The bang and the flash came out of nowhere as Mike Tennant manoeuvred his 2015 Hyundai Sonata into his driveway.
“A large flame came up over the hood and I jumped out of the car and ran to the door and said, ‘Patty, my car is on fire!’ I was shaking so bad I couldn’t dial 911,” he said.
It had only been about 15 minutes since the Cambridge, Ont., man picked up his car from the dealership after servicing.
His wife, Patty Atwell Tennant, called the fire department and started filming on her phone as the fire spread and engulfed the car.
Tennant says the images of his futile fight to bring the blaze under control — starting with a fire extinguisher, then a garden hose — are seared into his memory.
“I had nightmares that would wake me up with the panic of what we went through, seeing the fire, the potential of what could have happened,” he said.
Atwell Tennant adds: “I was afraid for my family at that point.”
The fire department responded quickly and prevented the blaze from spreading or injuring anyone. But Tennant’s top-of-the-line Sonata — a 50th birthday present to himself, which cost some $40,000 — was a write-off.
A charred scar on the Tennants’ driveway was the only remaining sign of the drama that had unfolded metres from their home.
Well over a year after the fire, there is still no official cause and no agreement about who is responsible.
Experts weigh in
Tennant took his car, which he says was well maintained, in for routine servicing on Nov. 9, 2021. He picked it up later that day.
Go Public asked two experts if the cause of the fire might be related to the service, showing them videos of the burning car, plus the service records detailing the work done at the dealership that day.
Eli Melnick — an electrical engineer, licensed mechanic and forensic investigator — says the fire has all the hallmarks of being fuelled by some kind of accelerant.
“I would say that gasoline is probably the most likely fuel that fed the fire in this case, judging by the intensity and height of the flames,” Melnick said.
Another key indicator, he says, is that it took approximately 15 minutes from picking up the car to when the fire ignited. That’s the time it typically takes for an engine to reach operating temperature. “And that’s hot enough to cause fire,” Melnick said.
Matt Carpenter, an instructor and expert in automotive mechanics at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, agrees the fire appears to be fuelled by an accelerant, but warns against drawing conclusions.
An accelerant would account for the size and spread of the fire, but not the root cause.
“I don’t think it’s possible that we could find out what’s happened,” he said. “The vehicle has burned down, so we really don’t have any evidence remaining.”
There is no evidence anyone investigated. A spokesperson for the Cambridge Fire Department said it doesn’t investigate vehicle fires unless there is serious injury or something suspicious, like signs of arson.
The couple’s insurance company, Allstate, sold the charred remains for salvage.
“With any claim, our adjusters evaluate the details to determine if an investigation is required,” the company said in a statement. But it would not say whether it conducted one.
The dealership didn’t investigate either because, it says, Allstate didn’t think it was responsible.
“If the insurer had thought that the dealership was responsible, then they would have … permitted the dealership an opportunity to have its own investigator look at the vehicle. “
A gap in the system
George Iny, president of the Automobile Protection Agency, says the case is an example of a gap in the public safety system that reveals itself after many of the approximately 10,000 car fires that happen across Canada annually.
He says because automakers aren’t required to report such fires to Transport Canada, patterns pointing to safety defects could be missed, meaning investigations and recalls could be delayed, putting the public at risk.
Atwell Tennant immediately reported the fire to the dealership. When there was no resolution with Cambridge Hyundai, Tennant lodged a complaint with Hyundai Canada about seven months later.
Iny says it’s a problem no one is required to report these fires to the federal department.
The aftermath of Tennant’s fire was “business as usual,” he said.
New regulations coming?
Transport Canada is working on proposing new regulations that would require car manufacturers to collect information on fires and report them to Transport Canada to help identify safety defects.
For Iny, such regulations would be a welcome change, one that could help Transport Canada move more quickly on safety defects.
“It has every chance of doing that,” he said. “It is very likely that it will shorten the lead time before you reach the threshold for a recall.”
In the meantime, Tennant and Atwell Tennant say they’ve been left to swallow much of their costs. Allstate paid $16,472.95 for the car, which Tennant says he planned to drive, payment-free, for another four or five years. He has since purchased a new Honda.
A service manager at Cambridge Hyundai told them he was recommending to management a reimbursement $1,196.03, for the service appointment, plus a dealer discount on a new Hyundai.
Tennant said he’d take the money but didn’t care about the “next to nothing” discount.
But that service manager is no longer with Cambridge Hyundai, which has so far refused to offer any compensation.
The dealership says it’s “sympathetic” but has seen no evidence it’s liable for the fire.
“Unsubstantiated allegations and theories do not constitute evidence,” it said in a statement.
Hyundai Canada has indicated to Go Public a resolution between the dealership and the couple could be forthcoming. It also said, following its review of the matter, it has identified “concrete ways” customer service can be improved.
Tennant and Atwell Tennant say the whole experience was traumatizing.
“It just, it floors me that they [the dealership] were so dismissive of it. They took no accountability,” Tennant said.
His wife nods in agreement. “I guess I was just expecting a little bit of assistance and kindness, considering what we had gone through.”
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