dm-io dot

Your Guide to 8 Basic Car Parts You Should Know

CarShield Team

Posted in:
Tips & Advice

If you have ever felt like your vehicle repair technician speaks a completely different language, then this post about basic car parts is for you.

On the other hand, if you can confidently walk into a repair facility and throw jargon down with the best of them, then you may be able to use this post as a refresher.

For those to whom the first category applies: we’ll do this together! There are a few basic parts of a car which you should have some idea about in order to improve your ability to care for your vehicle.

We’re not talking about having a comprehensive knowledge of every valve, spring, or belt that makes your car run at peak performance. We’re going to focus on just the general fundamentals: basic car parts and their functions.

In other words, we’re going to go over just 8 important parts and what they do for your car.

Knowing these essential vehicle parts can help you have more control over the wellbeing of your car. We think that’s important! That way, when your car breaks down, you may actually know what actually happened to it.

1.) Transmission

What Is a Car Transmission?

The transmission in a vehicle connects the engine to the axles on your vehicle. It takes all the energy created by the engine and channels it into appropriate speeds for your wheels. Many automatic transmissions may look roughly coned in shape and may include an array for gears. When you change speeds using the gas pedal, the transmission adjusts its gears to support different speeds of the car (e.g. slowing down, speeding up).

Where Can I Find My Car’s Transmission?

You’ll normally find the main component of your transmission right behind the engine, connecting it to the axles.

How Do I Know if My Car Transmission Has Failed?

Your transmission may be in trouble if you notice some of the following things happening in your car:

  • Unusual screeching, clunking, or whistling coming from the car
  • Leaking red/sweet-smelling liquid (you’ll find puddles under car)
  • Grinding/shaking when you change gears (you change gears whenever you try to make your car go faster or slower)
  • Any other problems switching gears
  • 2.) Engine

    What Is a Car Engine?

    Bear with us—we know you probably know what the engine is, where it is, and what it does. However, at the risk of being a bit simplistic, we’re going to break a few main engine terms down for you. After all, the engine is arguably the main part of a vehicle. It contributes to the car’s most noticeable function: supplying enough power to get the car moving.

    Car engines are typically made up of two basic components:

  • Block (includes: pistons, cylinders, crankshaft)
  • Head (includes: valvetrain, fuel injection, ignition system)
  • In just two sentences, here’s how an engine works: a little gas and air are pushed into a set of cylinders. In each cylinder, a piston (like a little plunger) compresses it, a spark plug ignites that compressed gas/air, and that resulting combustion is what helps create the energy your car needs to start up. (If that didn’t make much sense, check out this great video about how an engine works.) Since your vehicle has multiple cylinders (most commonly: four), this controlled explosion process happens in all of them over and over again to help your car keep rolling.

    Since that was a simplified explanation, it should be noted that there are a few more complex systems that help your vehicle run, too.

    Where Can I Find My Car Engine?

    Right under the hood, of course. This is probably one of the most recognizable parts of a car even for folks who have a limited knowledge of car parts.

    How Do I Know if My Engine Needs to Be Repaired?

    The most obvious sign that your engine needs attention may be very recognizable:

  • Car won’t start
  • Check engine light is on
  • Engine stalls while idling
  • Unusual noises or feeling some strange vibrations coming from your engine
  • 3.) Suspension

    What Is a Car Suspension?

    A vehicle suspension system is what’s responsible for making sure that you and your passengers don’t bounce around around the car cabin like ping pong balls if the road is a little bumpy. It keeps your ride smooth by using an arrangement of springs or shocks/dampers made to absorb the bumps on the road for you instead of passing those shockwaves right up to you.

    Basically, you can thank your suspension system for preventing you from getting bruised up every time you drive your car down the road.

    Where Can I Find My Car’s Suspension?

    You’ll find this car part connected to your car frame near each tire. It may look like a heavy-duty coiled spring situated near to your tires.

    How Do I Know if My Suspension Has Failed?

    If you notice that your driving experience has been a little extra bumpy lately, you might need to check up on your shocks. Some other symptoms include:

  • Clunking noises when hitting bumps
  • Irregular tire wear (one or two tires wear out faster than the rest of your tires)
  • Unusual veering to one side
  • 4.) Instrument Cluster

    What Is a Car Instrument Cluster?

    Without your instrument cluster, you would know a lot less about what’s happening in your car. This part of your vehicle includes what is commonly referred to as the “dashboard” or “gauge cluster” which displays the dials and gauges which communicate important vehicle information to you while you drive.

    That crucial information generally includes things like speed, engine revolutions per minute, gas level, oil pressure, distance traveled, etc. If you have ever checked your speed or gas level while using your car, you have directly benefited from your instrument cluster.

    Where Can I Find My Car’s Instrument Cluster?

    This’ll be one of your most easily observable car parts: you should find this on your dashboard just beyond your steering wheel.

    How Do I Know if My Instrument Cluster Isn’t Working?

    Your instrument cluster might need a checkup if its indicators are not working or are working erratically/intermittently. You should also seek help if you notice that your dashboard lights don’t illuminate for a moment when you turn on the car. Another key clue to an issue is if all gauges are consistently stuck at the highest or lowest levels possible.

    5.) Starter

    What Is a Starter in a Vehicle?

    As you might be able to guess by the name of this car part, a starter’s main purpose is to get your car engine up and running. It’s a small motor that gets a burst of energy from the car battery each time you turn the key to start your vehicle. That burst of energy is processed by the starter and then delivered to the engine through a set of motors and gears. If the starter is successful at this stage, it will allow the engine to start pulling in air and fuel to the engine cylinders. After that, the engine can start running on its own as you start driving.

    Even though the starter is only about the length of one adult hand, it is responsible for that crucial process that connects the action of turning a car key to a running engine.

    Where Can I Find My Car’s Starter?

    There are three common locations to find this car part, but most of the time you’ll find the starter between the transmission and the engine on the driver’s side (You know both of those car parts from this post!). No matter where your starter ends up, it will be connected to the battery in some way.

    How Do I Know if My Car Starter Is Broken?

    The foremost symptom of a broken vehicle starter is an engine that won’t start. Apart from that, you might find any of the following in a car with a broken starter:

  • Dashboard lights up even though the engine won’t start turning
  • Unusual whirring or grinding noise coming from the engine when you try to start your car
  • Smoke coming from the engine
  • 6.) Alternator

    What Is a Vehicle Alternator?

    Once your starter and battery work together to get your engine running, your alternator helps keep the electrical parts of your car running. While your engine is firing, the alternator takes that created energy (mechanical energy) and converts it into electricity (or an alternating current).

    This fresh electrical energy is needed to run the electricity-dependent functions of your vehicle and to recharge your battery while you drive. That way, it has enough juice to start your car the next time you need it.

    Where Can I Find My Car Alternator?

    This compact circular generator is connected to an engine via a belt and pulley system.

    How Do I Know if My Alternator Needs to Be Repaired?

    One signal of trouble is if your car won’t start (possibly because of a dead battery) or if it can only manage to stay on for a few minutes. You may also notice that the car’s lights are either too dim or too bright.

    7.) Radiator

    What Is a Car Radiator?

    Throughout this post so far, we’ve been talking about all kinds of combustion and generated energy. Both of those things create a lot of heat in your engine! Without any way to cool things off under the hood, your car would overheat and stop working. That’s why cars have a cooling system that circulates cooling liquid throughout the engine area to make sure everything stays at a safe temperature. The radiator is the main hub of that system.

    When water and liquid coolant circulate through the engine through an arrangement of pipes and tanks, they collect excess heat from the engine. To get that heat out of the car, this hot liquid must pass through the radiator where a fan sucks in cooler air and pushes out extra heat. Then your car’s water pump (bonus useful car part to know) sends that cooled liquid back through the cooling system to restart this cycle.

    Where Can I Find My Car Radiator?

    The radiator is located at the very front of your car under the hood, right in front of the engine. Even without opening the car’s hood, you’ll be able to spot where it’s housed: behind the part on your car’s front end that looks like a vent. If you were to stand in front of that vent while the car is on, you would feel warmth emanating from that area while the radiator does its job.

    The corresponding pipes and tanks that make up the rest of the cooling system extend throughout the engine area under the hood.

    How Do I Know if My Radiator Isn’t Working?

    The bottom line of a broken radiator is that your car will get too hot to function properly. You’ll be able to tell because the temperature gauge on your instrument cluster will show unusually high readings and may even overheat even when idle.

    A related issue would be coolant leaking from the vehicle, which you would be able to notice if you find brightly colored liquid under your car when you move it. Without enough liquid coolant in your car, the radiator would have no substance to cool down and send throughout the rest of your car engine.

    8.) Emissions

    What Is a Vehicle Emissions System?

    Our final car part to know is one that you might be asked to test before you legally drive it on the road: your vehicle emissions system. Put simply, the emissions system is a group of components that manages how much pollution and noxious gasses your vehicle releases while it is running.

    This next section includes a few more bonus car parts you’ll be pleased to know about—you’re welcome.

    The emissions system starts with a set of valves connected to the engine to collect the water, heat, oxygen, and other harmful products that make up byproducts created by a running engine. Once gas has been collected from the engine, that substance is pushed through a catalytic converter. A catalytic converter uses a chemical reaction to reduce toxins in exhaust gas collected from the engine.

    Then that cleaned engine exhaust may also be pushed through a charcoal canister, which collects fuel vapors and absorbs them before they vent out of the vehicle and cause pollution.

    Along with an emissions test, your car may also be subjected to an exhaust system inspection. Just note that the emissions system is not the same as an exhaust system.

    Where Can I Find My Emissions System?

    The emission system begins in the engine area (with the collection valves mentioned earlier) and extends through a set of pipes to the end of the vehicle.

    How Do I Know if My Emissions System Has Failed?

    Naturally, if your emissions system is out of order, you’ll probably see that the check engine light is on. You could also notice any of the following issues: lowered engine performance, higher gas consumption, and smell of gas inside/outside of your car.

    How to Recover from Car Breakdown

    When your car experiences mechanical failure, the cost to fix it may feel unreal. The bill for such a repair could be as much as $3,000-$5,000…perhaps even more. Knowing what broke down on your car can help you make sense of why your bill may cost what it does, but it can’t help you actually make that payment.

    That’s where CarShield comes in.

    With a plan through CarShield, all of the essential car parts listed in this post could be covered. Our administrators will support you through every step of the repair process and will pay for 100% of all covered repairs (deductible may apply, depending on your selected plan). Check out our list of plans to find out which coverage option best fits your automotive needs. Once you call to activate your plan, you won’t have to stress about what to do to get your car back on the road when any of the above parts (or any of the 5,000+ other components that can be covered through CarShield) breaks.

      Published By  
    Sarah Solomon
    Senior Editor & Copywriter at CarShield

    Sarah is the senior editor and copywriter at CarShield. Her relationship with cars began when she started racing in the local Soap Box Derby as a kid. Now, Sarah gets to drive more complex vehicles—which is great even though she doesn't earn trophies for driving anymore. She writes out of St. Louis, MO.

    Questions? Visit our Support Center, or get in touch:

      1-800-588-8501        Contact Us