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50 Car Expressions and Idioms That Shape the English Language

Updated on August 25, 2019
Ben Reed profile image

Ben has held a life-long interest in language and has a special interest in the expressions, phrases and idioms that contribute to its use.

50 Car Related Idioms and Expressions

The majority of idioms spoken today have their origins in days long gone by. 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.

A candidate for the expression: a Jalopy or Old Banger.
A candidate for the expression: a Jalopy or Old Banger. | Source

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.

2. Jalopy

To call a motor vehicle a "jalopy" is to refer to 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, which is 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."

Years of training and rapid reactions are needed to become a professional racing driver.  Yet, many car drivers think they are on a race track when travelling on our highways.
Years of training and rapid reactions are needed to become a professional racing driver. Yet, many car drivers think they are on a race track when travelling on our highways. | Source

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 extol, and display the exhilaration of fast driving.

The following sayings are often used to 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 cars accelerator pedal to the floor, and maintaining it there for as long as the driver can.

Meaning: To drive as fast as possible.

Can be illustrated by the following: "There was no way I was going to miss the start of the soccer match. I simply had no choice but to put the pedal to the metal!"

6. Amber gambler

Made with reference to 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 in order to keep up with other road users."

Don't be an amber gambler
Don't be an amber gambler | Source

Time to Apply Those Brakes

Naturally, after travelling at speed, you are going to want to be able to bring your car to a halt. These idioms are used to 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 use this idiom with reference to their automobile being fitted with 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 travelling really 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, gleamed from motorists hard-learned experiences, warn others of the impending danger ahead.

11. Wrap a car around something

Used to describe a situation where a car has been involved in a major 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."

12. Prang

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 travelling 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 cars 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 travelling in the opposite direction."

What a prang! Luckily, it's just a bit of a fender bender.
What a prang! Luckily, it's just a bit of a fender bender. | Source

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." Others among us 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, there are many expressions that take aspects of the cars highway to emphasize their message.

17. To get the show on the road

To say that it is time to commence an activity.

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

A way to say that something will happen in the future, but still within your lifetime.

This can be illustrated by the following sentence: "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 who is tempted to have one last drink before travelling home.

Example: " I know I shouldn't have. But they persuaded me to have one for the road before I drove home. It was a mistake, 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."

23. U Turn

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 in order to preserve endangered plants and wildlife."

The Rockford Turn - Classic Manoeuvre

24. Rockford Turn

A driving manoeuvre in which the car is driven in reverse before being spun around 180 degrees to face the forward, slammed into forward gear, then driven off at speed. A move made famous by the television show "The Rockford Files" produced in the 1970s. (see video above for some thrilling examples of this manoeuvre).

The Unsavoury Aspects of Car Drivers

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 loath 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 are used to express the more unsavoury aspects of the less responsible motorist on our lives.

25. Hit and run

This idiom describes a road accident in which the driver who caused the accident, 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 hot wire a car

This is to start a car 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 badly, or erratically, that other vehicles cannot easily, or 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 joy riding

A person who steals a car 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 whilst performing stunts. This is an illegal way to ride a car, and has been likened to a variation of joy riding.

Often the only solution to such recklessness as that above is the humble police officer, and his police car.

31. Panda car

Made with reference to a British police car. In particular, this term was popular when police cars were / are liveried in black and white, or blue and white colours.

How Many of These Idioms do you Know?

view quiz statistics

Who Is the Better 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 are expected to be widely available.

However, for the moment at least, they have not totally replaced the driver altogether. Some say that these automated driving solutions are likened 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 in order 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 Johns leadership, the scheme would probably have not been 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

Refers to the gearshift on a three-speed manual transmission.

38. Shifting gears

A phrase that originates from the manual transmission 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, which are then 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?

See results

More Transportation Related Idioms and Phrases

40. To put a spoke in someone's wheel

A phrase 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 that is useless.

42. Drive a Hard Bargain

Can be used to refer to a person who is a good at bartering, or expects a lot in return for a goods, or service 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 made with reference 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 cross-roads

Used to describe a time and place when an important decision that may well affect your future has to be made.

45. The squeaky wheel gets the oil

An expression that suggests that people who make the most fuss generally receive the most attention.

Example: "He was very vocal about his need for 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 actually do anything in return. To get something for nothing.

47. The information highway

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 own ends.

I Guess This Is 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 own local communities.

49. The end of the road

Refers to the end of something. This can be a life or an activity. Can also refer to a situation where it hopeless to continue in a venture or activity.

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.

References

  • Dictionary of English Idioms, 2002, Penguin Reference.

A really 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.

Fascinating insight into phrases we often take for granted.

  • Jack, Albert. "Shaggy Dogs and Black Sheep", 2005, Penguin Books.

A great read with in-depth research into idiom origins.

Comments

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    • Ben Reed profile imageAUTHOR

      Ben Reed 

      7 months ago from Redcar

      Thank you for your comment. The word "Prang" is used in frequently here in England. The Oxford English Dictionary describes this as a British term meaning to crash a car or aircraft. The phrase "the 4 on the floor" is a new one to me. I understand it to describe the 4 speed manual gearshift mounted on the floor of the car. I enjoyed the phrase "all show and no go", meaning that a car is all shiny and fully equipped, but under performs.

    • bradmasterOCcal profile image

      Brad 

      7 months ago

      I wasn't familiar with "14. Prang

      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."

      Never ever even heard anyone say it.

      Also, did I miss the 4 on the floor?

      Or all show and no go.

      Thanks

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