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A favourite assassination method of mobsters and spies alike is to hook up a bomb to the ignition switch of a car, so that it will lie dormant until some poor soul starts it.

While the intended target is, naturally, the car's owner, this trope is the number one killer of chauffeurs, valets and helpful Disposable Women - which occasionally raises the Fridge Logic of why you would put an ignition-triggered explosive in a chauffeured car in the first place...

There is an interesting case of The Law of Conservation of Detail attached to this trope. In normal circumstances, little to no screentime is devoted to a character walking to their car or starting it. Hence, whenever this does happen - especially if you see a close-up of the key - the more Genre Savvy viewer probably has a distinctly uneasy feeling in his stomach. Wait for it... three... two... one... ignition! Another dead giveaway is if the car is a gift from someone the recipient really shouldn't trust.

Variations include remote-detonation and bombs hooked up to other parts of the car, but the idea is to kill the occupant. Cars turned into suicide bombs don't count.

A subtrope of Vehicular Sabotage. See Every Car Is a Pinto for cars blowing up that have no reason to.

Unrelated to steam engines and Stirling engines, which really do work by "external combustion".

Examples of External Combustion include:


Comic Books

  • In the Batman Knightfall saga, a villain has stolen the Batmobile. Batman gets in the car, starts it, and kaboom! Cut to Robin screaming, when Batman walks by and says he got out just in time, realizing it was booby-trapped, "because that's what I would have done."


  • Michael's Italian wife in The Godfather decides to bring the car around for him. Oops.
    • This one is so famous it could be the trope codifier.
  • Yuri's uncle in Lord of War, after Yuri gifts his car to him.
  • Subverted Trope with a side order of Dangerously Genre Savvy in the film version of The Sum of All Fears. Dressler has his bodyguard start the car first, as he's savvy enough to know people like him get offed this way. After a tense moment, the car starts just fine. When Dressler (who was established early in the film to be a chain smoker) pushes in the car's cigarette lighter, it explodes as soon as the lighter pops back up. The bodyguard who started the car survives.
  • The X Files Movie, where the Well Manicured Man is eliminated in this fashion.
  • This is of course the whole set-up to Speed - the bomb is rigged to activate at the bus hitting 50 mph, and detonate upon it going under that speed.
  • In Johnny Dangerously, Roman Maroni does this to you if you park in his space.
  • Parodied in Mafia (the Jay Mohr comedy), where Mohr's character is in the car when this happens. He survives, but loses most of his skin in the accident (leading to a major Squick moment when he eats a tangerine, leading to a multiple Vomit Indiscretion Shot). By the time he meets up with his wife again, he only has a small bandage on his cheek. When he is asked what happened, he replies, "Car exploded."
  • James Bond in the 1970s had a car that was boobytrapped as an alarm. A car thief jimmied the lock, and the car exploded.
  • Famously done in the opening scene of Casino. Sam is narrating to himself as he walks out of a restaurant into his car, and it explodes when he turns the key. Subverted, however, as we see later on that he survived.

 Sam: When you love someone you've got to trust them, there's no other way. You've got to give them the key to everything that's yours. Otherwise, what's the point? And for a while, I thought that was the kind of love I had. <BOOM!>

  • Angels and Demons (The Movie): The Dragon is killed this way.
  • In The Dark Knight, a judge is shown out to her car by secret service types with sealed instructions as to her destination. When she opens the envelope, the note contains only a single word: "UP". BOOM.
  • As with the book, so with the film: in The Pelican Brief, attempting to kill the protagonist.
  • A mob boss in The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight is terrified of being killed by a car bomb and always has one of his underlings start his car for him. At the end of the film, he is killed by a bomb that is triggered when the driver's door slams after the engine has been started.
  • In Scarface Tony is supposed to help a hitman kill a government official with the remote-detonated variant. He refuses to do so when he sees the official's kids get in the target car.
  • One of Darkman's allies is killed this way in Darkman II.
  • Wise Guys has testing a car for this as Danny De Vito's chore, as the low man in the Family. Wincing, he turns the engine over, and doesn't blow up. He makes it back to the other happy laughing mobsters, including his boss, and they chat. THEN it blows up.
  • The Transporter. In the second movie the villains have attached a remote-controlled bomb to the bottom of Frank's car, which he sees reflected in a puddle of water. As the villains are pointing guns at him he has to get in anyway, and detaches it by launching the car into the air so the magnetically-attached bomb is knocked off by a crane hook. It would have been a lot simpler for the villains to have just shot him, or for Frank to have parked the car and ran away as soon as he was out of sight, but well...
    • It isn't the first time someone's tried to use a car bomb on him — the first movie has The Dragon attempting to get rid of him with a bomb in a suitcase, resulting in his car going kaboom.
  • In the original version of The Mechanic, McKenna gets into his car at the end of the film, realising too late it was rigged to explode by Bishop, who knew that McKenna would eventually kill him.


  • Stephen King short story Dolan's Cadillac involves a guy whose wife was killed with a car bomb (she had information on a local mob boss). The rest of the story details how he gets his revenge.
  • In The Pelican Brief, the author of the titular brief realizes that she's onto something when "they" try to silence her by blowing up her car. She isn't inside the car; her lover is.
  • Happens in the Stephanie Plum book One for the Money, with the car she appropriated from Morelli (in this book, he's the skip she's chasing). Another of Vinnie's bounty hunters is the ill-fated person who starts the car.
  • White Night has Murphy's car wired with a pipe bomb by one of the villains, who doesn't want her and Harry looking into a series of serial killings. Fortunately, Harry was just a little bit pissed off from a meeting the scene before, so he lets off a hex to blow off some steam... which just happens to activate the car bomb's detonator while he and Murphy are across the street.
  • The non-fiction "Prince of the City". The corrupt cop testifying against his former colleagues would have his police bodyguards check his car for explosives every day. Showing typical cop humor, the bodyguards would then stand on the street with their fingers in their ears while he turned the ignition.
  • British agent Quiller was the target of one of these in Tunisia. Fortunately, the bombers didn't have the chance to wire the bomb to the ignition, so they set it to go off when the car experienced a sharp vibration, such as the door closing. And then a heavy bus rumbled by and triggered it while Quiller was still halfway across the street. In Adam Hall's typical narrative style, it's stated:

 So at 19.15 I checked out of the Hotel Africa and went across to where the Chrysler was parked and they said later at the hospital that the glass had been the worst trouble because some very small fragments had got stuck in my face....

  • Happened to one of Dirk Pitt's many vintage automobiles. He wasn't in it, and he had it restored at the end of the book.

Live Action TV

  • On CSI, a simple time bomb left in the boot of a cheating husband. Unfortunately an unexpected detour means the bomb takes several bystanders with it.
  • In the X-Files episode "Fire," Mulder and Scully get into their car to find a strange cassette tape on the dashboard. They pop it in, and a voice informs them that by doing so they have armed a bomb hooked up to the car, and opening the door will trigger the explosion. Then the door opens, and Scully jumps--turns out the voice on the tape was just Mulder's New Old Flame, trying to mess with their heads.
    • Fridge Logic has us wondering why she couldn't just carefully roll down the window and exit through there...
    • The example text presents it like the door opened "on its own". Did they have the time to leave through the window before that happened?
  • Burn Notice has Sam and Fiona do this accidentally - they were meant to hook up a small explosive charge to the electrical system to enable them to remotely disable the car, but it turns out Fiona attached it to the petrol tank... fortunately the target uses his remote starter, blowing the car up before getting anywhere near it.
    • A later example has someone try to ambush Michael with one, only to discover Mike had removed the detonator when the guy went to the toilet.
    • A group of mercenaries take a more direct approach in another episode, the crooks that the gang was following get into their car only for it to be hit by a stinger missile fired from the other side of the canal.
  • Monk's wife's Death By Origin Story is a textbook case.
  • A clip of one of these going off is part of the Opening Montage to the "MacGruber" recurring filmed sketch on Saturday Night Live.
  • Used in Fox News' infamous "Hackers On Steroids" 4chan expose.
  • In an episode of F/X, a main character is saved from this by her habit of remote-starting the car with one of Rollie's gadgets: The car explodes in front of her and she's hospitalized.
  • In an episode of the Live Action Adaptation The Flash, the main villain knows Barry's identity but dies this way after threatening Barry that They'd Cut Him Up.
  • Due South: The fate of Ray's second (or third) '71 Buick Riviera. Rigged to the driver's side door handle in this case. [1]
  • Magnum, P.I.: In "Did You See The Sunrise?" one of these, intended for Magnum, kills recurring character Lt. MacReynolds instead. Magnum is not happy.
  • Hunter. A journalist writing a story on the mob is apparently blown up in his car. Later his wife is shocked to find him turn up at their home in the middle of the night; when she asks who was in the car he replies: "The unluckiest car thief who never lived."
    • All My Children did something similar when investigative journalist Edmund Grey was tailing a corrupt politician, shocking his wife and his other loved ones when he walked into his own funeral and revealed that the politician himself must have died in the explosion. Apparently the man didn't trust his own lackeys to do the job right and decided to plant the bomb himself.
  • The Professionals ("The Purging of CI5"). Bodie and Doyle have just escaped a bomb in their phone, and Doyle worries there might be another in the car they've just gotten into. He suggests Bodie wait across the street while he starts the ignition. Bodie just gives him a contemptuous look and says "Oh just stick it in!" (There's no bomb).
  • Spoofed in the Community episode "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design", when a car belonging to Annie is rigged to blow to scare her and Jeff off investigating the college's night school and the mysterious Professor Professorson... except the car in question is a small model car on a diorama she's constructed, and the 'explosion' is a handful of small, insignificant sparks.

 Jeff: Looks like someone sent us a message... a tiny, thoroughly underwhelming message.

  • In the Miami Vice pilot, this is what happened to Crockett's first partner.
  • This occurred once or twice on The Rockford Files. However, the interesting part was not the explosion, but rather Jim's attempt to explain what happened to his insurance agent.
  • An episode of My Name Is Earl in which Earl was studying for a GED ended up with this trope as a downtrodden teacher was convinced to play a trick on an unruly student but got some wires crossed. The car was supposed to lock the teenager in and play and annoying tune, butthe results were a bit more dramatic.
  • Referenced in the finale of Angel. Izzy and his minions get into their car and there's a closeup of a hand turning the ignition key — but instead of an explosion we get Illyria revealed in the headlights, and after a cutaway the vehicle looks like it's been carbombed.
  • On General Hospital, Sonny's wife Lily was killed this way, when her father planted a bomb meant to kill Sonny, enraged that he had not stopped carrying on with his ex-girlfriend. The sad irony is, Sonny and Lily had just reconciled and resolved to start over. She was driving the car because Sonny had drunk too much champagne celebrating her pregnancy. The scenes played out very much like in the play description--a joyful Lily walking towards the car, turning to smile back at Sonny, getting into the car, starting the ignition. . .cue the sound of the explosion and a Big No from the now widowed Sonny.

Newspaper Comics

  • Dick Tracy had this as the way they killed off the Creator's Pet, Moon Maid. The twist is that instead of being under the hood, the bomber, Little Lettel, preferred to place his bombs under the dashboard in the interior of the car.

Video Games

  • Grand Theft Auto III: An early mission has you booby-trapping a guy's car.
    • And later you can end up on the receiving end of this trick if you're not careful.
  • Grand Theft Auto Vice City has a garage which outfits any car you drive in with a remote-detonated car bomb.
  • In Hitman one of the missions in Hong Kong requires Agent 47 to use this method. Same goes for one mission in St. Petersburg in Silent Assassin.
  • During the make-your-ownTeen Girl Squad segment of the first episode of Strong Bads Cool Game for Attractive People, using the car on Whats-Her-Face at the right time will reveal that her dad bought her a car "at a government auction" that turns out to be rigged with one of these. "A SPLODE!"

Web Comics

Western Animation

  • In Family Guy, when Lois is wanted by the mob, the valet retrieves their car shortly after a hit is called off. It ends rather poorly for the boy.
  • When Homer Simpson was the Mayor's bodyguard, and the mob had threatened to kill him, he tries to get Bart to "start daddy's car for him". When Marge protests, he decides to get a cab.
  • One of Bill Plympthon's early shorts had a vignette titled "The Mafia, the Early Years", which showed a cowboy's horse blowing up after he spurred it.
  • An episode of American Dad has Roger plant bombs in the cars of three teachers at Steve's school after they gang up on him. Only the first two bombs actually go off; the third teacher suddenly becomes Made of Explodium and his torso explodes, leaving behind his legs.

Real Life

  • Commonly used by terrorists and guerrillas in real life. Although popularly associated with Middle Eastern hot spots, the basic structure of the car bomb was invented in the 1920s.
  • The Mike Davis essay, 'The Poor Man's Air Force', explores the psychology behind car bombs.
  1. However, Ray, the intended target, wasn't the one who opened the door. Poor Louis.