Terry Box is a long-time friend of mine, former customer, and is the Automotive Writer for the Dallas Morning News. He had the unique experience of having a Ram truck catch on fire while he was reviewing it. Read his unique perspective here:
For a few hours last week, my copper-colored Ram pickup cruised the plains of North Texas like some overdressed Duke of Dallas.
Tall, broad and powerful, the Ram Longhorn Edition offered every option a truck-loving Texan would want: a Hemi V-8, crew cab, etched leather seats, 20-inch wheels, and eight-speed automatic and four-wheel-drive.
Need a hill? The proud, polished Ram could drag one in.
And at about 7 p.m. last Wednesday, it all disappeared in a thick column of acrid brown smoke on the side of the Dallas North Tollway — $54,335 worth of truck gone in about three minutes.
I was the old hillbilly-looking guy who hopped out of the Ram just south of the Trinity Mills exit and limped away from the truck.
If you were one of the two or three motorists who honked at me, offering what looked to be obscene gestures, I will try next time to stage my vehicle fires in a more convenient location.
I did come away from this with a clearer understanding of fires in modern vehicles, an extremely rare occurrence.
Nonetheless, they happen, and here’s what I concluded after Jordan Towing hauled the charred hulk of the once-handsome Ram away: Modern cars burn differently from old vehicles and it’s probably wise to respect that.
Open the hood of your late-model car or truck, and you’ll see a half-acre of plastic — actual engine pieces like valve covers, caps and containers for various liquids.
Thirty years ago, most of the pieces under the hood were metal and resistant to fire.
New vehicles are also equipped with high-pressure fuel pumps and systems designed to make their fuel-injection equipment more efficient.
Combine all that flammable plastic with what I suspect was a freaky failure in that high-pressure fuel system — I think the fuel line came loose from the engine — and you get an old hillbilly bailing out of a flaming truck on the tollway.
Here’s what happened.
I was headed home from the newspaper at about 6:45 p.m. March 20, sailing sublimely along at about 70 mph in the right, northbound lane of the tollway.
It was about 68 and sunny, and the sunroof was open.
Up to that point, the Ram I was test-driving had been flawless — very serious competition for anything built by Ford or Chevy.
As I approached the Trinity Mills exit, I caught a whiff of gasoline but didn’t pay it much mind. My sense of smell is extremely poor, and I assumed it came from an old Chevy pickup in front of me.
Within seconds, though, the Ram began to lose power and speed, dropping quickly to 50, 35 and then to 20 mph.
I headed for the exit, figuring I had some sort of bizarre computer problem and just needed to turn the engine off and reboot everything.
About halfway onto the ramp, I ran out of steam, stopped and turned on the emergency flashers — still oblivious to any potential danger.
As I unbuckled my seat belt, I noticed a gray Ford Explorer a lane over with a young woman gesturing at me from the passenger seat.
Stephanie Swindell, 24, an oncology nurse from Carrollton, was trying to tell me that the Ram was on fire — a fact I discovered as soon as I opened the door and saw flames snaking out of the left front wheel well.
Her fiancé, Daniel Fleming, was driving and had realized long before I did that my problems were much more serious than a malfunctioning computer.
“I was in the middle lane probably 100 yards behind you, and I saw cars quickly trying to get around you, like they wanted to get away from you,” said Fleming, also 24 and a corporate marketing manager for the Frisco RoughRiders. “I could see flames literally dripping off the truck. They came all the way out the back and seemed to grow and retract, like you were pushing on the gas or something.”
When I stepped out of the Ram — admittedly a little dazed — Daniel and Stephanie had already stopped ahead of me on the exit ramp and urged me to beat feet.
That was a bit of a challenge. I had foot surgery in mid-March and was wearing a heavy, knee-high boot. But I had no problem beating feet.
About the time that old Hop-Along had made it to a fairly safe distance in front of the truck, I realized I had left my workout bag and laptop in the backseat.
Though it is not something I recommend, I decided to go back for them. I estimate that only about 20 seconds had elapsed since I stepped out of the truck, and flames were already darting furiously from the hood, feeding a growing column of brown smoke.
From time to time, various containers beneath the hood would hiss and pop in a series of mini-explosions.
When I opened the back door to the truck to grab my bags, thick clouds of smoke obscured everything. However, it appeared that the front seats, steering wheel and dashboard were already in flames.
Daniel and Stephanie had called 911 and directed me to the back seat of their Explorer. We drove to the parking lot of Carrabba’s to wait for help and my lovely wife, Legs.
“I was really surprised at how fast that truck burned up,” Daniel said. “It took just minutes.”
Fred Diaz, CEO of Ram, was profusely apologetic about the fire — but certainly didn’t have to be. I couldn’t find anything to suggest that this was anything other than an extremely rare occurrence.
“We take these things very, very seriously,” Diaz said. “I’ve got to believe this is a one-in-a-billion situation. But we’ve got a team of engineers working on it, and we’ll figure out what happened.”
As the truck was losing power, I kept scanning the gauges for clues. Everything seemed fine.
The cooling system was still working, the engine had oil, the electrical system continued to function and I didn’t have a “check engine” light.
But everything around the engine was apparently smoldering or on fire.
A fire in a modern vehicle burns fast and furiously. What’s intact for the moment can be gone or enveloped in toxic smoke in a matter of seconds.
If you’re driving and see any indication of a fuel leak, get out of the car as fast as you can, and don’t go back for your gym bag.