Case of the Month: 1933 Buick Fire

Feb 1, 2016 by

A 1933 Buick sedan burned in a fire. GEI was assigned to inspect and photograph it to identify the point of origin of the fire and the fire cause.

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The Buick was in the process of various restorations and upgrades. For a vehicle of this vintage, there are two mutually exclusive paths to follow, both of which have their ardent devotees. The first path is to restore the vehicle to its original glory. The goal is to make it look, sound, smell, and drive as if it just drove off the showroom floor in 1933. The drawback to this approach is that automotive technology has come a long way. 1933-era ride quality, acceleration rates, and braking ability are woeful compared to what is common today. Durability is another major issue as engine, transmission, clutch, brake, and tire components lasted only a fraction of what they do today. Accordingly, there are supporters of the “bring it up to today’s capabilities” school of thought. For this Buick, the owner belonged to the second camp. The Buick now had a high performance V8, an automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes, air conditioning, an upgraded suspension, disc brakes, big tires, comfortable bucket seats, and a modern sound system.

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Of course, the process of transforming the Buick from an antique to a modern, safe, reliable, comfortable, high performance show car was not easy. It takes a lot of trial and error, custom machine work, many hours of troubleshooting, and highly skilled mechanics to complete the transformation. Accordingly, the owner of the Buick had his favorite automotive repair shop to fix things when they broke and generally made modifications and upgrades as they became necessary. GEI’s client was the insurance company for the repair shop. They provided over a dozen repair invoices spanning eight months to review prior to the inspection.

This inspection was originally scheduled for a date in November 2015. The interested parties arrived at the auto salvage yard in Rancho Cucamonga, and although the vehicle was documented to be on site, no one could locate the vehicle. After taking a significant amount of time searching through their inventory, they found it at their San Diego yard, and the inspection was rescheduled for January 2016. During the time between inspections some components disappeared and the wheels were removed and replaced in a manner that damaged them.

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At the second inspection, our expert was joined by the owner of the repair shop, a representative of the owner’s insurance company, and an automotive expert hired by the owner’s insurance company.

The vehicle sustained damages from an interior fire that slightly burned forward into the engine compartment. The fire pattern suggested a slight left side bias, as indicated by the burn pattern on the left side running board at the driver’s door. Some of the front exterior components, including the driving lights, horns, and crossbar were now missing. The wheels were mounted but improperly secured. The knock-offs were severely damaged because someone beat on them with a metal hammer, presumably when they were removed by someone just learning about how to remove right hand threads.

The engine compartment components were examined and did not cause or contribute to the fire. The fuel tank was removed during the inspection and no fuel leaks were found. The fuel in-tank fuel pump was removed and tested. It was found in good, functioning condition. After the fuel tank, its pump, and wiring were determined NOT to be the cause of the fire, the opposition suspended their inspection. They were looking for evidence that the auto repair shop had done something to cause the fire. When it became evident that there was no evidence to support that assertion, they gave up, and left.

The interior of the Buick was highly modified. The stock seats had been replaced with four late model Ford Mustang bucket seats. The fire pattern suggested that the center of the fire area was located in the forward area of the interior. All of the combustibles in the interior were found heavily fire damaged or consumed by the fire.

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Our expert concluded that the aftermarket wiring routed to the aftermarket stereo unit was the probable fire cause, which was not work listed as either billed for or performed in the very detailed shop repair orders.

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