4 car terms misused by almost everyone

Brandan Gillogly

Automotive enthusiasm has its own glossary. Many of the terms mean something different from one niche of the culture to another, but some have well-established definitions. Below are four of my biggest pet peeves in car nomenclature.

Some argue that because language is always changing, every word acquires a new meaning over time. That’s true, but only if we let them—and why fix what isn’t broken?

With no side glass and no foldable top, the Dick King Roadster fits the classic definition. Brandan Gillogly

1. “Roadster”

The slow evolution of the term roadster is one that I’ll have to accept, but there’s a bar for entry—a point at which a car is simply not a roadster.

A century ago, “roadster” meant a two-seat, topless car with minimal weather protection. A Ford Model A roadster doesn’t have glass side windows, while a Model A cabriolet does. By the 1950s, the word’s meaning had been nudged a little—European sports cars with fabric side curtains and tops were still called roadsters, because their weather gear didn’t do much.

Later, the term evolved into a way to differentiate between sporty, two-seat convertibles and larger, more luxurious four-seat convertibles. That makes for a blurry line, of course. The Porsche 718 Boxster is a roadster, a 5000-pound, four-seat Bentley Continental GTC is not, and there’s plenty of room between the two for debate.

The upcoming Tesla Roadster, with its four seats and its fixed rear roof, is not a roadster by any definition, past or present. What’s so bad about admitting that a car is a targa-top?

Brandan Gillogly

2. “Big-block” Pontiac

Spend enough time searching classified ads, you’ll inevitably come across a car powered by a “Pontiac big-block.” There is no Pontiac big-block.

Pontiac unveiled its first V-8 in 1955. For nearly 30 years, until the division replaced its house V-8 with a version of GM’s “corporate” Chevy small-block, there was only one Pontiac V-8 architecture. From 265 cubic inches all the way to 455, Pontiac used just one bore spacing (the distance from the center of one cylinder bore to the center of the adjacent bore in the same bank). The 5.0-liter used in early Trans-Am racing (above) has the same external dimensions as a 455.

(Before anyone mentions it, Big Chief cylinder heads bolted onto a Chevy big-block bottom end don’t make the engine a Pontiac big-block.)

Oldsmobile is the same way, with identical bore spacing in everything from the 303 Rocket to the monster 455. Olds fans like to differentiate between small- and big-block engines based on deck height—the distance from crankshaft center to cylinder top—but that’s not what makes a big-block in my book. Tall-deck Chevy LSX engines are still small-blocks, after all.

With Olds and Pontiac, it seems the confusion comes from the fans themselves—each brand is now dead, and neither used the “small-block” or “big-block” nomenclature in any official capacity.

2015 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 track action closeup

3. “Heat Soak”

When the C7 Corvette Z06 debuted for 2015, road-racing netizens were quick to assault its supercharged, 650-hp LT4 V-8. They were certain that a naturally aspirated V-8 was the proper choice for a track-focused Corvette.

They had a point, at least for a bit. The initial version of the cooling system in that Z06 wasn’t up to the task of keeping intake air cool for prolonged track sessions at high ambient temperatures. The result was reduced performance. For 2017, Chevrolet remedied the problem with a new cooling system and a supercharger lid with an improved charge cooler. (The latter part also found its way onto later applications of that engine, including the sixth-gen Camaro ZL1.)

Plenty of outlets said those early Z06s were experiencing “heat soak.” They weren’t. The engines in those cars simply produced more heat than the cooling system could deal with. “Heat soak” is what happens when an engine’s cooling system rises in temperature after you shut it off. When the water pump is no longer pumping coolant through the radiator, because that pump only runs when the engine is running.

Park a hot car, fresh off the track, and turn off the engine—coolant temps will continue to climb. If an engine is still running and still pushing coolant through its radiator, but it can’t keep everything happy enough to produce the quoted factory power? We already have a term for that: overheating.

2022 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat Redeye Widebody Jailbreak front three quarter

4. “Widebody”

I’ve saved my most pedantic pet peeve for last. Fender flares don’t make a car a widebody.

Blame Dodge for legitimizing this. The picture above is a “widebody” Challenger. The car is also offered in a standard “narrow” configuration, without the fender flares.

If the fenders and quarter panels on the “narrow”  and “widebody” versions of a car are the same, something doesn’t add up. Let’s use a Mopar cousin as an example: You could call the Ram TRX (below, left) a widebody, sure. The body is substantially different from that of the base Ram. But the Power Wagon? I don’t think so.


Many of you probably disagree with these silly opinions. I’d love to hear your own car-language pet peeves—share them in the comments! (Just don’t expect to change my mind.)




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    I am with you on the roadster term. To me, a roadster is a permanently open-air car. No top of any type. A car with a top which folds away for open-air motoring, but which can be replaced is a convertible. A vehicle like a K5 Blazer would have a removeable hard top. Pedantry is great fun.

    Absolutely agree on all points. As a long-time Poncho Pilot, I’ve found myself expaining far too often that there’s no such thing as a ‘big block’ Pontiac. Unless one wants to say ALL Pontiac V8s are big blocks. I’ll go along with that, based on the relative difference between the Pontiac and the small blocks from Chevy and Ford.

    Agreed! But I’d like to suggest that, according to an article I read in either Hot Rod or High Performance Pontiac Magazine, the Pontiac is actually a mid-block. Small blocks are flush on the bottom. Big block blocks have a “Y” shape with a stump on the bottom. Pontiacs have the same thing, but the bottom of the “Y” is very short. It fits between what is considered a small block and a big block.

    I have a 2014 Mercedes Benz Cabriolet. It is a convertible with a self stowing fabric and frame top. Convertible is the American term and Cabriolet is the European term.

    I’ve always understood that a roadster could have a folding top (or removable hardtop), but that top must be easily removable, simple catches holding it on, so that it could be driven without any top. Wasn’t the C2 Corvette like this, or was the top frame permanently mounted and just flipped back to attach on top of the deck cover?

    My 1931 Oldsmobile was identified by the manufacturer as either a Convertible Roadster (CR) or a Deluxe Convertible Roadster (DCR) which is included in the vehicle ID number……The utilization of various terms have been used by companies differently since early on………yes it does have a folding top as well as roll up windows…….and a windshield that folds flat against the cowl.

    Missed a lot of misused terms, but my favorite is SUV. The SUV was a off road vehicle (off roading was the sport). They needed a vehicle that could carry tools and tires plus other essentials to fix the serious off road vehicles. They started using vehicles like Broncos and Blazers that had strong undercarriage components but actually had room for the necessities. Hench the Sports Utility vehicle. Now a days they slap the name on everything because it fools people into thinking they are rugged or adventurous. But let’s be serious 95+% of the SUVs today aren’t really anything but their counterpart riding on tall wheels. You either drive a slightly taller Station Wagon or a Hatchback that rides on highered suspension with bigger wheels. Sorry to burst your bubble but let’s be real. And as for the people who say they want the added height to be able to see better? You are fooling yourselves as well. Look at most small ‘SUVs’ and you’ll notice that you might sit a few inches higher at most then that Sedan next to you. But even more reality hits when you realize that with the prolific use of pickups and commercial trucks on the road you aren’t seeing anything anyways. Except the swinging metal fake balls hanging off the tow hitch on the enpty 4 door jacked up truck in front of you with only a driver.

    The term “Roadster” began in the 1800’s, before automobiles, as in the two-seater, “manual” drop top, like the one “Doc” travelled in. in “Gunsmoke”. A Lamborghini, Gallardo is a Spyder (electric drop top), whereas a Lamborghini, Murcielogo is a Roadster (manual drop top)

    My favorites are “sway bars” instead of “anti-sway bars” and the use of the word “rims” vs. “wheels.” I know, I have issues.

    I agree with “rims”. I hate that word in the context of wheels. The rim is just part of the wheel…

    To be clear Rims and Wheels both refer to the metal part that bolts onto the axel and where the tire mounts. Neither is wrong so I am frustrated when I refer to the ‘wheels’ and some assume that is the whole assembly of wheel (rim) and tire or correct me for not saying ‘rims’. I hope I don’t have issues too.

    I respectfully disagree. Anti-roll bar would mean it attempts to prevent you from rolling. A roll bar merely protects you when you do roll.

    Actually, anti-roll bar is the correct term, as they reduce body roll. They don’t prevent a car from rolling over 😊.

    I’m in complete agreement with you. “Roll” is the correct term to describe the body leaning. I can substantiate this from my flight training and understanding the forces on an airplane. “Roll” is the correct term for that direction of force. And not describing rolling-over.

    Brrrt. Technically, “lean” is also a different phenomenon also. Roll occurs around the roll axis of the suspension. Lean occurs around the lean axis, which is a different axis as it involves the tire compression and deflection.

    I agree, sort of.
    A roll bar is rigid, hopefully preventing any movement at all as well as protection from rolling over.
    A sway bar is a flexible bar designed to allow movement but resist sway so technically it is an anti-sway bar. Anti-sway bar is just a pain to say. Vehicles sway while cornering. An anti-sway bar addresses this problem.
    Problem = sway. Solution = bar.
    Although I’m no language expert, the “sway” in sway bar is an adjective describing a noun (bar). The “anti” in anti-sway bar is an adverb describing a verb (sway). The physical bar is a thing, what it does is an action. “Anti-sway bar” describes what it DOES while “sway-bar” describes what it IS.

    Wrong. Sway means a rythmic movement, such as the sway of a woman’s hips as she walks. Roll means rotation around an axis. Anti-roll bar therefore means a bar intended to offset (anti) the tendency to rotate. A correct understanding of the meaning of words is a prerequisite for the understanding of those words in a particular usage.

    Like I said, I’m no language expert. I’m also not the guy who named the bar in the first place. I believe the terms in question are anti-sway vs sway. Both being technically incorrect. Nevertheless, they are the two most common terms used for naming a bar added to a vehicle’s suspension to resists roll.

    A roll bar does not prevent you from rolling over ,It protects you in a roll over from the roof folding in.

    Except sway is a linear lateral motion while roll is a lateral rational motion. The bars design function is to reduced roll.

    The motions of the six degrees of freedom, commonly used on ships and airplanes:

    Pitch describes the up and down rotational motion of a vessel.

    Roll is how we describe the rotational/tilting motion from side to side.

    Yaw spins the vessel about an axis perpendicular to the level reference.

    Heave defines the tarnslational up and down motion.

    Sway this lateral sliding motion.

    Surge is the forward and aft motion of the vessel.

    These motions may be singular or oscillatory.

    Some advertisers actually refer to them as: How Anti-Roll Bars Work – How To Improve Car Handling

    I agree, but I actually called them sway bars OR anti roll bars, same thing, to me.
    Because yes, they do restrict the chassis from leaning or rolling in a
    But what about engines vs motors??

    I wouldn’t say that you have issues in a negative sense. You understand the value of accuracy and expressed that. I say that’s a wonderful quality, and particularly so living in a world chock-full of misinformation.

    Funny, anti-sway is also incorrect. Technically, it is anti-roll, as sway has a frequency and (can) occur over a different axis.

    And here I thought we were going to include my top pet-peeve….”Turn over” – as in the engine would “Crank” but not “turn over”…
    Drives me nuts….”turn over” and “crank” are the same thing.
    When the engine “starts” it “fires up”.

    At the machine shop I used to work at, We used make a “3/4 race cam” by throwing an old small block Chevy cam at an old block and see if you could break 1/4 off the end, leaving 3/4 intact. A 1/2 race cam was much easier to make, just breaking the cam in half.

    YES and YES. A wheel isn’t complete until there’s a tire on it. Until then it’s only a rim.

    I don’t think there is any “room for debate” about calling a Cayman a “roadster”. It’s a coupe plain and simple. Who ever calls it a roadster should have their “car oerson” card pulled.

    “Sports Car” This is probably the most argued over and misused term in the history of cars.

    My definition: Two seats, two doors (Or less), designed with driving enjoyment and handling/performance as its primary purpose.

    Yes, this, the reason the OG Dodge Viper was a return to form and a real sports car in an era where there were none true to the definition.

    I thought the more hardcore Pontiac posters on the old Hagerty forums resolved? that all Pontiac engines are big blocks, like a 348/409 Chev, etc. because they are not dimensional cousins to the Chevy small block. That is to say, if there is only two piles to sort all engines into that’s where they’d go. So while redundant (there is no small block Pontiac to sort) it mattered when you were considering which engine to swap into your old hot rod, drag car, etc. in the 50s/60s.

    Roadster goes along with coupe, phaeton, etc. for the definitions swaying from what seemed like more consensus in the 20s (I vaguely recall a 1932 Ford sales illustration that had pretty much every body style that existed up till then). Pronunciation of these terms also varies (USA compared to most others).

    Widebody has to have different fenders or it is just flares. Nothing wrong with flares, just not the same thing. A widebody can have flares as well…

    Agreed! A ‘wide-body” has doors spread further apart from tub width changes. And my car has anti-sway bars on both ends because I don’t want ’50s Buick-like ‘sway’ in a sportscar. Another- I once wrote a 2 page article on the horribly misused term “GT” or Grand (large) Touring, which is used today on everything but pickups and microwave ovens. “Turbo” is another which IS used on microwave ovens….

    Your both right apparently:

    The 1930 Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 Gran Turismo. In 1929, Alfa Romeo introduced its updated 6C 1750 model with two different 1.75-liter engines. The less powerful, single-overhead-cam model was called Turismo, or Touring, and the more powerful, dual-overhead-cam models were named Sport: Super Sport, Super Sport Compressore (supercharged), and Super Sport Testa Fissa. For 1930, the Sport and Super Sport Compressore models were renamed Gran Turismo (or Grand Touring) and Gran Turismo Compressore, while the other models were dropped. A Gran Sport model was also introduced, leading to the less common but still used GS name.

    -from a motortrend article

    Back in the day when you owed a street rod it was always pre 1948. Then all of a sudden anything with a modified motor was a street rod. I don’t know just got under my skin.

    My dad’s WW2 gasoline rationing book noted that he drove a 1940 Pontiac “Coach”, which I’m sure was then a term for “sedan”. When did “Coach” finally pass out of the lexicon?

    My understanding is a coach – in car terms anyway – is/was a two-door sedan.

    It seems to have slid from the lexicon in perhaps the late 60’s/early ’70’s when muscle cars and personal cars became popular.

    Just noting that, while pronunciation may vary, the correct pronunciation is with an accent on the e (ie: “kupé”), as it comes from the french word coupé, based on the past participle of the French verb couper (“to cut”) and thus indicates a car which has been “cut” or made shorter than standard. I know some people in the US pronounce it with an accent in the u and dropping the e (ie: “kúp”), but that is not consistent with the ethimology

    Actually if you really want to get technical one was not the same block.

    301 V8 Pontiacs were smaller and I think that fueled the big black small block debate by the unwashed recent Pontiac tribe members who never drove a Pontiac with a Pontiac engine.

    301s had a shorter deck height and different intake width, but otherwise a 400 would bolt in place.

    Small/Big is less accurate than trash/non-trash.

    The 303 Trans Am race engine that he mentions in the article also had a shorter deck if I remember correctly. It would therefore be a little narrower that a production engine except the 301.

    As a long time Pontiac owner, the use of the small/big block descriptor has always bothered me. I guess it stems from contemporary engine families from Chevy, Ford, Mopar and since these engines are/were more prevalent that Pontiacs (and Olds) people just assumed that all engines follow the same distinction. When I’ve tried to inform people of how the Pontiac engine family is structured they look at me like I’m from Mars, thinking that you can’t get such a range of displacements from the same basic block dimensions

    Cotter pin, not cotter key! A-arm, not A-frame! Rocker or cam covers, not valve covers! Harmonic damper, not harmonic balancer, unless it does include a balance weight!

    The big one you missed was the misuse of the word Classic when many publications, sites, shows and other car-related sites, posters, flyers and cruise nights refer to any collector car as a Classic. I’m hopeful your
    editors, reporters and management at Hagerty know what a real classic is and understand how much that
    word is used incorrectly over and over again.

    “Classic” and “Muscle” car will always be two terms that will foster multi-sided discussions (read: arguments). And I’m not about to get in the middle of those, nosiree.
    But one that kind of galls me is “racecar”. A car that has raced (but is also driven on the street) is not automatically a racecar, IMHO. A racecar is purpose-built for one use. And it’s not in any way, shape or form street legal. Can you race a street car? Sure. But that doesn’t make it a racecar – a racecar ONLY races.
    That’s my 2 cents’ worth (and the value of my view is really a LOT less than 2 cents, trust me)! 😃

    I have a “Pro Street” ’65 Chevelle. 540, TH400 w/ Gear Vender overdrive, 4.22 9-inch, 6-point cage, tubbed with 29 15.50 15’s…
    In my opinion it’s a hybrid (street/strip)

    Hosting car shows in CA, I always used a pre-determined year for vehicles allowed in the show. One show wanted all cars Of “Special Interest”. That pretty much covers it all.

    Unfortunately most older folks think anything newer than 1973 doesn’t qualify as a classic. Those guys will be the death of the car show hobby.

    I could be one of those guys. If I may ask, how did you arrive at 1973 as the “cutoff” year? Are you thinking “classics” or “muscle cars”?
    Thank you

    You are the death of this hobby because you refuse to accept that “old” people as you call them are entitled to their opinions.

    Lol I am over 50 so not exactly young. I will say that many of the car shows I go to do not welcome newer classics. Not a good way to pass the torch. And by newer classics I am referring to the post muscle car era.

    Actually, it’s the other way around. Fast forward to 2050… “Classic” car show with a beautifully restored 1st year of production Prius. That’ll draw a crowd!

    I’d argue the Mopar “big cars” are more of a widebody then whatever Ram put on the Power Wagon.
    The PW, outside of having the ugliest face this side of a Silverado, has Amazon special fender flairs that add maybe an inch or two of width each side? For tires the normal 2500’s could absolutely rock without the flares.
    The big cars flares, on the other hand, aren’t actual widebodies like Rocket Bunny/Streetfighter/your-local-turbo-Civic-drag-car kits, but there’s quite a few people who just randomly tack and screw flares to their cars and they get accepted as widebodies, so I’d imagine Dodge gets too as well.

    “Coupe” which, these days, apparently, can mean anything the manufacturer wants it to. 4-door sedan with no usable back seat? COUPE! High-riding SUV with a slightly-sloping roofline? COUPE!


    “Hardtop” when the car has a B Pillar like the MINI. It isn’t a hardtop if it has a B Pillar. A pet peeve

    When GM premiered the “Hardtop Convertible” with Olds in 1949, that started the whole pillarless trend which devolved into misnomers such as ‘Hardtop” or “Two-Door Hartop” and “Four-Door Hardtop”. At the time, only convertibles had no “B” pillar. As a kid, I was taught the proper term was “Hartop Convertible”.

    Hearing hardtop convertible always gave me a fingernails on the chalkboard reaction.
    There’s nothing convertible about it.

    The vehicle converts from having a hardtop roof to having no roof. Sounds like a hardtop convertible to me.

    The c8 has that. They just call it a convertible.
    The subject “hardtop convertable” has a non removable hardtop with no b piller or window frames.

    The “original” GM “hardtops” – no B pillar – in ’49 were made using the car maker’s convertible frame and reinforcements. It was necessarily a “convertible” as far as structure was concerned because just hacking out the B pillar out of a sedan would leave the car with a deficit of rigidity. Therefore the new ’49 body style was, in truth, a convertible with a hard, permanent steel roof – not soft and foldable/retractable.

    I would think that members of the Classic car club of America
    Owners of 1930s Duesenburg, V16 Cadillac, V12 Packard cringe when they hear “Classic Mustang or Classic Camero.

    Step back from it… Classic Car Club of America has a very “prestige country club we can’t allow that in here” air to its founding charter. They didn’t coin the word classic, so the masses don’t have to accept their definition of it.

    Reminds me of the Mean Girls movie really… car hobby needs to be above that.

    While I have heard that definition many times in my life, the resources online do not support it. For example, on the MIT School of Engineering website, “Ask an Engineer”, they discuss the origin of both terms, and point out how “engine” and “motor” long ago became basically synonymous. And, even originally over one hundred years ago, the two terms did NOT refer to electric v. combustion. They point out that the term “motor” was used in reference to Olds’s and Duryea’s horseless carriages, which were gasoline-powered.

    So, it would seem to be time to put that “motor” v. “engine” definitional difference to rest.

    In this day of EV’s, the terms likely will gain in popularity. EV’s = motors and ICE’s = engines. Hybrids? That’s anybody’s guess.

    A “motor” converts energy in one form directly into motion, as electricity turning a starter motor. An “engine” converts energy in one form into another form and then into motion, as in turning gasoline into heat and the heat of combustion into force that turns the crank and then wheels. Or so that is what I learned in engineering school.

    This is my understanding of Motor vs. engine in the historic sense. Gasoline to expanding gases to mechanical motion would make an engine as would coal to water expansion as steam to mechanical motion. Electric power to EMF would be a motor as is rocket fuel to direct reactions from the engine nozzle

    I agree, RJ. To me, this is the most contentious issue in the automotive universe. No one ever says “electric engine” , simply because we all know it’s really a “motor”……and by the same token, god forbid that we ever hear the term “internal combustion motor”. Enough whining, time to go install a new starter engine in my Chevy small block motor.

    Hmmm. A true conundrum me thinks, what with “motorsports” and “motor-head”. The bottom line is effective communication such that we all understand what’s being said without being particularly “picky” about it.

    Wheelcovers vs Hubcaps. They are not interchangeable although people use the terms as if they are. Wheelcovers cover the whole wheel; hubcaps just cover the hub where the lug nuts are.

    I agree completely – they are completely different. It seemed to be better defined in the 50’s and 60’s when automakers offered both hubcaps and wheel covers.

    Hmmm. If the “hub” is the portion of the axle unit where the end of the spindle/axle with its wheel bearing, castellated nut, and cotter pin reside, shouldn’t that be properly termed the “hub cap”? I’ve seen references to that little hammer-on cap being a “dust cap” or “grease cap”…

    I wondered when these two terms would come up. I agree that a “Wheel Cover” would be the one that covers the entire wheel (rim) where as a Hub Cap to me has always been the “Dust Cap” that covers the axle with the castle nut, cotter pin, outside bearing, and keeps the bearings out of the dust. However, I had forgotten that many older cars actually had smaller covers that only covered the lug nut area, so I guess I need to change my thinking to include “Hub Cap” as the cover that hides the lug nut area and start to use “Dust Cap” to mean just the cap that keeps the dust out of the bearing. Bottom line to me is that Hup Cap and Wheel Cover are not the same thing.

    I remember when I had an industrial sales job, in my late 20s (50 years ago). I was calling on a Detroit manufacturer of wheel covers and accidently referred to them as hub caps. The VP of sales, in a very nice and professional way, “educated me on the difference between the two. I think he took pity on my lack of knowledge and became a very good customer.

    I always chuckled when my late brother-in-law referred to them as “hudcaps”. Then again, he grew up in Chicago so I guess that’s allowed.

    Station Wagons – where did that term originate and turn into SUV’s (obviously a result of SUV’s being classified differently for fuel standards and having greater road clearance). Still, they’re station wagons, 4 door with in vehicle storage stretching to the rear of the vehicle.

    “Station wagons” were originally horse-drawn large wagons that took passengers and their luggage to the train station. Many, many terms, including most body styles actually predate the automobile, including sedan, coupe, shooting brake (a long, low buggy built like a coupe, but with room for rifles for fox hunting and the like). Oh, and the dashboard was originally a literal board at the carriage driver’s feet to protect him (it was usually a “him”) from the horse ‘dash’/manure.

    One term that has been getting more utilization (incorrectly and making me cringe) is “drive line”.

    Drive line is NOT the same as “drive train”.

    No debate here; on the Roadster definition or what a real wide body is. The other two I don’t dabble or even care about – lol. I do like to call the curved air intakes on our Roadster “frog mouths” though.

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