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What is a Backfire?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 23, 2024
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Just about everyone has heard of a car backfire before. The backfire is used as an element of comedy in movies and television shows, often providing a thick blanket of black smoke that provides plenty of laughs. Other people have been nearby when a car would backfire, often startling people and animals who may think they have just heard a gunshot. Essentially, the backfire occurs when a buildup of gases within the engine of a running vehicle suddenly ignites and pushes through the exhaust system to create a loud boom. Here is some of the background on how backfiring occurs, and what to do if your vehicle begins to backfire.

Sometimes referred to as afterfire, backfiring can occur when a blockage occurs somewhere within the internal combustion engine of any vehicle. Often, the backfire has an origin in the adjustment of the carburetor. Since the carburetor in older type engines helps to ensure the mixture of gasoline and air is maintained properly, any adjustment that throws off the balance could lead to the collection of gas fumes within the unit. Also, this same sort of condition can take place in the intake manifold of the engine. After some buildup, the result will be a loud bang, often followed by a bellow of smoke out of the tail pipe of the car. The result can be quite embarrassing, not to mention noisy and irritating.

While few newer engines that do not rely on carburetors experience a backfire, it is not completely unheard of. Generally, it is the same basic principle of some sort of imbalance between gas and air consumption that creates the problem. Typically, the modern mechanic can quickly electronically scan the engine and exhaust system of the vehicle and isolate the origin of the problem in no time. In some cases, the repair is relatively inexpensive, and can be conducted without the need to break into the engine. In other instances, the backfire may be a sign of a larger problem that will only get worse with time. If that is the case, the repair work may be quite expensive, as well as time consuming.

The comic value of the backfire will not doubt continue to amuse audiences for many years to come. However, the incidence of backfires in engines today is significantly lower than even twenty years ago. It is very possible that within a generation, the backfire will be a thing of the past, as far as automobiles are concerned.

WikiMotors is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including WikiMotors, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By kentuckycat — On Sep 30, 2011

@TreeMan - In my neighborhood it is never hilarious when someone has a noisy car or if it backfires. In my neighborhood and in various other places across the world there are ordinances that require no noisy vehicles in the area.

There was once this guy in my neighborhood that bad a car that needed work and consistently backfired loudly and was given various requests and fines for not having his vehicle worked on to prevent this noise in the area. I always thought that it was a very anal thing to do, considering it costs a lot of money to fix this problem, and he was not being a menace and doing it on purpose, but then again this is not uncommon and as the article states these instances may end with the advances in car engine design.

By TreeMan — On Sep 30, 2011

I had a 92 Buick Century and it would backfire every once in awhile when I stepped on the gas, usually while I was making a turn. My car was in OK shape, it was just very used, and each and every time it would backfire my friends and all the people around me found it to be very hilarious.

By SZapper — On Sep 29, 2011

@JessicaLynn - I think it kind of depends on where you live. If you live in an area where a lot of people have older model cars, you'll probably hear backfiring a lot more. However, if you live somewhere where most people have newer cars, you probably won't hear it as much, or at all.

By JessicaLynn — On Sep 29, 2011

I'm 26, and I can't remember the last time I heard a car backfire! In fact, I don't know that I ever have outside of a movie or a television show. I guess that's just a testament to the fact that newer cars don't backfire too often!

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
Learn more
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