Hot Winter Night: The Monza catches fire
A fiery Italian name has its disadvantages
Classic car ownership is often characterized as a major burden. To the uninitiated it seems to be a never-ending struggle to keep those aged wheels turning. Constant maintenance, badly worn and hard to find parts, and the inescapable filthy reddish-brown demon that is rust are daunting prospects to any potential oldtimer owner.
What's no often mentioned however, is fire. Typically, spectacular displays of smoke and flame are reserved almost exclusively for temperamental, highly exclusive Italian supercars like the Lamborghini Gallardo and Ferrari 458. However, when you name a car Monza, you can apparently attract some of the same Mediterranean misfortune, no matter the actual nationality.
I had only just fitted a set of E46 BMW steelies with snow tires.
At least, that's what I found out while taking an ordinary trip to the supermarket. Or so I thought. Coincidentally, we were in the middle of a cold spell in the Low Countries, which often spells disaster for old clunkers like my 1978 Opel Monza 3.0E CS.
However, I had just fitted an upsized battery and steel BMW E46 wheels clad in Dunlop snow tires, so I was well prepared for the cold, ice and snow ahead on my shopping trip. Without issue, the big six fired up, and I was on my way.
After slithering through an icy street, I took a left and travelled down another, dodging speed bumps along the way. As I was preparing to take a right on an intersection in a residential area, the big Opel suddenly cut out.
No big deal, I thought. A car running exclusively on LPG (Liquified Petroleum Gas) usually as a temper when it comes to cold starts. The car cutting out after a few hundred meters was quite normal. But when I fired it back up, I was greeted with the sound of a very rough running straight six. The engine skipped a few beats and promptly died again. Something was clearly off.
I checked the LPG-converter, which appeared to be frozen. In an LPG car, the extremely cold fuel is heated up in the converter with the aid of engine coolant. Otherwise it's simply too cold to properly liquify and combust in the cylinders. This means when circulation is broken, the fuel freezes inside the converter and the car falls to a dead stop. Apparently though, enough was getting through to get the car to run, only very horribly.
The Monza in sunnier times, just after purchase.
This left me stranded with a mostly dead car in the middle of an ice-covered intersection. Leaving the Monza in the middle of the street clearly wasn't an option, but pushing it back wasn't either. The road was simply too slippery. Even if I would get it going, I'd never be able to stop the damn thing from careening into a nearby lamp post or parked car.
So with not further options, I resorted to bumping the car into a nearby parking spot on the clutch alone. Start it up, listen to it splutter, and then quickly engage the clutch to get it rolling. Car cuts out, repeat. After two cycles of this, I was in for an unpleasant surprise: smoke poring out of the vents on the bonnet. Oh no...
The fire department was fortunately quick to reach the scene.
Recognizing that the smoke was too thick and too dark to be steam, I rushed to open the bonnet to assess the situation. As soon as I did, a sizable flame came out of the intake manifold to play me the song of his people. I did not much care for his musings, dropping the bonnet in a quick reflex. While good survival instinct, this unfortunately forced me to run back to unlock it once again.
As if by role-call, the very much locked down neighborhood magically filled with people rushing to help. Along with a local man I manage to get the prop under the bonnet, and together we started throwing snow at the fire to keep it somewhat contained. In the process, we managed to extinguish the bonnet liner, the source of most of the thick, dark grey smoke.
Luckily the firemen were quick to extinguish the blaze.
However, we were unable to put out the pilot flame emanating from the intake, even with the use of a fire extinguisher. Unfortunately, the extinguisher proved to be far beyond its shelf life, as it only produced a weak stream of soapy water.
Police arrived to the scene after about ten minutes, but were of little help. Their fire extinguisher was apparently of the same vintage as the one that had been hastily handed to me. Luckily, a local woman had already phoned the fire department on my behalf. Shortly after the cops, a fire engine arrived.
The Monza cooling down.
After greeting my dad's fireman friend ("It could only have been you!") I filled them in on the situation. Car on LPG, cut out, caught fire. The men quickly rallied around the front of the Monza, but were unable to find the bonnet release at the front. After some fumbling by the firemen and shouted instructions from my side, it was finally open.
The flame had already dwindled somewhat, but had already seen fit to cast the air filter down into a recess near the right-hand headlight. Luckily, a quick squirt of the firehose was all that was needed to finally quell the inferno.
With the car saved, I thanked the firemen, pulled two cases of beer and a shopping bag out of the boot, and resorted to walking through the snow to a different supermarket. I still needed some drinks after all, perhaps more than ever.
Inspecting the damage, complete with COVID-induced hairstyle.
A few days later I returned to the scene to assess the damage. As luck would have it, there was actually very little. As the three liter block was a reverse flow design, there were actually very few parts with the ability to catch fire on the intake side of the engine.
Fortunately, that side really only contained a cast iron intake and exhaust manifold. Vital (and more flammable) parts like the ignition system, battery and coolant reservoir had remained virtually untouched.
The antiquated nature of the Opel Cam In Head engine had limited damage to a few melted rubber lines, a ruined throttle postion sensor, destroyed pod filter and an uncoiled return spring on the throttle assembly.
Additionally, the rubber around the intake had congealed to the LPG 'injector', a large circular piece which releases fuel into the intake manifold in the most indirect and crude way imaginable. Obviously, a section of bonnet liner had been lost as well, residue of which had found its way onto various parts of the engine compartment.
The air filter and disconnected petrol line took the brunt of the heat.
The affected lines seemed to be a crankcase breather line, an LPG fuel line and a petrol fuel line which had been disconnected. A disconnected petrol line sounds suspicious in a case of fire, but it wasn't actually in use due to shoddy installation work by the previous owner.
The man had apparently just slapped the LPG-system on in a hurry, not bothering to install cut off-valves to enable the car to switch between fuels. As a result, the Monza tried to mix its drinks, which as we all know is not something to be advised.
Another unfortunate quirk of his shoddy work was the need to keep the heater on at all times, as he had connected the LPG converter directly to the heater core. This meant that shutting the heater off would cut coolant flow to the converter, which in turn would starve the engine of fuel as the converter froze shut.
The circular silver part is actually a crude LPG 'injector'
Seeing the incredibly limited damage, I counted my blessings. It would have been a real shame to see the car go up in flames. I would likely never find another one. Currently, there are only 98 Opel Monzas registered in the Netherlands.
That does take into account the two different generations (A1, A2) of the model, nor does it make the distinction between rusty lawn dwellers and actual roadworthy examples.
It's likely the number of running, driving, reasonably rust-free A1-models is substantially lower. As a result, prices for decent examples have ballooned, with even the cheapest cars being advertised for well over €8000.
The Monza on the transporter, along with a 1981 Volkswagen Jetta Coupe.
Luckily though, my Monza was spared a passionate, emotional, and fiery Italian death. With the help of a mechanic friend (and some neighborhood guys) I was able to manually push the car onto a transporter and take it to our base of racing operations in a nearby village two days ago.
The Monza will ride again when the sun has returned.
There it will remain as I gather the parts to get it in working order again. First thing on the agenda: a total overhaul of the makeshift LPG-system.