Project Riff-Raff Part VI – Smoke W/O Fire

Near Fatal Short

For those of you following Project Riff-Raff, here is a quick rant on what just happened:

After a great day rooting out some minor issues with Craig @jerzy_goon I was installing the gauge cluster buttoning it up looking forward to cruising the beast soon. Testing the dash before bolting it in, I hear a whistle and sizzling sound. The cab fills with thick smoke as I run to the trunk and disconnect the battery and grab the fire extinguisher. The smoke clears without a fire and my 10awg ignition wire is fried from the key switch to the terminal block next to the solenoid. 

After three months of soldering terminals, following the wiring diagram, getting help from friends, and reading the instructions, I was ready to put the car back together. We tested all the circuits, fixed a few minor grounding issues, and ready for the final assembly. I put the light switch in the dash, just above the key switch. I have put the switch in maybe a half-dozen times in the past month. Testing it and working fine. I was getting pretty good at using the needle nose pliers in place of a special tool to install the light switch bezel.

It was all in, and before I bolted the gauge pod in, one final test to make sure the connections are live. I plug in the positive cable on the battery in the trunk, go to the key switch, turn the key and I see a spark under the dash. Hmm. I thought, I pull the dash panel out and inspect, nothing, turn the key again and the dash lights go on. YEAH!

Then I heard the pop, sizzle, and screech as the cabin instantly filled with white smoke!

I ran to the trunk turned off the battery, grabbed the fire extinguisher, stood at the ready as the smoke clears, I realize there was no fire.

Whew! But what happened?

My heart was racing a hundred miles per hour as I am sure exclaiming: “What The!!!” over and over again. After I caught half-a-breath and opened the back door to the garage, I ran in the house and got Billy. The smoke was still rolling out the garage door and into the evening sky. I can’t believe, I just about burnt my car and garage up. The truck was in the driveway in front of it, so pushing it in the driveway wouldn’t taken a lot of time if it caught fire. The smoke clears, but the stench of an electrical fire lingered for days.

The culprit was the light switch housing was just touching the corner of the ignition nut on the key switch below. The light switch housing was at about a 1:00 angle and the metal corner of the tray that holds the switch terminals was just low enough to barely touch the terminals on the back of the stock ’56 Ford key switch.

I can’t believe that the full power of the Optima Red Top and the thick ignition wire from the Ron Francis Wiring Express Kit didn’t burn the car down. Here’s my take on how a fatal short didn’t kill the car. I noticed while wiring up the car that the Ron Francis wire casing is very flexible and doesn’t burn like other brands of wire. We used a small butane torch to solder the terminals and the casing never fired up, or dripped. It simply melted a bit but usually balled up at the end if it got too hot. Looking at the burnt ignition wire which appears to be 10awg the casing appeared to have blown up like a balloon filled with smoke and popped. Where I had heat-shrinked the ignition wire with the other key switch wires the wire appeared to be fine. I ran about 4′ of heat-shrink under the dash and another 2′ with the fuse panel power cord through the firewall. In each case the wires appeared un-damaged. There was a corner of the carpet next to the fuse panel that was melted where the ignition wire turned around to go through the firewall. Other than that, no other damage until I can test the system again, which I will do when I re-install a new set of key switch wires.

Another factor of it not being a total melt-down was the quick sense to go shut off the battery. I have thought about this a lot, how did I know to go shut off the power in such quick heat-of-the-moment thinking? 

Anyone can wrench, install parts and such with a some decent tools, great friends and a few good noodles in the head. I think it  takes a moment like this that inspires us to do things we have never done before. To make something better than when you started. Pride comes from these experiences, wisdom comes from these experiences and confidence comes from these experiences.

Let’s hear your near fatal experience!