Case of the Month: A Bentley Fire

Mar 1, 2016 by

The insured parked her late-model Bentley Continental on the street overnight. In the morning she came out, opened the door, and found that the interior was burned. She had no idea how the damage occurred. Nothing was plugged in. She did not smoke, she did not leave anything flammable inside, and she believed it was locked with the alarm set overnight. There were no witnesses. She did not call the police or the fire department since it was no longer burning, but called her insurance company to report the loss.

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Garrett Engineers was assigned to inspect the Bentley to determine the point of origin and cause of the fire. We were additionally assigned to determine if any recall issues involving the vehicle could have caused or contributed to the fire.

Our expert examined the exterior of the vehicle. No exterior fire damages were found. The cloth of the convertible top had a cut over the right front seat. However, no smoke, singed edges, or heat patterns were found on the edges of the sliced area. This indicated that the roof was cut after the fire was extinguished.

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The interior of the vehicle was examined. The fire damaged the sides of the right front foot well carpet, glove box door, right side of the dash, sun visors, the inside layers of the convertible top, and the convertible top’s header panel. The fire was centered and reached its greatest intensity on the top of the right front foot well floor mat.

The heat and flame damage diminished in all directions away from the right front foot well. No indications of liquid pour patterns were found in the area of the front seats. A very sensitive hydrocarbon vapor detector did not find any flammable liquid residue in the right front foot well or in the surrounding areas. The cause and origin of the fire was the ignition of an unidentified combustible material on top of the floor mat in the right front foot well.

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The “low intensity” fire activity diminished in all directions. However, all four of the floor mats (not just the right front) were missing from the vehicle when we inspected it. The carpet under the now-missing floor mats was undamaged.

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The fire probably self-extinguished due to a lack of oxygen in the closed interior.

No other fire points of origin or fire sources were found in the interior of the vehicle. No short-circuits or other pre-fire issues were found to the wiring routed to the stereo unit, the ignition switch, the auxiliary power sources, or the Heater Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) control panel. The fuse box was examined, and the fuses were found in good condition.

The engine compartment was briefly examined and was unremarkable. No indications of fire, theft, or vandalism activity were found in the engine area. No mechanical issues were found in the engine compartment. The wires, lines, hoses and supporting components of the fuel injection, power steering, air conditioning, and automatic transmission systems were found in place and displayed no indications of concern.

As of the date of our examination, and from the data made available by the NHTSA website, no fire related open recall campaigns issues were found associated with this year, make, and model vehicle.

So what most likely happened? We had flame damage, no evidence of a defeated alarm or break in, missing floor mats, no mechanical failures, no electrical failures, no aftermarket wiring shorts, and no flammable liquids.

Someone started a fire burning on top of the right front floor mat using combustible materials like paper, leaves, wood, or cloth. After the fire went out, we can guess that they changed their mind or got cold feet. They removed whatever evidence they thought might point back to them – the floor mats, and the charred fire remains on top of the right front floor mat. That answers the what. The who and the why are still open questions.

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