Picking the right fire extinguisher for your classic

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

Fire burns hot no matter the day or occasion. It doesn’t care if it breaks out during a quiet drive through the countryside or a major race on the international scene. 

Many competition venues have required fire-suppression systems for decades. But what about your street or show car? Go back to the first sentence of this article: Fire burns hot no matter the day or occasion. Cracked fuel lines and stuck floats happen, and fire is a possible result. 

In the pre-show paperwork, we do ask that they bring a fire extinguisher,” states Chris Brewer, director of event communications for The Amelia. While carrying any fire extinguisher is better than no fire extinguisher, are you toting around the right one? 

Know Your ABCs

Different classes of fire exist, depending on the type of material that’s burning. These are the three classes you’re most likely to encounter in a car or at the shop:

  • Class A: Combustible materials like paper or wood.
  • Class B: Flammable liquids and gasses, including gasoline.
  • Class C: Energized electrical equipment.

Before you’re tempted by one of those $20 extinguishers from the hardware store, consider the cleanup. Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Consumer-Grade ABC Extinguisher

You’ll find these general-purpose extinguishers for sale at your local home improvement center. They contain a dry chemical, likely ammonium phosphate. 

  • Pros: Huge availability, pricing starting around $20 per extinguisher, rated for A, B and C fires. 
  • Cons: That dry fire-fighting agent is corrosive and tenacious. So while you stopped the flames, you also filled every nook and cranny of your car with a corrosive powder. Have fun cleaning. Powder can also compact due to time and vibration.

Consumer-Grade BC Extinguisher

These also line the shelves at your local big-box store, and prices also start around $20. The big difference: These BC dry chemical units feature sodium bicarbonate, a fancy term for baking soda. So while they’re not rated for Class A fires, the agent isn’t corrosive. 

  • Pros: Effective against many automotive-type fires, easy to source at a very fair price. 
  • Cons: Not effective against combustible materials, and that sodium bicarbonate will also find every crevice in your car–again, expect a big cleanup job. 

Aqueous Film-Forming Foam

When it comes to motorsports, a lot of fire-fighting systems use aqueous foam as an agent, AFFF for short. It’s basically a nontoxic, soapy water-like solution that’s rated to fight A, B and C fires. In addition to the complete systems plumbed into race cars, hand-held AFFF bottles are also available at prices starting around $100.

  • Pros: An environmentally friendly ABC fire-fighting agent at a fair price. 
  • Cons: Initial bottle cost plus two-year recertification process of about $75. While the agent is easy to clean from some surfaces, AFFF can fry electronic components while making a mess of soft interior parts–seats, carpets and the like. 

Halon Replacement

Halon served as a favored fire-extinguishing agent for decades, as it’s extremely fast and effective against ABC fires yet also non-damaging to delicate electronic components. No cleanup, either, as this liquefied gas dissipates after extinguishing a fire. But one problem: Halon depletes the ozone layer, so its production has been largely banned since the ’90s. 

Today, though, halon replacements exist, offering all of the halon performance benefits without the environmental impact. These halon replacements come from several companies, including 3M (Novec 1230), American Pacific (Halotron I) and DuPont (FM-200). Halon replacements can be found powering many higher-end fire-suppression systems–found in both in motorsports and general industry–while hand-helds for automotive use are offered from companies like Lifeline USA and SPA Technique. A 1-kilogram bottle retails for about $250 to $275. 

Today’s Halon replacements, like this Lifeline Zero 360 hand-held bottle, cost more but won’t leave a mess. Photography Credit: Chris Tropea

“This stuff is safe for any electronics, and while you can saturate your interior with it, it will evaporate fairly quickly–like, a few minutes,” notes Brandon Marshall, brand manager at Lifeline USA. “So no cleanup–other than the fire damage–or potential for further damage.

  • Pros: Very fast and effective at fighting ABC fires, no residue left behind, easy on even the most delicate electronics.
  • Cons: The initial price and a requirement for service every two years at about $125.
Join Free Join our community to easily find more Safety and Fire Extinguisher articles.
More like this
View comments on the CMS forums
LostInTransit New Reader
3/9/22 3:50 p.m.

Thanks for writing this as I'm about ready to install two small extinguishers in the Transit Connect. In fact I have two custom made bracket/panels and I've not yet decided the best place to install them. maybe for your next article you write about where the extinguisher needs to be placed.


GameboyRMH MegaDork
3/9/22 4:43 p.m.

I like to say that the ABC powder type basically works by destroying the thing that's on fire so that the fire can't feed on it - it works by oxidation.

AFFF is good for not only stopping the fire but also helping to save the thing that's on fire, just be aware that it's not all that good for the environment or your health, it's basically a sudsy mix of "forever chemicals:"


David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
3/9/22 5:48 p.m.

So, true story:

A dozen or so years ago, we took our Porsche 911 on a classic car rally. The night before leaving, I (finally) read all the paperwork.

All cars shall carry a fire extinguisher.

I can't remember if there were specifics. I think the order was that simple: Carry a fire extinguisher. 

So I hit the local big box store and bought one. I'm all set, right?

Well, the car never caught fire, but ever since then, I've had this fear that it would the moment I removed the extinguisher. I believe I even replaced the original extinguisher with another from the big box store. I forget if it was AB or ABC. 

But lately I have been wondering: Am I even carrying the right kind? I should know better, right?

Back in the day, I worked for a shop that sold halon extinguishers, but we know that halon isn't easily available these days.

So, what should I really carry? Answering that question led to this article. 

Daisy911 New Reader
3/10/22 11:05 a.m.

I would also suggest the Element fire extinguisher; compact, lightweight, can be store in any direction, and lasts much longer than regular 2.5 and 5 lb bottles 

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
3/10/22 12:18 p.m.

In reply to Daisy911 :

We will check that one out.

ajmr2 New Reader
3/13/22 6:53 p.m.

I found this video among a couple others on the Element website.

I think we can trust Mr. Leno!



RadBarchetta New Reader
5/9/22 3:06 p.m.

That Element extinguisher is perfect! Added to my shopping list!

(It's important to note, since it's mentioned below, that the lack of a UL rating is not because of a performance deficiency, but because UL uses antiquated testing criteria that requires a fire extinguisher to have a certain physical appearance.)

Warlock New Reader
1/4/23 12:08 p.m.

I can vouch that the aerosol extinguishers work -- in this case, a First Alert Tundra.  An unnamed co-driver was making something in my oven that involved walnuts, and the oil from the nuts ignited...grabbed the extinguisher can off the counter, opened the oven door a crack (yes, it flashed, but we were expecting it), and put a 5-second burst inside.  Knocked the fire right out.  The burnt walnuts made a mess, but no residue from the extinguisher, and it wasn't close to exhausted (advertised to last 30 seconds).  Being an aerosol can, there are temperature limits on storage, but I've kept one in each car for a few years now without problems.

frenchyd MegaDork
1/4/23 10:23 p.m.

I went through Navy Firefighting instructors school.  We taught young men the art and science of fighting fires.  Not supposed to put water on an oil or fuel  fire?  The Navy does it all the time.  In fact most fires are put out that way including high voltage fires.  
    My point is there is always more than one. Way to skin a cat.  
  When that fire  is chasing oxygen and it's flashing right up on you it's very easy to panic.  Once you get over that fear a quick glance should tell you what you have to beat the fire.   The three legs of fire are fuel oxygen and heat.  Take one away and the fire is out.  I was working on  my BlackJack's fuel pump and it squirted gas at my belly. The wire I was holding sparked. Big fire in my face but a quick belly flop put it right out and I wasn't burnt in the least. OK, singed a little;-) 

The point I'm making is that panic causes most burns. It's typically fastest and easiest clean up to just starve fire of oxygen.  

kabinenroller New Reader
1/5/23 10:50 p.m.

I carry a BC and an Element, both are within easy reach of the driver.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/20/23 10:22 a.m.

Some related chatter from the Grassroots Motorsports forum: Have we had a fire extinguisher thread lately?

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/20/23 8:15 p.m.

Came across this on the way home tonight. 

erutherford New Reader
3/19/23 2:13 p.m.

An extinguisher is part one.

Knowing how to properly extinguish a fire is part two.

Also know how your cars fuel is delivered (gravity feed, electric pump etc.)

Shut off the the source of fuel first if possible.  You can go through an extinguisher pretty darn fast without shutting off the source.

Don't open the hood real fast if there is flames, that's a big rush of air that will create a much bigger problem real quick.  Burns are the worst injury you can have!

Always snickered a little when we pulled up on an auto fire and there was 5 empty extinguishers on the side of the road and the car was still buring.  Practice using one if you get a chance.  Your local fire department probably has public classes on the proper use of extinguishers.


David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
3/21/23 4:02 p.m.

In reply to erutherford :

Good points: know how to fight that fire as well. 

ktisdale New Reader
8/13/23 12:02 p.m.
Our Preferred Partners