How to Know Just Enough About Cars to Hurt Yourself and Others
Guest post by Doozy84
(or How to make a character speak convincingly in mechanic, without actually knowing anything about cars.)
Are you writing a character who has automotive knowledge, but don’t know the first thing about cars such as how to check oil or tire pressure, and you need some good jargon to make that character sound like they know what they’re talking about? Don’t worry, I’ve got you fam! Take this crash course in auto-jargon and you could be mistaken for The Stig!
Part Category: Speed performance
A turbocharger is a contraption that looks like a snail with a turbine fan in its shell that is piped into the engine’s exhaust system. It helps the car go faster by sucking more air into the intakes, so that there is more explosive oxygen in the system to detonate in the cylinders.
“Exhaust” is the waste gas created from that explosion.
Turbos work by siphoning off engine exhaust. This exhaust runs through the turbo, and spins the fan. The fan sucks clean air into the intake. Because this symbiotic system requires the car to already be driving and producing exhaust to work, there is a bit of lag in the system before the turbo starts to suck in air. This is known as boost lag: the time between the turbo’s spin-up and the delivery of the power. Think of it like a mini-gun in a shooter game. You have to spin the barrels before it starts shooting.
Turbos are more efficient than superchargers because the amount of work they do is relative to the amount of work that the engine is doing. Older turbos have boost lag, but modern turbos have barely any boost lag at all. A car can be turbocharged and supercharged, if it is both, we call it twincharged.
Part Category: Speed performance
A supercharger is a giant airscrew that sits on top of the engine and sucks more air into the intake to push more explosive oxygen into the cylinders to detonate. They were invented before turbos.
The major difference between a turbo and a supercharger is how they accomplish the same goal. Superchargers are driven by a belt. If the engine is on and the belt is spinning, then the screw in the supercharger is sucking. Because the supercharger is driven by the same network of belts that drive the other significant part of the engine, the power delivery of the supercharger is instant, it doesn’t have to wait for exhaust to move through it like the turbo does.
Unfortunately, superchargers are less efficient than turbos because they are always on. Their lower efficiency but instant power delivery make them ideal for drag racing. A car can be turbocharged and supercharged; if it is both, we call it twincharged.
Part Category: Speed performance
Intercoolers are refrigeration devices that are added to the air intake system to make the air going into the fuel/air mix for the engine colder. Colder air is denser than hot air, meaning that more explosive oxygen is crammed into the cylinder for detonation.
An intercooler is often used in conjunction with other intake parts such as turbos. They can often be found wired up on the front exterior of the vehicle.
Part category: Traction and drive train
The differential is the part of the drive train that transfers the power from the driveshaft to the axle to drive the car.
A driveshaft is a rotating shaft which transmits torque in an engine; an axle is a rod or spindle (either fixed or rotating) passing through the centre of a wheel or group of wheels.
On a flat and even road, the differential transfers an equal amount of power to the left and right wheel. However, if one wheel is off the ground or the terrain makes traction uneven between the two wheels, the transferred power will often take the path of least resistance and go directly to the wheel that has less traction, spinning it more and wasting power. A limited-slip diff prevents this by capping the amount of power that is delivered to a wheel, so that the amount of power that is transferred to that wheel is bottlenecked or gated by the amount of power transferred to the other.
This way, if one wheel has no traction or is spinning in the air, the lim-slip diff makes sure the correct amount of power is going to the wheel that is still on the ground, rather than giving it all to the wheel with the least resistance. Useful on race tracks with banked curves and off road rugged terrain.
Part category: intake and fuel mixture
Carburetors are mechanical parts that regulate the flow and mixture of air and gasoline into the engine for the explosions that drive the pistons. The number of barrels the carburetor has is an indicator of the volume of fuel-air mixture it produces and its performance.
Carbs are old technology, proven, reliable, replaceable and repairable, but most modern cars you’ll find on the street today use fuel injection instead, a newer technology with different maintenance challenges. Both carbs and fuel injectors require maintenance and cleaning and can negatively affect the performance of a vehicle when dirty or clogged.
Part category: intake and fuel mixture, speed performance
Nitrous oxide is a highly combustible chemical that is used as an additive or base for fuel in combustion engines. In certain kinds of high performance vehicles, it can be the primary fuel chemical, but in a gasoline engine, a small amount of nitrous is injected into the fuel system from a gas canister somewhere in the vehicle.
In the Mad Max films, Max has a lever system installed in his shifter that he can pull on to open the gas valve and inject nitrous. This is more for movie-magic drama than actual practical application though, and a typical nitrous injection system will just involve turning the valve directly on the gas line. A small amount of nitro goes a long way, because gasoline engines are designed to burn a specific type of fuel, and introducing too much or too little can have a catastrophic long-term impact on the life of the engine - or for that matter, an immediate and permanent one!
Crash Course in Car Culture
Culture of Origin: Urban Latino and African American
What is done to the car: Lowriders are vehicles, most famously American cars such as Chevrolets, that have had their suspension modified to be as low to the ground as possible.
The artist can accomplish this by chopping the existing springs, installing new shorter springs, or using alternative technology like air bags and hydraulics to lift and lower the height of the vehicle. This is also includes technology that can make the car hop or bounce.
In addition to these modifications, lowrider cars often have gaudy and expensive paint work that can include iridescent or metal flake paint colours, airbrushed murals, and hand-painted pin striping. For a lowrider, the style of the car is more important than the performance, because being so low to the ground means that the car will likely be damaged in poor road conditions if it is driven too fast or too recklessly. They’re built to be seen, not heard.
Lowriders that are made to have aggressive hopping hydraulics for competitions are often trailer-cars; they are unsuitable for daily driving and are built only for competitive hopping. It’s not uncommon for them to shake themselves apart during these competitions.
Culture of Origin: Japan
What is done to the car: Itasha is a Japanese play on words that means “painful car.” Originally, Itasha was an insult that the Japanese used to describe imported Italian cars, which were considered to be ugly and gaudy, and that it was more patriotic to drive a domestically produced Japanese car. Overtime, the definition of the word changed, and the moniker came to be used to describe vehicles that have decals or paintings on them that often feature images from Japanese popular culture - most often anime characters. Today, a car that has been heavily decorated with anime characters is considered an Itasha. As such they are something of a neckbeard favourite!
Culture of Origin: Japan
What is done to the car: Bosozoku cars are decorated with wild and highly individual bodywork that drastically changes the appearance of the car. Fenders, body kits, giant lips and other features are added to the vehicle to personalize it, as well as large exhaust pipes that are sometimes bent into wacky shapes. Similarly, a cargo truck decorated in such a style is called a dekotora.
Bosozoku style comes from Japanese outlaw biker gangs that used radical aesthetic modification of their motorcycles to individualize their bikes and defy conformity. The style was later applied to cars and trucks. In Modern Japan, most of the Bosozoku generation has now aged out of their rebellious phase or are in prison.
In the modern day, most Japanese bike gangs now are mainly composed of young women.
Culture of Origin: Urban America
What’s done to the car: Donking is similar to lowriding, in that the modifications are purely aesthetic and do not improve the vehicle’s performance, and may even hinder it. The difference is that where a Lowrider is designed to get as close to scraping the street as possible, a Donk is made with the opposite goal in mind by putting huge wheels on it to raise it as high as possible.
Unfortunately, just because a Donk has big wheels, does not mean that it's any better for off-roading or is more forgiving to drive. Donk wheels are not the same as monster truck or off-road wheels, and are all show and no go. Their use is aesthetic, not practical.
Culture of Origin: America
What’s done to the car: Rat rodding is the mostly aesthetic practice of making the car look as beat up and mean as possible, while still retaining mechanical function. The idea is to make it look junky without being junky.
Rat rods are still hot rods, so a variety of performance enhancing work may or may not be done to the car, but the key difference between a rat rod and a hot rod is that a rat rod looks like a piece of junk on purpose. Rat rods will often have damaged paint, rust, patina, or a variety of these damaged conditions faked, painted on, or preserved with a chemical coating to protect the vehicle.
A hot rod is a vehicle modified to increase its power and speed.
Culture of Origin: America
What’s done to the car: Gassers are retro-style drag race cars that are built out of normal, conventional cars and powered by regular gas station pump gas instead of expensive high performance fuel mixtures. Gassers are typically built on traditional classic hot rods like Ford coupes, Chevy Bel Airs, and other classic “muscle” cars.
Most gassers have been completely gutted, and are useless as road cars. They have gigantic rear tires for drag racing, and small front axles that are lifted to keep the noise of the car pointing high, to push more of the weight of the car to the back and keep gravity on the rear wheels. The front bumper and much of the non-essential aesthetic parts are removed from the front of the car, and replaced with a small gas tank that pumps directly into the engine (the fuel cell on your car is usually in the rear under the trunk and the fuel has to be pumped all the way across the car to the engine). Almost everything non-essential to the vehicle’s function is removed.
Gassers are drag racers, but they are as much about style as they are about speed, because they are built out of classic cars and often use period-specific parts and technology.
Doozy84 had his book, Hell Patrol, published in 2022. Find it here on Smashwords.
Title image by Doozy84 and used with his kind permission.