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People who love cars – people who really, really love cars – have a language all their own.
We call these people “gearheads” (“petrol heads” in the UK), and while we are sometime among their numbers, more often we are listening to their secret lingo and saying “Wha?”
The words and phrases all sound cool, and maybe a tad offputting. But with a bit of study, you too can soon be speaking fluent gearhead.
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A lot of folks understand horsepower as being a measure of how much energy an engine can output. “Torque,” on the other hand, is far less well-understood.
It’s essentially the amount of rotation that a given amount of power can generate. This is an important concept, because car engines take power that is moving up and down in combustion cylinder and transfer it to the drive wheels.
Gearheads love to talk torque because it’s the physical factor that makes cars go fast, beyond just pure horsepower. Torque is also delivered at different points as a car accelerates, so heavy gearheads can debate where a car’s sweetspot is.
For electric cars, torque is also an important concept, but for different reasons. Electric motors deliver 100% of available torque at 1 rpm, which is why a Tesla Model S with “Ludicrous Mode” can outrun some supercars from 0-60 mph.
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Internal-combustion engines have cylinders. The controlled explosions that create power enable pistons to move up and down in these cylinders, or combustion chambers.
Modern IC engines have 4-, 5-, 6-, 8-, 10-, and 12-cylinder engines. The 4s, 6s, and 8s are the most most common, giving us V6s and V8s when the cylinders are arranged in a V shape with an equal number on each side; a 4-cylinder engine will usually set the cylinder up “inline” – in a straight line.
Gearheads will often call a 4- or 6-cylinder motor a “four banger” or “six banger” because the exploding gas-air mixture and pistons will “bang” in the cylinders.
A turbocharger uses exhaust gases to spin a turbine that compresses the air that’s fed into the cylinders.
This can increase an engine’s power output, making a V6 perform like a V8.
However, unlike an un-turboed V8, which can pour on its horsepower continuously, a turbo V6 can take a few seconds to deliver its power.
Gearheads call the wait “turbo lag” and will often knock a turbo for it. But many modern turbos reduce or nearly eliminate turbo lag.
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It isn’t rocket science: all things being equal, a lightweight car with large engine will go FAST.
This the “power-to-weight ratio,” and expression of potential performance.
It’s important to gearheads because of course a big engine is heavier, in many cases, than a small engine.
So adding motor size means that the car has to first move all that extra heft around. This encourages shedding weight in other places, which is why most really fast cars are made of lightweight aluminum, magnesium, and carbon fiber.
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The are two main types of fossil-fuel engines: those that run on gasoline; and those that run on diesel.
Gearheads call diesels “oil burners” because the engines require a much less refined form of petroleum than gas motors. It’s closer to oil.
Diesels have a bad reputation for burning dirty – the recent Volkswagen emission-cheating scandal is a case in point, as VW falsely claimed that some of its newer diesels were much cleaner that the oil burners of old.
But diesels also deliver better overall mileage than gas-burning cars. And diesels also serve up better torque, which is why big trucks, tractors, and industrial vehicles are mainly diesel-powered: that “low-end” torque helps them to pull stuff and move heavy loads.
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When entering a corner on a race track at a good speed, it’s possible to get the wheels of the car to lose traction.
The result is that the car will slide semi-sideways through the turn. This ruins lap times, but it looks cool and has been popularized by highly rated auto shows, such as the former BBC hit “Top Gear,” as well as countless YouTube videos.
Some enthusiasts even build cars specifically to drift.
A skilled drifter can control the drift and get the car to straighten out when the corner is completed. A less-than-skilled drifter will spin the car.
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A glorified technical term for a jackrabbit start.
Except that for gearheads, the idea is to control the launch, avoiding a burnout, which looks cool but robs the car of speed and destroys a good 0-60 mph sprint.
Modern high-performance cars often have something called “launch control,” a feature that can be activated to prevent the drive wheels from getting loose at a start.
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No, we don’t mean the tool – we mean the entire culture of that tool and what it implies.
When a gearhead says that they “wrench on their car” or “turn a wrench,” what they really mean is that they know enough or care enough about cars to be reluctant to turn their ride over to a mechanic.
It’s a macho thing to say, but it does have some gruff throwback validity. It’s nice to know how stuff works and to be able to fix things yourself. It inspires self-confidence. And it means AutoZone will continue to have customers!
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Bondo is the catch-all name for a family of auto-repair products sold by 3M. But classically, Bondo is a type of auto-body filler – and sort of white flag of surrender, when it comes to do-it-yourself repair work.
You can’t fix something properly, so it’s Bondo to the rescue!
And unless you’re pretty good at sculpting, sanding, and painting your Bondo work, it usually shows. Like a badge of defeat.
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This is one of those specialized driving techniques known only to people who drive stickshifts with clutch pedals – and beyond that, people who fancy themselves really good at driving stick.
So good, that, you know, they could hit the track with their mad skills.
Here’s what the maneuver involves. When you downshift, you want to “blip” the throttle, giving the car a bit of gas, to match the engine RPMs from one gear to the next and keep the car’s wheels turning smoothly. When you heel-and-toe, you blip while braking at the same time, typically by using one side of your foot for the brake pedal and the other for the accelerator.
In the 1970’s TV show “The Rockford Files,” ex-con private eye Jim Rockford was famous for executing “J turns” in his sweet Pontiac Firebird to quick extricate himself from trouble.
The maneuver was well-known to drivers who liked to take to parking lots and pull the rather easy, low-speed trick for some easy thrills.
Basically, you accelerate in reverse, slam on the brakes and rapidly turn the wheel, swinging the front end of the car around, at which point you pop it into drive (or first gear), then punch it and speed off.
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This is a term that originated in Australia’s “Mad Max,” muscle-car crazy culture.
It means to drive a car in a reckless or irresponsible way. Which some folks consider fun.
“Hooning” is now more of a lifestyle choice: it implies that you enjoy taking your car out for a bit of high-performance pleasure, while respecting the law.
A dab of oppo
“Opposite lock” steering is a way of controlling a car that’s into a drift and losing traction at its wheels (usually the rear wheels in a rear-wheel-drive car, a phenomenon known as “oversteer.).
In order to get the car smoothly through a turn, you steer in the opposite direction as the curve. But just a little bit.
Hence the “dab” of “oppo.”
That’ll buff right out
Rhetorically, it’s what’s known as “litotes” – intentional understatement.
Gearheads say this, with an abundance of lightly snarky false optimism, when a car or truck is severely damaged – like, totally trashed.
“That’ll buff right out” makes light of just how hard it’s going to be to bring the car back to its former self.
Driving like a pro is all about understanding the place where the rubber literally meets the road: the tires.
When seasoned drivers talk about how push their cars, they often speak of “grip” – a sense of how well the tires are grabbing the road or track surface.
When a driver is really pushing it, he’ll talk about driving at the “limit of grip” – the dividing line between keeping the car under control as the tires lose traction and going into a slide or spin.