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MG TD TF 1500 - Fire and smoke!!!!!

Returning home from a recent 500 mile 3 day rally in my TF I had every drivers nightmare occur.

Towards the end of day three and just 10 miles from home, an intermitent fuel pump problem I have had occasionally, began again. I had travelled some 490 miles without this happening but like all problems of this sort, it will always occur just when you are not expecting it. I pulled over onto the shoulder and gave it a few minutes and then tried to start the engine. She turned over but didn't seem to want to kick into life (as she has at other times when I have had this trouble).
After about 8 to 10 seconds, the starter cable suddenly came away in my hand, at the same time that the motor continuously kept trying to start - the starter motor was chruning over and I had no way of stopping it! Then my wife said that she could smell smoke and a moment later smoke and flames began coming from the slat openings on the drivers side of the engine panel. I quickly gave the order to "abandon ship".
I then lifted the bonnet and quickly removed the battery kill switch to stop the starter motor running. I could see that the flames were coming from the starter switch area where the rubber insulation was on fire. Fortunately I was then able to rapidly extinguish the flames.
It took a few minutes for the adrenalin in the bloodstream to reduce sufficiently before I was able to put my head under the bonnet again and see what had caused the problem. Everything was covered in black soot but it was possible to see that the starter switch (hot side) had melted. There was no way I was going to be able to drive so it was a couple of hours waiting on the roadside for the tow truck to come to get us home.
A couple of days later - I was too traumatised to get into it earlier - I cleaned all the soot away and removed the battery, the starter switch, and the cables between the battery and the starter motor. They were all well and truely cooked! The initial problem seems to be that the insulation in and on the starter switch failed and caused the full power from the battery to flow unimpeded through the switch and short out through the switch body. The resultant heat melted the rubber and plastic insulation on the cables which then caught fire.

I have learned a few lessons from all of this that I though I should share with this BBS.
1. Thank goodness I had a battery kill switch installed.
2. Always carry a fire extinguisher in the car.
3. "Tow home" insurance is well worth it.
4. If you are renewing anything and one part looks OK but the rest needs replacing then replace the OK part too. (When I did my renovation, the starter switch was the only part of the electrical systen I didn't replace.)

Finally, the good news here is that I have the car up and running again. Total repair cost was around $120 plus a new battery, and not counting the fuel pump overhaul that I should have done some time ago. The flames had done no damage to the paintwork but it was a pain cleaning soot from every surface in the engine bay.

I have attached a photo of the offending switch for you to see the damage.

TF 9901

Bill Tutty

Bill - Don't know if you have had your overhauled, but it not, I can recommend Tony Oliver in Australia. He will do and overhaul and the the same solid state modification that I do. His web site is

Glad you got the fire under control before it did any damage to the car. Cheers - Dave
David DuBois

I will look over my switch when I get the car out of storage next spring...thanks for the posting & valuable lessons learned. Glad you're back on the road...will the wife ever ride in the car again??!!
Bob Doc
Bob Dougherty

I sure am glad that you were able to save the car and you and your wife were able to get out with out harm!!!!!
As you say "the starter cable suddenly came away in my hand".... this would make me think that the internals of the switch failed,, mabey the cable connection at the bar that is pulled by the cable to connect the terminals failed, thus letting the bar short out,, A very scary thing to happen for sure!!!
I have seen this happen once before,,,,.
IMHO, if the cut off switch was mounted inside the car (under the dash) , you could have safer access to it to cut the power a lot sooner and without as much danger of bodily harm than when you have to go into the engine compartment where the fire is to cut the power.

Steve Wincze

Bill, First, glad you and the wife are ok, that is number one priority! Second, nice to know the car didn't get much damage. PJ
Even though I take my batteries out when the cars are stored, there will be a disconnect switch installed!
P Jennings

Whilst at the British Invasion in Stowe in Sept. there was a vendor offering an after-market starter switch. I looked at one closely and am of the opinion that it is from Asia.

He also had a couple of NOS originals which were 3 times the price of the copy.

Bill, as a result of your message,I am going to re-install my battery cut-out switch, which I removed a couple of years ago, but due to laziness, never replaced.

Thanks for your story. We can all benefit from it.

Gord Clark
Rockburn, Qué.
Gordon A Clark

So glad that wasn't worse!
For those reading this in the archives years from now...he's right:
"1. Thank goodness I had a battery kill switch installed.
2. Always carry a fire extinguisher in the car."

Having helplessly watched my Austin nearly burn to the ground 30 years ago in a rain storm ...I could not agree more!

IMHO: You did leave one out though:
Carry a spare pair of underware.

Just curious...Are you poss or neg ground?
I know ...shouldn't make any differance, but what fried my Austin was a short in an unfused headlamp circuit caused by a rain storm. Ever since all my LBC's have been changed over to "neg" and additional fusing added. I just feel safer that way.

Hope she is back on the road soon...let me know if you need some "new smoke"!

David Sheward

David, where did you get the rare and sought after Lucas smoke generator? You never know when you will need one! George
George Butz

Thanks guys for the supportive comments. The TF is back on the road now with a new starter switch and cabling, none the worse for the experience.

Dave DuBois: Thanks for the contact in Australia for servicing fuel pumps but in our club we have someone who also does this (and he tells me he sends them to the US after rebuilding them! - he may be breaking into your market Dave!).

Bob : Although the wife commented at the time "I've gone off old MG's!!!" She seems to quite enjoy the occasional adventure.

Steve : The reason the starter cable came away when I pulled it was because it had melted through just where it contacts the metal body to go through the firewall. There was still a short length held in the cable to switch coupling. I agree with you though that it would have been quicker to have had the battery isolator switch inside the car rather than in the engine bay by the battery.

David : The TF is positive earth but I don't think that this would have had any material effect on the cause of the fire. The old switch was 55 years old and the insulation was simple past its use-by date!

We are having superbly warm summer weather in NZ at present and I feel for all you northern hemisphere types who are suffering in an unusually early snowy winter blast. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone.

Best regards,
Bill Tutty

This thread was discussed between 20/12/2010 and 21/12/2010

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