Famous Toyota Prius Plug-In Conversion Catches Fire, Then Explodes

MAR 10 2013 BY STAFF 9

The Prius Conversion In Happier Days, Seen Here With Owner Ron Grembam (left) and CalCars Co-Founder Felix Kramer

The Prius Conversion In Happier Days, Seen Here With Owner Ron Grembam (left) and CalCars Co-Founder Felix Kramer

In a time when no one else was making plug-in cars, and while all the major automakers said the idea was not a viable one, Ron Grembam set out to convert his standard Prius into just that.

And he did it.

Firefighters Put Out Prius-Blaze Tuesday Night (photo via IJ photo/Alan Dep)

Firefighters Put Out Prius-Blaze Tuesday Night (photo via IJ photo/Alan Dep)

Through his association with Calcars, Mr. Grembam’s original plug-in Prius is quite famous.  As the story goes, in 2004, and with about 50,000 miles on his Prius,  Mr. Grembam added a larger battery pack (and a plug) so that it could run for an extended range on electricity alone.

Later in 2010, with the hopes of achieving over 100 MPG the car’s equipment was replaced by Plug-In Conversions Corporation of Poway, Calif (who no doubt would not be thrilled to hear of the car’s demise).  Additionally, the old batteries where replaced with a new 6.1 kW nickel-metal-hydride pack.

Unfortunately sometime on Tuesday night, the car caught fire and subsequently exploded, doing $250,000 worth of damage to the owner’s house and apparently killing a cat.

In a interview with the NY Times on Thursday, Felix Kramer, the founder of CalCars noted, “This unfortunate fire unequivocally has nothing to do with today’s production plug-in hybrids.”

Garage Fire Does $250,000 Worth Of Damage

Garage Fire Does $250,000 Worth Of Damage (IJ ohoto/Alan Dep)

Meanwhile, Mr. Grembam, said he could not pinpoint the cause of the fire itself.

“It’s not obvious.  The car exploded and apparently destroyed all the evidence.” The converted Prius was charging at a 120-volt outlet (at 8 amps) at the time of the incident Mr. Grembam added,  “that shouldn’t be enough to overheat the battery pack. That deepens the mystery.”

The accident was controlled in about 30 minutes by the Corte Madera Fire Department, and an investigation is currently underway.

Obviously aware that the public is very sensitive about any bad press when it comes to plug-in vehicles, Mr. Grembam said, “This incident very well might make a dent in aftermarket conversions. It would give anybody pause. But I’m hoping it doesn’t affect the market for O.E.M. plug-in vehicles.”

NY Times, Photo via Marinij.com (Alan Dep), Hat tip to Alan C

Categories: Crashed EVs, Toyota

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9 Comments on "Famous Toyota Prius Plug-In Conversion Catches Fire, Then Explodes"

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Bad news indeed. I used to have a conversion Prius too. I can’t imagine what would have caused that.

Not the first plug in conversion to catch fire. Or the first hybrid. Or the first gas car. Car fires are so common they are not newsworthy.

EVs will likely end up giving us reduced fire risk, but not zero risk.


Over the past 30 years, my family has had two separate gasoline cars go up in flames: one after an A/C repair the car died on the interstate and then roared into flames, and another car from a carburetor backfire on a test tune-up going around the block without an air filter fitted. So, gasoline car fires are not infrequent news anywhere in the country, on any given day.

That’s some large NiMH cells right there. Out of balance cells or over charging them could make one of them go-up. Important to have a good BMS for NiMH as well as Li-Ion.

test 123

nimh cells will vent hydrogen if overcharged, and that is flammable at low concentrations.. unlike lithium-ion the electrolyte is not flammable..hopefully automotive grade nimh cells should have a thermal fuse built-in at the cell level.

That does suggest that something went wrong with the charger, allowing it to go to higher voltage and overcharge the battery. A fuse would not blow, as this situation would not be high amperage. Also the battery may not have gotten very hot, just hot enough to vent hydrogen. A build up of hydrogen will create a large explosion when ignited.

Just a note about hydrogen fuel cell cars. The most common designs (maybe even all now) use compressed gas tanks which should be relatively safe, but some earlier proposals had refrigerated liquid hydrogen. This type would vent hydrogen every once in a while to keep it cold. You would not want to do this in a confined space like a garage.

I forgot to add that this scenario pre-supposes that the explosion caused the fire, not the other way around. Static electricity (from the cat?) or a spark from an opening contact could ignite the hydrogen.

For several years, Ford Expeditions had a fault in their crusie control modules that caused many, many house fires before Ford finally recalled them all.