#PopTheHood: A Dipstick’s Guide to How Cars Work

It’s not magic.

When you look under the hood of your car, it might look like a complicated combination of mysterious components that somehow moves your car down the road (and keeps you comfortable in the process). But you don’t have to be a master mechanic to understand the basics of how it works. Having a general knowledge of your car’s parts and their functions is a very good idea, and can be helpful when it comes to keeping it maintained or identifying problems.

So, here’s a beginner’s overview of what’s under your hood. We’ll go into more detail of the different parts and systems in later posts.

A Dipstick’s Guide to How Cars Work


Pop The Hood

Though the view under the hoods of different cars can look quite different, they all have the same essential parts.

  1. Engine.This is the big, obvious one (well, bigger in some cars than others). Everything else under the hood revolves around it (literally, in some cases).
  2. Transmission. Another large piece, attached to the back of the engine. (For a sideways-mounted engine, the “back” is the side without all the spinning belts and pulleys.) It sits underneath everything else, so you probably won’t be able to see it from above—but you might see its bright red dipstick (included on most automatic transmissions).
  3. Radiator. Located at the front center of the car, right behind the grill, and with a large fan located between it and the engine. The radiator is used to cool the engine (“cool” being a relative term; the engine and radiator still get quite hot). The radiator is usually attached by a small hose to a plastic overflow container, which is often one of the more visible items under the hood—but is typically located off to the side somewhere, away from the radiator itself.
  4. A/C compressor, alternator, power steering pump and water pump. These are grouped together because they are usually run by the same belt at the front of the engine. They are powered by the engine, and provide power to all of the car’s accessory systems. We’ll cover the details of what they are and what they do in another post.
  5. Brake stuff. On the back wall (or “firewall”) of the engine compartment, closest to the driver’s seat, is the brake booster, master cylinder and fluid reservoir. The assembly looks somewhat like a metal drum attached to the firewall, with a short piece of sealed metal pipe bolted to the center of it, and a small fluid container perched on top of that.
  6. Battery. The plastic, rectangular box with two large electrical cables bolted on to it. Is usually located in one of the corners of the engine compartment.
  7. Windshield wiper fluid reservoir. A plastic jug, not to be confused with the radiator coolant overflow container.

Those are the basics. Of course, there are other parts, as well as the various hoses, tubes and wires that connect everything together. We’ll get into some of those details, along with how some of the parts work, in later posts.

But we’d encourage you to pop the hood and start getting familiar with how your car works. By being better educated, you can do a better job of caring for your car, keep it running longer and possibly save money on future repairs.