Can a Dodge Caravan spontaneously combust?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Aug 01, 2001

Dear Tom and Ray:

Is it possible that my van ('94 Dodge Grand Caravan) burned on its own? Or was it vandalized? The whole engine compartment burned up. I hadn't driven it since 4 p.m., and at 3 a.m. my daughter woke me up to tell me that the front yard was on fire (it was actually my van in the driveway). Can a vehicle spontaneously combust? -- Chaya

RAY: Yes it can, Chaya. It's actually not spontaneous, but it would seem that way to you.

TOM: Cars usually catch fire because a wire gets chafed somewhere. The initial damage happens most often during an accident or a subpar post-accident body repair. But it can also happen during regular engine repairs or when a misrouted wire harness has its insulation rubbed away by another part of the car.

RAY: Once the bare wire is sufficiently exposed, it can short out against the car's body or frame and then start drawing current from your battery.

TOM: And if it draws enough current over a long enough time, it can generate enough heat to make the wire's insulation smolder. And from there, it's a short leap to igniting surrounding parts, the fuel line and the front lawn.

RAY: I'd say vandalism is very unlikely in this case, Chaya. Especially since the fire was in the engine compartment. I think it was just bad luck.

TOM: So just be glad that you and your daughter were both unhurt and that the only casualty of the whole affair was a 1994 Caravan. I think that's what doctors would call "an extremely positive outcome."

Get the Car Talk Newsletter