the bottom of my car, below the the battery.
The FDNY arrived shortly afterward to deal with it, by which time the smoke was still everywhere, but the flame itself had fortuately died out. They removed two 80A fuses and said to try starting the car again, to no avail. They said “it’s because your aftermarket audio amplifier overloaded the starter.”
I eventually got the car towed to a service station, who replaced the starter, which had overheated and burned, which fire also melted some of the wiring, including the heavy gauge wires from the battery to the audio amplifier. They also said, “the aftermarket amplifier probably drew too much power,” pointing to the scorched wires that they’d removed from the battery that lead to the amp.
They also said my battery had failed cells and that they couldn’t start the car without jumping it every time, so I needed a new battery. That surprised me a bit since my car had not had any difficulty starting before the incident, and as I checked later, the battery was only about 2-1/2 years old (from Feb 2016). But OK.
I took the car to my audio and alarm installer, who I’ve trusted to do the installs on 5 of my cars over 25 years (including this one), after using several other shops I’ve felt were far less competent and knowledgeable. They said it was the usual case of blindly pointing the finger (as dealers and mechanics will do) at a non-OEM part as the culprit just because it’s easy - “this shouldn’t happen, that wasn’t there from the factory, so, there’s your problem!”
At the same time, my wife pointed out that the FDNY and car mechanic have professional POVs about “what started a fire” and “what parts are risky”, while the audio shop would obviously never admit to any kind of blame (which could result in liability) associated with an electrical fire.
After consideration, I’m inclined to believe the audio shop’s angle. Should I reconsider?
The starter caught fire, which is UNDERNEATH the battery, and the wires leading to the amp were burned. Fire goes up, not down. So the amplifier’s wiring was a victim, not the cause.
Electrical wiring doesn’t “short out”, electrical connections do, unless the cable had gotten chewed through by an animal or something, which it doesn’t look like it was.
In addition, as I’ve said, all my cars for the past 30 years have had aftermarket amplifiers, with no problems like this. It’s not like running an aftermarket amplifier is a high risk thing, I found that a suspiciously facile explanation. And I’m not running massive amps powering an array of subwoofers here, either - this is a family car, it’s just a single five-channel amplifier.
Besides which, the amplifier is drawing power constantly, while driving. The starter draws power only while starting, and this fire occured after repeated attempts to start the car. It’s the starter that caused the fire.
The question is, how does that happen and why? I’ve had problems starting a car before, and done the “many times trying to start the car” thing, and never smelled smoke or seen a live flame before.