50 Car Expressions and Idioms That Shape the English Language
50 Car Related Idioms and Expressions
The majority of idioms spoken today have their origins in days long past. However, cars are a comparatively modern addition to our lives, and yet, such has been their impact, that a whole raft of car associated expressions have become entrenched within our everyday language.
Seen Better Days - What a Jalopy
Derogatory Terms for a Motor Car That Has Seen Better Days
We have all seen them. Those cars that have suffered a hard life and after years of neglect are now seemingly held together by nothing more than the rust and flaking paint that covers them.
The following expressions stem from messages of caution, warning the recipient that the buyer should beware.
1. Old banger
A way of saying a car is old and in bad condition. Often such a wreck, that it should not be on the road.
To refer to a vehicle as a "jalopy" is to see it as being junk, broken, or worn out.
Example: "That rusting heap of junk is a real jalopy. It's of no practical use to anyone, and needs scrapping."
3. A lemon
This term, used in a derogatory way, refers to a car with several manufacturing defects.
Example: "I thought buying a new car would mean that I could enjoy trouble-free motoring. But I sure bought a lemon. The car has given me no end of problems, and is constantly in and out of the repair shop."
Car Expressions and Idioms Referring to Speed
The motor car is often associated with speed. So much so, that popular television series such as "Top Gear" and "Fifth Gear" offer up increasingly bizarre ways to praise, and display the exhilaration of fast driving.
The following sayings express the drivers wish for more speed. Even if this means paying little respect to the virtues of due care and caution.
4. Hell for leather
A way to say that you should travel very fast.
Example: "I was already running late by the time I cleared the traffic jam. There was nothing else for it but to go hell for leather for the rest of the journey."
5. Put the pedal to the metal
Refers to holding the car accelerator pedal to the floor, and maintaining it there for as long as the driver can.
To express the view that you should drive as fast as possible.
Example: "There was no way I was going to miss the start of the soccer match. I had no choice but to put the pedal to the metal!"
6. Amber gambler
References an automobile driver who is prepared to risk life and limb by driving across an intersection, just as the traffic lights turn red.
Example: You are braver than me if you are prepared to accept a lift from Dave. He's well known for being an amber gambler."
7. To pick up speed
A way of saying you should accelerate.
Example: "You are doing very well with your first few driving lessons. But, now that you are a bit more familiar with the car, you need to start and pick up the speed a little to keep up with other road users."
Let's Not Run Out of Steam Just Yet'
Naturally, after traveling at speed, you are going to want to be able to bring your car to a halt. These idioms describe the act of slowing or stopping.
8. Stop on a dime
A way of saying that a vehicle can be brought to a standstill very quickly. Car owners often use this idiom when mentioning that their automobile has a high performing braking system.
Example: "It's got a great set of brakes. It will stop on a dime."
9. Run out of steam
To lose momentum or become tired.
Example: "I was traveling well until the last lap. My car just lost all power. It was as if I had run out of steam."
10. Put the brakes on
To slow something down.
Car Crash Idioms and Phrases
When brakes fail, or when the driver has overstretched themselves, or their vehicle, there is an inevitable consequence. These expressions gleaned from motorist's hard-learned experiences, warn others of the impending danger ahead.
11. Wrap a car around something
Used to describe a situation where a vehicle has suffered a significant accident. Usually where it has collided with a standing object, such as a lamp-post, or tree.
Example: "I told him to be more careful on that sharp bend. He should have slowed down much earlier. Perhaps then he wouldn't have wrapped the car around that tree."
A word used to describe a crash involving a motor vehicle.
Example: "It was only ever a matter of time before he had a prang. You can't possibly drive like that and not expect to have a crash at some time or other."
13. Crash and burn
To crash violently.
Example: "It was a miracle the driver survived such a crash and burn accident."
14. Crash through
Used to describe a situation where a vehicle has violently broken through a barrier or obstacle.
Example: "He must have been traveling at quite a speed. It would have taken a lot for the car to have crashed through the motorway barrier like that."
15. Fender bender
A phrase used to describe a minor collision between motor vehicles. Usually, where the impact has been just enough to dent or damage the car fender.
16. On a collision course
To be on a route or path which will ultimately result in a collision.
"Once the driver had taken the wrong lane, it was certain that they would end up on a collision course with traffic traveling in the opposite direction."
One for the Road - Idiomatic Expressions
Love them, or loathe them, roads are an integral part of our lives. Some view them as facilitating access to pastures new, and the "joys of the open road." We see them as a necessary evil and think only of the endless hours spent on daily commutes to and from work, longing for the day when they can park their car in the garage and reclaim precious time at home.
Whatever your view, many expressions take aspects of the car's highway to emphasize their message.
17. To get the show on the road
To say that it is time to commence something.
18. To hit the road
This expression is similar in meaning to the idiom above. It is yet another way of saying it's time to leave or begin a journey.
Example: "I must go. I need to hit the road if I am to get to the airport on time."
19. Down the road
To say that something will happen in the future, but still within your lifetime.
The following sentence can illustrate this: "I am steadily accruing a size-able pension pot. Down the road, this will enable me to retire in comfort."
20. All roads lead to Rome
This idiom means that it doesn't matter where you start an activity; all methods will eventually produce the same outcome, or result.
Example: "I know you don't quite follow the reasoning behind this calculation, but there are many ways to work this out. The fact is they all come back with the same answer. As the saying goes, all roads lead to Rome."
21. To have one for the road
Often said by someone tempted to have one last drink before traveling home.
Example: " I know I shouldn't have. But I thought it okay to have one for the road before I drove home. It was a mistake, and it nearly cost me my driving license."
22. Get the show on the road
To begin something. The start of a journey.
Example: "It's time we moved on. Let's get this show on the road."
To have a change of mind. To pursue some objective by a complete reversal in direction.
For example: "Originally, we tried to stop the highway development by protesting, and hindering the build. In the end, we were more successful when we did a U-Turn and engaged with local conservation groups, and pointed out the benefits of re-routing to preserve endangered plants and wildlife."
The Rockford Turn - Classic Manoeuvre
24. Rockford Turn
A driving maneuver in which the car set into reverse before being spun around 180 degrees to face the forward, slammed into a forward gear, then driven off at speed. A move made famous by the television show "The Rockford Files" produced in the 1970s.
When Drivers Go Bad
As a society, we place the driver under constant scrutiny. We admire those who perform incredible feats of daring and skill in events such as Formula One, and Rallying. But we loathe those who tear around our streets, oblivious to other road users, and pedestrians, risking mayhem as they seek to fulfill their need for speed and thrills.
The following terms express the more unsavory aspects of the less responsible motorist in our lives.
25. Hit and run
This idiom describes a road accident in which the driver who caused the crash, drives away without helping others caught up in the incident, and without telling the police.
"The police are hunting a hit and run driver."
26. To hotwire a car
To start a vehicle without the use of the ignition key.
Example: "The thief must have hot-wired my car as they didn't take my ignition keys."
27. Road hog
An expression used to describe someone who drives so erratically that other vehicles cannot safely overtake.
Example: "The guy's a menace on the road. He's such a road hog."
28. A ram-raider
Refers to a criminal who steals a car, or heavy vehicle before crashing it into a shop window as a means of gaining entry.
29. To go joyriding
A person who takes a motorcar with the sole intent of driving it around recklessly, and at speed, often seeming to invite the police to engage in a car chase as a means of increasing their thrill.
30. Car surfing
The reckless act of riding on the outside of a car. Usually while performing stunts. An illegal way to ride a vehicle, and is comparative to a variation of joyriding.
Often the only solution to such recklessness as that above is the humble police officer and his police car.
31. Panda car
It describes a British police car. In particular, this term was popular when describing police cars liveried in black and white, or blue and white colors.
How Many of These Idioms do you Know?view quiz statistics
The Driving Force - You or the Backseat Driver?
Modern cars are a marvel of technological innovation and design. They tell us when we are too close to a stationary obstacle. Many can even park themselves without the drivers' assistance if needed, and we are close to the era when driver-less cars will be widely available.
However, for the moment at least, they have not replaced the driver altogether. Some say that these automated driving solutions are comparative to the backseat driver we motoring enthusiasts more commonly encounter today.
32. Backseat driver
It may be hard to imagine these days, but there was a time during the early development of the motor car when it was possible to have a rear positioned steering wheel, as well as the more conventional front seat steering wheel.
Today, however, the term backseat driver has derogatory undertones. We use this idiom to describe a person who is giving uncalled for driving advice to the driver. Most drivers understandably find this annoying, and frustrating.
33. You’re driving me nuts
To make someone crazy.
An example being: "You’re driving me nuts. Stop shouting directions at me. I know where I'm going."
34. To carpool
Describes a situation where a group of work colleagues or friends share a single car to travel to their place of work.
35. To be the driving force
Describes a person who is the key player and driving force behind an activity, or project.
Example: "The building project is going very well, and we all acknowledge that without John's leadership, the scheme would probably have not started. He's the real driving force behind here."
A variation of this phrase is "a driven woman," or "a driven man."
Car and Travel Idioms Video
When Cars Break Down We Need a Grease Monkey
36 Grease monkey
A term used to describe a mechanic who repairs cars.
Example: "That new lad is a bit of a grease monkey. He may be new to the job, but he seems to know his stuff."
37. 3 on the tree
This phrase refers to the gearshift on a three-speed manual transmission.
38. Shifting gears
This expression originates from manual transmission systems within motor vehicles.
Describes a sudden or dramatic change of direction in what you or others are doing.
39. Chop Shop
Describes a shop or garage where stolen cars are stripped down for parts, before being sold.
Example: "The police say that I'm unlikely to see my car again. They reckon that it's probably been through a chop shop by now."
Car Expressions Poll
How many times have you found yourself using a car-related idiom today?
More Transportation Related Idioms and Phrases
40. To put a spoke in someone's wheel
The above phrase is describing a person who is deliberately preventing someone from completing their plans.
41. As much use as a handbrake on a canoe
Something or someone useless.
42. Drive a Hard Bargain
It can be used to refer to a person who is good at bartering or expects a lot in return for goods or services provided.
Example: "That guy drives a hard bargain! He wouldn't budge from his price one little bit."
43. Drive someone up the wall
A saying that refers to a person, or something that is causing you frustration, or irritation.
Example: "Stop going on about me fixing the air conditioning! I know it's hot. I'm hot too! But I can't get it repaired any quicker."
44. At the crossroads
Used to describe a time and place when an important decision that may well affect your future has to be confirmed.
45. The squeaky wheel gets the oil
An expression that suggests that people who make the most fuss receive the most attention.
Example: "He was very vocal about his need for a refund. Others in the same situation got nothing, but I guess it must be true that the squeaky wheel gets the oil after all."
46. A free ride
To receive something, or to benefit in some way, without having had to do anything in return. To get something for nothing.
47. The information highway
This saying refers to the Internet and the transfer of digital information from sources across the world.
48. A wheeler-dealer
A person who schemes to further their ends.
Is This the End of the Road?
In summary, the car is everywhere. In the passing of a little over one hundred years, the automobile has permeated our lives, providing people with previously unheard-of mobility and access to places and activities far beyond the boundaries of their local communities.
49. The end of the road
The above idiom refers to the end of something. It can be a life or activity. It can also apply to a situation where it is hopeless to continue in a venture or business.
Example: "Poor Simon, he battled against his illness for years; I guess he just reached the end of the road."
50. One for the road
Refers to a final drink before a person exits a social function or gathering.
- Dictionary of English Idioms, 2002, Penguin Reference.
A useful and well-structured resource.
- Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, 2000, Oxford University Press.
I found this a useful resource, although the ordering by alphabet occasionally involved more page turning than I prefer when searching for particular themes.
- Oliver, Harry. "March Hares and Monkeys' Uncles," 2005, Metro Publishing Ltd.
This book provides a fascinating insight into phrases we often take for granted.
- Jack, Albert. "Shaggy Dogs and Black Sheep," 2005, Penguin Books.
An excellent read. Full of in-depth research into idiom origins.