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R53 Spontaneous Fault - Almost Caught Fire!

3376 Views 10 Replies 5 Participants Last post by  NigelK

We have a 2006 R53 JCW - build date is 04/2006 with approx 121,000klms on it.
The vehicle has been fastidiously maintained and cared for all its life, and it's non-modified and unmolested.
All engine bay, bodywork & trim are still like new, and the vehicle is spotlessly clean throughout.
The car is used infrequently as we were intending to keep this car for the long term.

Took the car out yesterday for a short drive (approx. 20 mins round trip) - then returned home.
Ambient air temps were around 25degrees C and overall extremely pleasant - certainly no heatwave that day.

So, back into the garage it goes - engine off, handbrake on, keys out, doors closed, though the car was still unlocked as I intended to go out again a bit later that afternoon.

About 1 or 2 hours passed - I was in and out of the garage several times during that time doing some odd jobs around the house, and each time I was in the garage the car was sitting silently right beside me as I gathered tools from my workbench.

Absolutely nothing suspicious noted.


I had to go back into the garage again to get some hooks from my cupboard.

Yikes!! I immediately smelled something like burning wiring or burning plastic when entering the garage, and I could hear a strange whirring sound coming from the front of the vehicle, but there was no obvious source when I opened the bonnet.

Oddly, there seemed to be still an unusual amount of heat buildup under the bonnet which didn't make sense given the car hadn't been driven for an hour or two. Then I noted there was also smoke haze present around the car and within the garage and it was coming up at my face possibly (though not confirmed) emanating from behind the engine.

I jumped into the car and started it so I could park it outside and away from the garage in case it caught fire (which could have potentially burned the whole house down - and us with it!!).

Again after the engine was switched off, a strange whirring continued, and much heavier smoke was developing, so I raced back into the garage and grabbed a spanner to disconnect the battery.

The odd whirring stopped immediately the battery was disconnected and gradually the smoke around the car subsided.

When the battery was temporarily reconnected again, the strange whirring sound came back immediately, but this time the speed of the whirring kept changing as the source of it seemed to randomly spool itself down to a near stop, then back up again.
This was all happening with the engine off and the keys removed from the ignition.

I left the battery disconnected all night for safety.

Now here's the odd bit - I reconnected the battery again today with the intention of getting underneath the car to try to pinpoint the heat source or the whirring sound …. nothing happened!! No whirring sound!! Nothing!!! All seemed deceivingly well....!!!

No strange whirring, engine started ok, no fault lights or codes posted. Power steering working and all accessories working.

Everything I put my hand on under the bonnet felt deliciously cool.

What's going on here???? What am I missing?? Should I be narrowing the search and focussing on the electric power steering pump or the pump's cooling fan??

At the time of writing this post - the underlying cause is not known, but the possible outcomes had I not spotted the problem early are terrifying, and could have been potentially lethal.

Has anybody else in Australia had a similar spontaneous electrical problem like this??

My previous experiences with BMW MINI Dealers for repairs and service have been a disaster, usually involving lengthy delays in getting our MINI back, and the cost of their work is just prohibitive. God knows how they come up with their charges, but all they do is sting you to death and try to get you back for more. You'd think you just killed a close relative of theirs and this is their way of getting back at you.

I have logged an enquiry with BMW MINI Australia and await their return contact though I'm not optimistic they will do anything helpful except refer me to a dealer workshop which I will ultimately refuse to do.

I am wondering if this problem is widely known in Australia, and has there been any vehicle recall to address a problem like this.

I noted there are many similar experiences on the North American Motoring website here - most appear to be power steering related:


How can it be reasonable for any modern car built today that is parked, switched off, and otherwise unoccupied suddenly and spontaneously decide to electrically self destruct to the point where it can start a fire???

Due to the terrifying reality that our much loved MINI could have silently tried to kill us by burning the house down, we are now looking at whether to lodge a claim on our insurance, or just repair it and then trade it in.

Has any r53 MINI owner in Australia had something similar to this happen?

What was the cause of your smoke related incident?

What's been your experience dealing with BMW on this issue?

Vehicle Recalls?

Would love to hear any constructive comments on what to do next.
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Very drastic response to a well know fault, most likely the PAS pump, as you have read there is lot of info online. Not sure about Aus, but theres a few company's in uk that refurb them. Not a hard job to replace just akward.
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"When the battery was temporarily reconnected again, the strange whirring sound came back immediately, but this time the speed of the whirring kept changing as the source of it seemed to randomly spool itself down to a near stop, then back up again.
This was all happening with the engine off and the keys removed from the ignition."

This part sounds like the high-speed cooling fan which can run for a few minutes after the car is switched off, especially if the air conditioning has been on.
A sticky relay is often the cause of it continuing to run & cycle up & down.
It should be fairly apparent if it is that fan or the power steering fan which is easily visible underneath the engine.

I can't explain the smoke, though.
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Well tonight I put the MINI up on the jackstands, grabbed my torch and went underneath for a closer look.

Nothing appeared abnormal, no evidence of any damaged wiring or connectors.

I manually spun the PS fan - seemed to spin easily so I know it's not seized.

I reconnected the battery and listened for the whirring sound to come back.


Left the battery connected for about 5 minutes then started testing all components I could access for evidence of getting hotter.

Nothing - everything stayed deliciously cool.

Started the engine and had a helper turn the steering wheel from lock to lock for several minutes.

Slight temperature increase on the PS pump but the casing and pump housing was only barely luke warm to the touch.

After a few minutes of running, the PS fan spun up. This was expected and no other abnormal behaviour was detected.

After several more minutes, the radiator cooling fan also began to spin up and down - this would be as a result of the A/C being switched on in the car. Again, this was expected and it sounded normal in terms of the rotation - not the weird whirring I head the other day.

I agree it "could" be related to the electrical side of the PS pump - but there was no evidence of abnormal operation in that area tonight.

I agree it "could" also be related to the radiator cooling fan. I once had a 2002 MINI with a faulty relay that would keep the cooling fan spinning literally forever when the engine was switched off. So that means it has access to power even when the engine is not running. But it usually has a distinctive "fan like" sound which wasn't the odd whirring I heard during the fault incident.

But then again, I didn't hear the specific odd whirring sound tonight from ANYTHING that I heard on the day when the car was literally smoking though I did detect the same whirring (about 1 second) that sounded just like it as the engine was switched off - just as everything was coming to a full stop.

So the mysterious cause of the smoke remains elusive at present.

More investigation will need to be done.

Does anyone have any experience with starter motors causing fires on the r53?
It's the only other electric motor that's underneath and towards the rear of the car.
However it appears to be operating normally, visually looks ok and starts the car with ease.
So I might be barking up the wrong tree with that thought.

Thinking logically, whatever was causing the whirring sound (and possibly associated with the smoke) must have had power even when the engine was switched off.

Does that eliminate anything we've discussed so far??
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Can you get it plugged into a diagnostic machine see if any codes come up.

Firstly, thank you to everyone who has posted suggestions - it's always better to have many brilliant minds looking at this from many angles when try to solve a sinister problem that's hiding somewhere in the dark!! :)

Can you get it plugged into a diagnostic machine see if any codes come up.
Yes - but possibly not for a few weeks. I'm about to get married - in fact our MINI was going to be one of our wedding cars!!
But because of the car's recent bad behaviour, it will now be left to sulk all on its own in the garage on our wedding day.
Then after I get married, I go overseas for a couple of weeks.

But I will get the car into a workshop to be checked for any diagnostic codes as soon as I get back.

So I'm going to leave the car with battery disconnected and up on the jack stands for the next few weeks.

I will then update this post once I can get the car to a mechanic to check for codes.

Correct me if I'm wrong please m_attt - wouldn't a diag code also trigger a fault light on the dash??? (none are lit at present).

I have been replaying the near fire incident in my head over and over to try to remember anything else that might give anyone reading this post any new clues.

Today I remembered another subtle clue for all you expert MINI detectives!!!

When the whirring sound (and smoke) was present, its RPM was a very low speed almost a demonic growl - and it changed in speed.

AND when the demonic whirring sound was occurring, there was also a second sound.

It sounded mechanical, but it was very gentle in volume (almost barely audible) and it sounded a bit like this: chika-chika-chika-chika-chicka.

The speed of the whirring and the "chika" went up and down together.

So would love to hear your deliberations on whether the "chicka" that I was hearing the PS fan or the PS pump? or something else?

But whatever motor/component I was hearing, it was clearly struggling to continue running - it kept sounding like it was dying then reviving then dying.

Yet now the engine is started and the various cooling fans have eventually kicked in and humming away as normal, and there is no growly whirring and no chicka-chicka!!

In fact now when the engine is switched off, everything turning spools nicely down to a stop - Just the way it was before!!

Talk about Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde!! I think I'll be nicknaming the car Dr Jekyl from here on!!

I haven't found any evidence of any damaged wiring yet, nor even anything such as a connector/component/relay that looked as though it had got hot.

Now then .... wait a minute there's a thought..... RELAYS!!!! I HAVEN'T LOOKED AT THE RELAYS YET!!!

1: Does anyone know could a short in the power steering pump actually trigger the PS fan to run?

2: Is the PS fan controlled by the radiator cooling fan relay via a common circuit??

3: Does anyone know where the radiator cooling fan relay is located? (Car is build date 04/2006 - so pretty late in the r53 series)
I'm guessing it might be located in the plastic fuse panel near the engine firewall with a removable black lid??
Hmmm - I wonder if the smoke was originating from the relay??? (ie: faulty relay???)

4: I can't see any power steering temperature sensor - I can only assume the power steering fan is triggered by the same sensor in the cooling system??? Am I way off the mark here??

I will keep on looking - there's GOT to be evidence somewhere…… or something that I have dismissed and should examine closer!!!...….

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FINALLY - We've got a strong lead on the problem area.....

Lifted the lid on the relay boxes - took each relay out to check for signs of any heat damage. All relays looked normal and no visible signs of any damage.

The I was discussing the problem with a good friend.

She told me she had a very keen sense of smell (whereas my sense of smell is not really that good).

It was reasoned, a good nose might be able to hone in on the problem area.

First we lifted the bonnet and she sniffed all over the engine bay.

She quickly detected an acrid odour coming from the rear of the engine ( towards the flywheel/clutch side)

So.…. under the car we both went with a strong torch lighting the way.

BINGO! she quickly zoomed in around the power steering pump / steering cooling fan and advised she thought the odour was strongest in that area.

I got as close as I could to the pump, and sure enough even I could smell an acrid odour in that area.

Tomorrow I will remove the PS cooling fan mainly to eliminate it as a possible cause of the odour.

Otherwise, I'd say the odds are pretty strong that the power steering pump is the cause of the electrical fault, so it will require replacement.

A final update to appear shortly....

Now to try find a reasonably priced ZF OEM power steering pump.... does anyone have any good leads on a brand new ZF??
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It is almost certainly the PSP. When it is whirring, but car switched off, has it still got powered steering? This has come a a few times recently. Happened to a friend of mine. None of these have involved smoke and fire but when the internals and the circuit board inside the PSP get overwhelmed with graphite dust it causes some really bizarre and intermitent symptoms.
I says 'come up recently' meaning on the Facebook R53 Owners Club. With over 5,000 members, all with R53s, it is as you'd imagine, wholly focussed on 'our' cars. There is a lot of knowledge there. I now only tend to pop on here now and again to see what's going on. Whereas you can see (box on left) I was a fairly regular poster.
And there are numbers of Aussie members on there. I know Milpol on here. Problem for you in Oz are from reading many posts: it is massive, there aren't many R53s, access to parts and goodies is difficult, postage from here or US is expensive.
Any way, I think it is likely your PSP. Some people with top DIY skills do dismantle them and clean all the dust out. And try the R53 Owners Club.
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NigelK - thank you for posting. Yes- I agree with you about the dust buildup would likely be the likely underlying cause of my particular problem.

Who knows what dust that could do?? My steering pump has 120,000klm of pump runtime on it.

So, based on that thought, I have decided to replace the pump and I removed the power steering pump yesterday. It's currently sitting on the workbench.

I've ordered a brand new ZF pump which I am hoping to pickup either today or Monday. My PS cooling fan looked fine, turns freely and spins up quietly.

Cudos also to Mod Mini on YouTube for posting an excellent video showing how to remove the power steering pump. He has posted many excellent "how to" videos for the R50/R53 MINI.

For anyone who might need this video - here is the link:

I live in Australia, but for any R50/R53 owner living in the USA, please be aware that BMW Mini officially issued a recall on the power steering pump in March 2016 due to various operational anomalies (though risk of fire was interestingly not mentioned - I can only assume they are trying to keep the risk of fire bit very quiet).

Info about the recall in the US can be found here via the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website and there are various pdf documents you can view about the safety recall:

NHTSA Campaign Number: 15V660000
Manufacturer BMW of North America, LLC
Components STEERING
Potential Number of Units Affected 86,018
BMW of North America, LLC (BMW) is recalling certain model year 2002-2005 MINI Cooper and Cooper S vehicles and 2005 Cooper and Cooper S Convertible vehicles. The affected vehicles may experience temporary or permanent loss of the electro-hydraulic steering assistance.
MINI will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the electro-hydraulic power steering system, replacing the components and wiring, as necessary, free of charge. Interim notices were mailed to owners on December 10, 2015. Owners will receive a second notice when remedy parts become available. Owners may contact MINI customer service at 1-866-825-1525.
Owners may also contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Vehicle Safety Hotline at 1-888-327-4236 (TTY 1-800-424-9153), or go to

Unfortunately this does little to help us in Australia.

So I have written to BMW MINI in Australia this week to report my incident, and to enquire about any recall as it does not appear any such recall was actioned for MINI owners in Australia.

BMW MINI have not responded to my email as yet.

I will post any reply if I receive one.
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Good news. As you have ordered a replacement, if you are reasonably spannery, why don't you try taking it apart to have a look at the circuit board and electronics, see what is going on? If you clean it out it may well come back to life. For us to get them refurbished here in the UK, exchange, it is about £170. So if yours is fixable, it is worth money used. Heavy little devils to ship though.
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