12 automotive terms to survive cars and coffee

Like many subcultures, the automotive hobby is filled with jargon. Visit any car show and you’re likely to overhear a ton of terms, both relatively common and obscure, that the average Corolla driver wouldn’t be able to decipher from ancient Sumerian.

So if you’re hoping to bring your friend, family member, or significant other with you to an upcoming cars and coffee, do them a favor and hand them this cheat sheet of key terms and rudimentary explanations. Even if they don’t turn into a diehard gearhead like you, they can at least fake it ’til they make it with some essential automotive verbiage.

If you prefer to watch the video version of this list (recorded via livestream) with additional content, Hagerty editors Cameron Neveu and Joe DeMatio can guide you through a handy glossary of essential terms to prove that anyone can brave cars and coffee with confidence.

Cars and coffee

Might as well start simple, right? A cars and coffee is essentially a gathering of people and their vehicles, usually early in the morning and over the weekend, in a parking lot or other public venue. Unlike more traditional car shows or meet-ups, the vibe at a cars and coffee is very laid-back and relaxed, and often everyone is on the road and out of there by 9 a.m. or so. The idea is to show up with a car, chew the fat with some other automotive enthusiasts, slurp down a cup or two of joe and maybe munch on a doughnut, and be on your way until the next gathering.

Concours d’elegance

1937 Alfa Romeo 8C best in show winner
Evan Klein

On the other end of this spectrum is a concours d’elegance, often called just “concours” for short. These are judged shows that are part of a century-old tradition of evaluating vehicles based on the quality of their aesthetics. This type of event is far more likely to happen on a fancy golf course than in the nearby Home Depot parking lot on Saturday mornings. Think champagne, caviar, and big pre-war beauties with fender-mounted spare wheels. The archetypical example of such a show is the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, which is the centerpiece of Monterey Car Week.

Hot rod

custom hot rod
Cameron Neveu

This is a very general term that different people use in specific ways, but to many it means a customized, upgraded pre-war car. A lot of people consider the 1932 Ford the standard for this genre of modified car (and Chip Foose can explain why), but there are plenty of others who use the term “hot rod” as a generic catch-all for a fast car that’s no longer stock.


Tim Timoszyk's 1942 Willys Drag Car
Tim Timoszyk’s 1942 Willys Drag Car Cameron Neveu

A “gasser” is a type of modified vehicle that refers to a specific drag-racing class, runs on gasoline rather than race fuel, and could be based on anything from the 1930s through roughly the 1950s. This class was very popular in the 1950s and ’60s, and a key point is that a gasser has a solid front axle and squat stance to help distribute weight to the rear.

Rat rod

Ford Model A truck Rat rod
Ford Model A truck Rat Rod (photo by Brian Snelson)

Like certain things, it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. A rat rod has a certain distressed aesthetic that Mad Max fans will recognize, and the cars in such a style are usually pre-war and perhaps extensively modified, chopped, and lowered. On this type of car, the internals are much more upgraded than the exterior.


modified nissan skyline gt r front three-quarter

This acronym stands for Japanese Domestic Market, referring to cars that were sold exclusively in Japan or otherwise originated from Japan and did not make it to many other markets like North America. Many of the coolest JDM cars that did not come to the U.S. were celebrated in video games like Gran Turismo, and the culture around vehicles like the Nissan Skyline GT-R and the Honda Civic Type R in the 1990s and early 2000s went mainstream with the popularization of the Fast and Furious franchise. Tuner culture, which came to America via southern California and in large part due to the Asian-American community, is characterized by lowered suspension, graphics, big wheels, neon, and exuberant body kits. You’ll sometimes even see American cars like the Cobalt SS and Neon adopt this type of aesthetic.

Grand tourer, or GT car

Lexus ls 500 grand touring car front three-quarter
Unsplash / Steady Hand Co.

A GT car is traditionally a high-performance, luxurious two-door vehicle designed for two people and their luggage to drive for long-distance travel at great speed and comfort. If you wanted to drive from Paris to Prague or Boston to Baltimore, a modern car such as the Aston Martin Vantage, Porsche 911, or Lexus LC500 would be perfectly suited to such a task. Some GT cars have two seats, others have an extra row with a pair of smaller seats in the second row (also known as a 2+2). These extra seats are meant really for your stuff you don’t want to throw into the trunk, but you can also strap children back there, or perhaps a colleague you don’t particularly pity.

Shooting brake

1965 Aston Martin DB5 Shooting Brake by Radford
RM Sotheby’s

The British are responsible for this term, which refers to a wagon-like vehicle with lots of cargo space for hunting dogs, gear, and guns. A “brake” is a horse-drawn carriage, so it follows that a sizable vehicle suitable for hunting would be called a shooting brake. Even today, when people are more likely to use a pickup truck than an E-Class wagon, the British term for a long-roof wagon is a shooting brake, regardless of whether it has two or four doors.


custom hot rod
Thom Taylor

Referring to a type of open carriage, in the automotive sphere a phaeton is a type of vehicle (usually from the 1900s to 1930s) without any fixed roof. Often with a convertible top that covers several rows of seating, a popular type of phaeton in the 1920s was the dual-cowl phaeton, which separates the rear passengers from the front-row passengers.

Kamm-tail, or Kammback

Speedback GT
Speedback GT (photo courtesy of Hana Krulova)

Owing its name to German designer and aerodynamics expert Wunibald Kamm, the Kammback is a special type of car tail design. A sloping roof usually terminates with a stubby, flat, or even sometimes concave tail that reduces aerodynamic drag, improves fuel economy, and retains a reasonably practical trunk shape that still looks good. Classic examples of the Kammback would include the Aston Martin DB6, as well as the Audi 1000 Coupe S. You can find modern examples more commonly on the road today, like the first-generation Honda Insight, or even the C6-generation Corvette.


The transaxle itching to be reinstalled last spring.
The transaxle itching to be reinstalled last spring.

Now we’re getting into something a little more technical, but it’s easy enough to understand. An engine is what transforms the potential energy of fuel into kinetic energy, which is then distributed to the driven wheels via the transmission. A transaxle combines the transmission, axle, and differential (a set of gears which allows wheels on an axle to move at different speeds, especially while turning) into one space- and weight-efficient package. A transaxle is especially useful when it is positioned at the same end of the car as the driven wheels (up front in a front-wheel-drive car or out back for a mid- or rear-engine car) reducing the distance between where the power is made and where it spins the wheels.

Dual-clutch transmission (DCT)

C8 Corvette Wheel Detail

If you’ve ever wondered how people drive a stick-shift, they do it by engaging a clutch with a pedal and physically changing the gears with a lever. In a dual-clutch transmission, the concept is similar but distinct in a few key ways. For one, DCTs do not require the driver to operate the clutch at all, and gear changes can be either fully automatic or operated via steering-wheel-mounted paddles. In the types of DCTs commonly seen on road cars (rather than race cars), there are two clutches packaged inside a single housing, with one clutch assigned to the even gears and another to the odd.

The quality and performance of DCTs has vastly improved over the last 20 years, but Volkswagen Group is particularly well-known for its successful and widespread use of this technology. DCTs are used in everything from the Volkswagen GTI all the way up to the highest-performing Porsches, which use a specially-branded variant of the technology called Porsche Doppelkupplung (Porsche double-clutch), or PDK.

Which terms would you include on a cars-and-coffee survival guide? Let us know in the comments below.

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