Simple Guide to Car Jargon


ABS – Anti-Lock Braking System. This system takes control of your brakes when it senses that your wheels might be locking up and skidding. The ABS rapidly applies and releases your brakes. The main benefit of this is to help give you steering control under heavy braking (when ABS activates it sounds surprisingly loud – like a fast banging noise).

Air Conditioning – Often labelled as AC, air conditioning provides cold air through the heating vents inside your car.

Airbag – A highly effective safety device. Airbags are commonly found in steering wheels, in front of the front passenger seat and elsewhere in modern cars. When you have a crash, they immediately inflate, protecting you from hitting hard objects within the car and helping to slow your forward movement as safely as possible.

Alloy Wheel – Car wheels made of aluminium, rather than steel. Main advantages include lighter weight and attractive styling. Mostly chosen for style reasons.

AUX Jack – a socket into which you can plug in electric devices (e.g. mobile phone charger) within the car. Sometimes fitted in place of a cigarette lighter in newer cars.

Bluetooth – Bluetooth is a radio system for connecting electronic devices at short range. Most commonly found in mobile phones, cars often have bluetooth fitted so that the driver’s mobile phone can connect to a built-in hands-free kit.

Brake Calliper – The brake calliper is the part of the brake that squeezes the brake disc under braking, slowing the rotation of the wheels.

Brake Disc – Each wheel of a car has its own brake. The most common type of brake used on modern cars is the disc brake. This is a rotating metal disc that is fixed so that it always turns with the wheel. When the brakes are applied, a clamp (called a brake calliper) squeezes the disc, slowing the rotation of the wheel.

Brake Pad – Brake pads are the part of a brake calliper that meets the brake disc when the brakes are applied. The pads are made of a hard material that rubs smoothly against the metal disc and gradually wears down, needing replacing.

Cam Belt – The cambelt, or cam belt, is a rubber belt that drives the moving parts inside the top of the engine. Sometimes known as the timing belt, cambelts have specified replacement intervals (see your car’s service manual) and it is very important to have your cambelt replaced on schedule. If your car’s cambelt breaks, it will instantly cause huge damage inside the engine that could cost thousands of pounds to repair.

Not all engines have cambelts, some have camchains instead – these don’t need replacing.

Catalytic Converter – Since 1993, cars with petrol engines have all had to have catalytic converters (sometimes known as ‘cats’). These are fitted as part of the car’s exhaust and do a great job of reducing harmful emissions (e.g. carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide) by turning them into less harmful gases or water vapour. They are generally reliable and last well but occasionally fail. They are expensive to replace.

CO2 Emissions – One of the gases that comes out of car exhausts (petrol and diesel) is Carbon Dioxide, also known as CO2. CO2 is a greenhouse gas that is thought to be responsible for climate change and so car manufacturers are working hard to lower their car’s CO2 emissions.

More importantly, the cost of UK car tax for cars made since 2001 is now calculated based on the car’s CO2 emissions – lower emissions means cheaper car tax.

Cruise Control – An electronic system mostly fitted to larger cars that enables you to set a fixed speed for the car and then take your foot off the accelerator. The cruise control will automatically maintain a fixed speed until you brake or accelerate. Can be good for long runs on quiet motorways/major roads.

Diesel – a type of fuel. Diesels tend to get better fuel consumption but are noisier and more expensive to buy. Virtually all commercial vehicles (buses, lorries, vans) have diesel engines but it’s only in recent years that they have become very popular in cars.

Drum brakes – A type of brake that is less common than it used to be, but sometimes found on the rear wheels of smaller cars. Drum brakes work by pushing a rotating metal arm against the inside of a metal drum to slow down the rotation of the attached wheel.

DSA – Driving Standards Agency. Responsible for setting driving test standards, carrying out driving tests and licensing driving instructors.

DVLA – Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority. Government agency responsible for issuing driving licences, vehicle registration documents and other related activities.

Engine Oil – inside your engine, there are lots of fast moving metal parts. Oil is used to lubricate these and prevent them overheating and/or wearing out too fast. If you try to run an engine with out oil in, it will rapidly overheat and destroy itself. This is known as ‘seizing up’ – all the metal parts expand as they get very hot and jam together. There is no cure except a new engine! This is why you should check your car’s oil level regularly.

Estate – An estate is a type of car body. Estates cars have a large, cubic boot area that is the same height as the passenger section of the vehicle, with a vertical ‘tailgate’ door at the back that incorporates the rear windscreen. Estates normally offer more luggage space than their hatchback or saloon equivalents.

Exhaust – car engines produce a lot of waste gas when they are running. This has to be piped away from the engine and into the open air. This is what exhausts do – they are long pipes running from the side of the engine to the back of the car. Modern car exhausts also help silence the engine and neutralise some of its gas emissions with a catalytic converter.

Fan Belt – the fan belt uses the engine to drive the big circular fan behind most cars’ radiators (the funny grill bit at the front, under the bonnet). If you hear a squealing noise when you start your car’s engine that goes away after a few minutes, it’s probably the fan belt (but not always).

Fan belts tend to stretch (and sometimes fall off) and periodically might need adjusting or replacing. It’s a quick job for a mechanic.

Fog Lights – Additional front and rear lights that are specifically designed for use in foggy conditions. You shouldn’t use them at other times, as they can be dazzling to other drivers.

The Highway Code states that you should only use fog lights (front or rear) if visibility is less than 100m.

Fuel Tank – a tank that contains your vehicle’s fuel (petrol or diesel). In most cars, this is concealed behind the bodywork and/or underneath the rear of the car. Normally completely maintenance free and very long lasting, although occasionally they will develop leaks, mostly on much older cars.

If you ever suspect a fuel leak, get it checked. It’s a serious fire hazard…

Gear Knob/Gear Stick – The vertical lever you use to change gear in a manual car or to set the Drive mode in an automatic.

Glove box – the storage compartment in the dashboard in front of a car’s front passenger seat. Useful for small things – like gloves, tissues, CDs and your car’s handbook.

Handbrake – also sometimes known as the parking brake. You use it to apply the brakes so that the vehicle will be held still without using the brake pedal. Handbrakes are usually positioned behind the gear stick at the side of the driver’s seat, but other locations exist.

Some cars have electric handbrakes that are controlled by levers/switches on the dashboard.

Hatchback – a type of car body where the passenger compartment and the boot are not separated and the boot lid extends to the roof of the car, incorporating the rear windscreen.

HPI Check – An HPI Check allows you to ensure that a car has no outstanding finance, has not been reported stolen and has not been written off by an insurance company. It’s an important check to consider doing when you are buying a second hand car because cars that are stolen or have outstanding finance can be repossessed without any compensation to the current owner (you). Similarly, if an insurance company has written off a car following an accident, it may not have been safely and legally repaired.

Hybrid – a car that has both an internal combustion engine (petrol or diesel engine) and an electric motor with batteries. The electric motor is used when possible with the regular engine providing additional power when necessary (and charging the batteries). Hybrids are increasingly popular as they provide lower emissions and good fuel economy.

Ignition – The term ignition is usually used to refer to the keyhole you put your car key in before turning it to start the engine.

In reality, there is more to the ignition than that. When you turn the key, some electrical stuff happens and sparks are generated inside the engine. With careful timing, fuel is injected into the engine too. The sparks ignite the fuel, and bang – your engine is now running!

Immobiliser – an immobiliser is a piece of electronic theft prevention equipment that is wired into your car’s engine and ignition system. When the immobiliser is active, you can’t start the engine – even with the key.

Jack – The jack is the piece of equipment used to lift one corner of the car off the ground so that you can change a wheel. Cars all come with a suitable jack that will fit correctly into the car’s jacking points.

Jacking points – specified places on the chassis (framework) of a car that are designed to fit the car’s jack and enable one corner of the car to be lifted off the ground. Your car’s manual will tell you where you car’s jacking points are – never put the jack anywhere else as damage to the car will result and the car may unexpectedly fall off the jack.

Load Capacity – The maximum weight that can be carried in a car (or any vehicle). You aren’t normally likely to exceed this in a car unless you load the boot and rear seats very heavily or are towing a trailer that is incorrectly loaded or too heavy for your car.

MOT – The MOT is an annual test required for all private cars aged three years and over. The test checks lots of things to make sure your vehicle is legal to use on the road. The MOT test does not include any maintenance or repair work and nothing is taken apart.

Petrol – the most common type of fuel used in cars.

Puncture – A puncture is when a car tyre develops a leak, usually as a result of something sharp making a small hole or cut in it. Some punctures can be fixed, some can’t. It depends on where the puncture is, how big it is and whether the structure of the tyre has been damaged by being driven when it’s flat.

Your local tyre centre will tell you whether puncture can be repaired and will do it for you (usually quick and cheap) or fit a new tyre if a repair isn’t possible.

Saloon – a type of car body where the boot and passenger area are completely separate. The boot lid will normally hinge at the bottom of the rear windscreen. Saloon bodies are most common on executive/luxury model cars and less so on family models.

SMMT – The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders – the industry body for the car industry in the UK.

Sun visor – the fold down flap situated above the windscreen in front of the driver and passenger seats of most cars. Can be used to shield the sun from your eyes when driving.

Spoiler – an aerodynamic and styling feature usually found as a raised lip on the boot of a car. Purely for style on most cars, which can’t go fast enough to really need a spoiler.

Starter Button – some new cars come with a starter button – a large button on the dashboard that you press to start the engine, rather than turning the key. You will still have a key or some kind of fob, however, so that you can lock the car and prevent anyone else starting it.

Suspension – Ever noticed how your car bounces over bumpy roads and smoothes out smaller bumps? That’s your suspension at work – a complicated spring setup at each corner of the car that allows the wheels to move independently of the chassis, reacting to bumps and unevenness in the road.

Tax – Road Tax, correctly known as Vehicle Excise Duty. This is the tax you pay to use a car on public roads. There is no exemption unless you have a car that you will never use on public roads, in which case you can complete a process called SORN that exempts you from purchasing tax.

Tow Bar – A metal framework that can be bolted onto the rear of most cars to allow a trailer to be towed. Most cars are designed to allow a tow bar to be fitted and have electrical connections to allow trailer lights (e.g. brakes and indicators) to be plugged in to your car’s electrics.

Transmission – the gearbox and other mechanical parts that turn use the rotations of the engine shaft to drive the wheels.

Tread – the patterns cut into the rubber on car tyres. These provide grip, especially in wet weather, when they help to push the water aside. When the tread wears down, tyres provide less grip. That’s why there is a legal requirement to have a tread depth of at least 1.6mm across the central 75% of the width of your car’s tyres.

Turning Circle – the distance a car travels to drive round in a full circle, with the steering on full lock (i.e. steering wheel turned as far as it will go). Used as a measure of how manoeuvrable a car is.

TUV – the TUV is the German equivalent of the UK MOT test. You may also find that individual parts and pieces of equipment have TUV marks – this means they have been tested for safety in use.

Unleaded – Unleaded petrol is the standard type of petrol in use in the western world. It does not contain any lead (a poisonous substance) and has replaced four-star petrol, which had lots of lead in it.

USB Connection – USB is a type of connection for electronic devices and computer accessories. In a car, it usually means that you can plug your iPod/MP3 player into your car’s stereo and play it through your car’s speakers. Increasingly common.

V5C – Vehicle Registration document, issued by the DVLA. A large, multicoloured document that has all the details about your vehicle and must be updated when you move house or when you buy or sell a car. See the rear of the V5C for full instructions on how to use it. Always keep it safe, never buy a car without one.

VIN – Vehicle Identification Number. A unique string of numbers and letters that identifies your car. Usually found on a plate under the bonnet (at the front) and often somewhere else on the vehicle, too. The VIN on a car should match the VIN on its car’s V5C. If it doesn’t, don’t buy it.

Warning Triangle – A safety device that you can place on the road to warn on coming traffic that your car is obstructing the road. For example, if you breakdown on a windy road, you could take your warning triangle back round the previous bend and place it at the edge of the road facing oncoming traffic. That way drivers will know there is an obstruction round the corner and will slowdown, even though they can’t yet see your car.

Never use warning triangles on UK motorways, it’s not allowed.

Water pump – most car engines are water-cooled. This means that water is pumped around through channels in the engine casing to absorb some of the heat in the engine and stop it overheating. The water pump is the piece of equipment that pumps the water around the engine. Water pumps are often located at the bottom of engines and can be awkward/time consuming to replace if they break.

Windscreen Washer – the system that lets you spray water onto your windscreen so that you can wipe it clean with your windscreen wipers while you drive. The water for your windscreen washer is kept in a small plastic container in the engine bay and needs to be topped up regularly. Make sure you add windscreen wash antifreeze in winter to prevent it freezing up.

Windscreen Wipers – The rubber blades on metal arms that you use to wipe the front windscreen clear of water when it’s raining. The rubber blades need replacing from time to time – if they always leave streaks behind or don’t wipe very well, you may need new ones.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.