Our Lousy Column finally did someone some good.

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | May 01, 2002

Dear Tom and Ray:

I saw your recent column on car fires. I am a fire investigator for the city of Lynnwood, Wash. Earlier this year, I had to investigate a fire in a 1976 Toyota Celica. A mechanic neglected to replace the oil fill cap on the valve cover after changing the oil in a customer's vehicle. Needless to say, oil was pumped out the fill hole and down the right side of the engine onto the exhaust manifold. The customer drove home and noticed blue smoke when she got out of the car. She carried her packages into her house, then returned to the car to determine the cause of the smoke. By the time she returned, the engine compartment was on fire. Luckily, a neighbor noticed the smoke and fire before she returned to the car, and had called the fire department. The fire was contained to the engine compartment, and relatively little damage was done.

The fire-department company officer determined that the cause of the fire was engine oil on the exhaust manifold. He took some Polaroid pictures and explained to the owner what had happened. She called the mechanic to complain. The mechanic looked at the car and denied that he had any responsibility. The mechanic could have repaired the car for less than $150, but apparently the corporate policy is to deny responsibility. In desperation, she called me. I suggested that she file a claim in small claims court. As she could not afford an attorney, I was her only credible witness.

Fires and the causes of fires are often difficult to explain to the layperson, but it is particularly difficult to explain them in court. And one of the very last things I did before leaving for this appearance was an Internet search on exhaust manifold fires. I found a Car Talk column from October 1998 in which Ray stated that oil fires are more common than gasoline fires. He went on to say that fires can start when a large amount of oil is spilled on a hot exhaust manifold. My only problem with the article was that the heading stated "Click and Clack Talk Cars." I didn't think the title was appropriate for an expert witness in a courtroom, so I buried it deep in my file in case the court asked for my notes. Sure enough, the court asked for my notes.

As I was explaining the physics of combustion to the judge, he found Ray's comments in the back of my notes. At least he was kind enough to let me finish my sentence before he stopped the proceedings. He held up his right hand to indicate that our discussion had ended. In his left hand was the Car Talk article with "Click and Clack" at the top. I felt the blood drain from my face. I looked at this poor woman, who lost her only means of transportation, and I thought that I had just lost the case for her.
Instead, the judge said that he listened to your NPR radio program every week. He knew all about Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers. It was the turning point in the trial, and the lady won her judgment. It wasn't much of a car, so she only received $650 plus filing fees, but at least she got something out of it.

Thanks for the help. I just thought you would like to know. -- LeRoy McNulty, Fire Investigator, Lynnwood Fire Department

RAY: Glad we could help, LeRoy.

TOM: Write us again and let us know what that judge is doing for a living now.

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