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50 Car Expressions and Idioms That Shape the English Language

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Ben has a life-long interest in language and is particularly interested in the expressions, phrases, and idioms that contribute to it.

The majority of idioms spoken today have their origins in days long past. However, cars are a comparatively modern addition to our lives. Such has been their impact that a whole raft of motoring associated expressions has become entrenched within our everyday language.


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 cautionary messages, 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 refer to a vehicle as a "jalopy" is to see it as 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."

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."

Seen Better Days - What a Jalopy

A car that has seen better days and a prime candidate for the phrase: a Jalopy or Old Banger

A car that has seen better days and a prime candidate for the phrase: a Jalopy or Old Banger

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."

Fast Driver

Professional racing drivers require years of training along with an uncanny ability to react to fast-changing events rapidly. Yet, many car drivers think they are on a race track when traveling on our highways.

Professional racing drivers require years of training along with an uncanny ability to react to fast-changing events rapidly. Yet, many car drivers think they are on a race track when traveling on our highways.

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 driver's wish for more speed, even if this means paying little respect to the virtues of due care and caution.

4. Hell for leather

To say that you should travel very fast.

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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

This idiom refers to holding the car accelerator pedal to the floor and maintaining it 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 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."

Amber Gambler

Don't be an amber gambler

Don't be an amber gambler

Let's Not Run Out of Steam Just Yet'

Naturally, after traveling at speed, you will 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

To say that the driver of a vehicle can bring it 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 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

This phrase describes a situation where a vehicle has suffered a significant accident. Usually, it collides 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

An expression 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

Said when describing 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, 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 that 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."

Fender Bender

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.

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 new pastures 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 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

To tempt someone 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 driving 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."

23. U-Turn

To have a change of mind. To pursue some objective by enacting 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 Formula One and Rallying events. 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, 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 hotwired 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

A term often attributed 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. An expression with similar connotations to joyriding.

31. Panda car

It describes a British police car. 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?

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Which of these describes a Jalopy?
    • A type of hot pepper
    • A chicken dish
    • A car that is far from its best and needs scrapping
  2. What is a Rockford Turn?
    • A type of sea bird
    • A driving manoeuvre
    • To change your mind
  3. What is a Chop Shop?
    • A type of supermarket
    • A place where stolen cars are broken down
    • A car dealership

Answer Key

  1. A car that is far from its best and needs scrapping
  2. A driving manoeuvre
  3. A place where stolen cars are broken down

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.

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 and the more conventional front seat steering wheel.

Today, however, the term backseat driver has derogatory undertones. We use this idiom to describe a person giving uncalled 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 is: "You're driving me nuts. Stop shouting directions at me. I know where I'm going."

34. To carpool

Describes a situation where work colleagues or friends share a single car to travel to their workplace.

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

This idiom relates to 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. Three 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 of their 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

40. To put a spoke in someone's wheel

The above phrase describes a person 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

A phrase used to describe someone good at bartering or who 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 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

Meaning: a time when you must make an important decision that will affect your future.

45. The squeaky wheel gets the oil

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 worldwide.

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 valuable and well-structured resource.

  • Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, 2000, Oxford University Press.

I found this a helpful 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.


Ben Reed (author) from Redcar on February 19, 2019:

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.

Brad on February 18, 2019:

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.


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