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Mechanics translated

Carlton Boyce / 31 July 2018

There are certain cultural norms that defy common sense, but few make less sense than the gobbledygook we put up with from some mechanics and garages.

A mechanic stands holding a wrench

But, do we have to just accept it? No, of course not; it’s time to fight back – and here’s how to do it!

Cut the jargon

Every industry has its own jargon, which is often used as a kind of shorthand to enable insiders to communicate quickly and easily amongst themselves. However, that same shorthand can sometimes be all but impenetrable to outsiders, leaving them confused and vulnerable.

So, we welcome MotorEasy’s ‘Lost in Translation’ campaign in which it calls for the use of plain English by garages and the more careful use of terms like these:

Jargon term: Your big end has gone

Meaning: A large bearing (a bearing is a semi-circular sleeve of metal inside the engine) has worn out and failed. This usually results in further damage to other parts of the engine. If the big end is worn, it can make a loud knocking noise, especially when you accelerate.

In my opinion, this type of issue is very rare these days, so hearing it should make alarm bells ring, as it’s sometimes still used to scare people into paying for unnecessary work.

Jargon term: Excessive play

Meaning: Not as fun as it first sounds, this is typically used in connection to steering or suspension parts and refers to excessive movement of a part that is either moving more than it should or moving when it shouldn’t do so at all.

Jargon term: Diagnostic check / charge

Meaning: The technician may plug a diagnostics system into your car to assess any faults; this sounds technical and can be used to mask the cost of an hour’s labour but it usually entails no more than plugging a laptop into the car, taking minutes. However, I should point out that   that you’re paying for the mechanic’s experience, skills and training as well as the up-front cost of buying the computer and the relevant software.

Jargon term: Your bushes on the wishbone are going

Meaning: Bushes are the little rubber parts attached to suspension parts, including the triangular components called wishbones; because they are rubber, they can perish and wear out.

Jargon term: You’ve got mayonnaise under your oil cap

Meaning: If water or condensation under the oil cap mixes with engine oil, it creates a thick, white-coloured gunk that collects there; this could indicate that there’s an issue with the head gasket, which is quite a serious problem. I would also point out that it could also be because you haven’t used your car much and the ‘problem’ is just a build-up of condensation.

Jargon term: Spongy brakes

Meaning: There isn’t much resistance when the brake pedal is depressed, indicating that the brakes aren’t working properly, usually due to a lack of brake fluid or air in the system.

Jargon term: Your AdBlue is low

The brand name of an additive you need for some modern diesel engines. Contrary to popular belief, it is not derived from pig urine! A tank of AdBlue should last several thousand miles and cost around £20-30 to refill.

Jargon term: De-coking

‘De-coking’ your engine, or removing excessive carbon from the pistons and cylinder head, might have been necessary in the past but modern oil and engine technology mean that this is almost never necessary now. If a garage claims otherwise, please seek a second opinion.

Jargon term: Injectors are clogged

Your car’s fuel injectors, the small nozzles that spray petrol or diesel into the engine, do sometimes get blocked. They can be cleaned ultrasonically or by using an additive in the fuel. The latter is easier and cheaper than the former and worth trying as a first resort.

Jargon term: DPF filter is blocked

Modern diesel cars have a DPF, of Diesel Particulate Filter. Short journeys, where the engine rarely gets hot, stop it getting hot enough to burn off the contents, leading to failure. This process, called regeneration, is one of the reasons why it’s important to use your car on a decent run at least once a month.

Jargon term: Your MAF has gone

A MAF, or mass airflow sensor, can get dirty. It’s rarely necessary to replace it, so ask if the garage has tried to clean it before you pay for a new one.

Jargon term: It’s thrown a fault code

Your car’s onboard computer reports faults by displaying a fault code. Most garages now can decode them, helping them diagnose what’s wrong with your car. If you doubt their honesty, ask them what the code is and put it into Google to check it.

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Confused and overcharged

It appears to be a very real problem too; a survey of 2,000 UK drivers suggests that almost half of us think we’ve been overcharged due to this kind of confusion.

MotorEasy founder, Duncan McClure Fisher, said: “Garage mechanics are among the worst around for using phrases and terms that may make sense to them and may even be technically correct, but which mean nothing to the casual car owner. 

“While some garage customers may be bold enough to ask for an explanation, the majority are very British about it and will simply accept what they’re being told, trusting that the technician knows best.

“The problem is that this trust is open to abuse and unscrupulous garages could even use jargon to deliberately confuse their customers and even get them to part with more cash unnecessarily.”

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Ask if you don’t understand

There is nothing wrong with confessing ignorance if you’re baffled by unfamiliar jargon; we’re all experts on our own fields and there’s no shame in admitting that you don’t understand what goes on under the bonnet of your car.

In fact, it can sometimes even work to your advantage as a mechanic that is trying to rip you off with a non-existent fault will often struggle to articulate his lies in plain, jargon-free language.

So, don’t be afraid to ask him to take you into the workshop and actually show you the fault. Ask questions, and if you don’t understand then keep asking questions until you do. Cars are not especially complex mechanisms and if you are struggling to understand what the problem is, then the person explaining it is doing a poor job of translating their knowledge into language and ideas that you can relate to.

Or they’re making it up as they go along. In either case, I’d try a different garage.

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Get a quotation, not an estimate

A quotation is a contract (enforceable in law if necessary) that states that the garage will repair a known fault for a specified sum – and if that changes then they should contact you before going ahead with any extra, previously unidentified work.

An estimate, by contrast, is a guess at what the problem might be and the cost to resolve it. It is, in fact, nothing more than a guestimate and while it can sometimes be hard to give an accurate diagnosis without pulling components apart, you should insist that no work is carried out without your express permission – and a quotation to do it!

Don’t pay for extras

On a related note, don’t pay for extras if you haven’t agreed them. I’m sick and tired of being billed for brake cleaner, oil, and the elusive ‘sundries’. If a garage needs to charge for them – and, in fairness they probably do – then they should form part of the quotation.

Avoid getting ripped off by a garage

Get a second opinion

The single biggest change you can make is to always get a second opinion. Yes, I know it’s a faff, but if it takes you an extra couple of hours to save £100, then that’s not a bad hourly rate, is it?

Use the Good Garage Guide

The Good Garage Guide is an easily searchable database of garages, all of whom have agreed to follow a customer-friendly Code of Conduct.

Even more importantly, members of the public can leave feedback and reviews of their experiences with its members, making it very easy to find a local garage you can trust.

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Ask around for recommendations

Speaking of which, the very best way of finding a decent garage is to ask around, either in person on via the Internet on social media websites. A good garage will crop up time and time again in conversation - as will a bad one. A single recommendation or complaint might or might not mean anything, but two or more probably do.

And don’t be afraid to ditch your usual garage if you aren’t completely happy; the same MotorEasy survey showed that almost a third of women have changed their garage because they felt they were being taken advantage of.

Have you been faced with a piece of jargon you didn’t understand? If so, why not email us on and let Carlton do his best to translate it?

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.