Illustration for article titled The Buick Fire

During the summer of 2002, I bought a 1988 Buick Century the exact same color as the one pictured. It had the craptastic “Iron Duke” four cylinder and a 3-speed automatic. I bought it from the Goodwill for $450 because I got a part-time job delivering pizzas and didn’t want to kill my nicer cars by driving 75 miles a night in traffic. I am absolutely not making up the part where I bought the car from the Goodwill for $450.

I noticed that it had an intermittent CEL and the trunk wouldn’t open until I pried open the glovebox and found the second key.


The odometer didn’t work, and eventually the door latch mechanism on the driver door stopped working so I had to crawl out of the passenger side. I decided that, since it was my $450 pizza car, maintenance would only be to fix what cost less than $100 and kept the car from being safe or moving. I never changed the oil, and only added it when the lifters started to tick.

After nearly a year of driving, the catalytic converter clogged and the pressure in the manifold caused the O2 sensor to jettison while driving.

So I parked the car (due to the hot exhaust now filling the engine compartment and melting the wires for the radiator fan) and the next day welded a piece of plate steel over the O2 sensor hole. It died in a most spectacular fashion a few days later — June 11, 2003:

I was driving from Hickory to Charlotte with a friend of mine (who was 6'1" and about 500 lbs) and the engine started to knock really badly. It sounded like a handful of nickels in the dryer. We didn’t think anything of it because it was a $450 car and I would just abandon it if it died. The knock got progressively louder on our trip down 16 through the country and farmland of the North Carolina Piedmont.


It got very, very bad as we approached I-85 and decided that instead of hanging out in Charlotte all night, we should head back home to Mooresville. We headed up 85 to pick up I-77, which, at the time, was undergoing a widening project. There were only two lanes with no place to pull over except for exits and the occasional construction entrance between the concrete barriers.

As we merged onto 77 north, the knocking became more pronounced. I was aware of the noise, as I had spun rod bearings in the past. I was sure that was what it was. We kept the car moving as quickly as possible but the power was down. Smoke started to billow from the rear of the car. It was getting bad, quickly. Then smoke started coming from under the hood.


Then smoke started blowing from the vents so we fully opened the windows. The engine then stalled. It wouldn’t start back up but we were moving at about 60 mph so we had a ways to go. I saw a break in the barriers and hit the brakes to try to steer between them. The brakes were completely gone. I made my way between the barriers and was now on the chewed-up tarmac, bouncing away. I had to make a decision — do I hit the emergency brake and risk sliding and rolling, or do I say try to stop the car otherwise?

I threw the car into park at about 50 mph and the car ground to a stop. My friend got out of the passenger seat and dropped his phone. Then, I didn’t see him at all. I grabbed my phone and climbed out of the passenger seat. By the time I was out of the car, he had gone over a hundred yards to the highway entrance. I had never seen him move so fast in my life.


I walked down to meet him, lit a cigarette, and turned around. There was fire coming from the hood of my car. Traffic slowed as people watched my beat-up Buick began to engulf itself in flames. By the time I called 911, fire trucks had already been dispatched to my location.

We heard an explosion — the front of the car buckled up. The battery had blown. Then we heard all four tires go. Then went the gas tank. I heard stuff flying above me.


When the fire trucks arrived, there were 30-foot-tall flames coming from the car. It was an awesome sight.

The state trooper that took the incident report gave us a ride back to Mooresville. It was embarrassing but my sister was kind enough to drive us both home.

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