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Motoring terms explained

Modern life is full of jargon which often serves only to confuse. Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of used cars, where misunderstanding an acronym or technical term could land you with a whole heap of trouble. That’s why it’s so important to understand the terminology that’s bandied about.

Here at HPI we have to use all sorts of terms that you might not understand. But read on and you’ll soon see there’s nothing to fear – we’ll soon have you talking like a seasoned car trader.


The DVLA, or Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, is responsible for keeping track of all drivers and vehicles in the UK. That means the DVLA database has to keep tabs of all drivers’ licences, vehicle registrations and road tax. It’s no small task with 30 million drivers and 35 million vehicles.

V5C (registration document)

The V5C, registration document or logbook, is a record of a car’s details and recent history that’s issued by the DVLA. It gives the name and address of a vehicle’s current keeper who may not necessarily be the legal owner. It also features details of a car’s make, model, VIN, registration number and engine number. If a car is caught on camera doing something it shouldn’t, any penalties will be sent to the person named on the V5C.

VIN (Vehicle Identification Number)

The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is a unique 17-digit serial number; some imports from outside the EU have shorter VINs. As the name suggests, it allows one example of a car to be distinguished from another. The number will include details of the car model and where it was built and will probably include some details about its mechanical specification – although this won’t be easy to decipher. The VIN is normally on a plate in one of the lower corners of the windscreen and may also be stamped into the bodyshell under the driver’s seat.


An MoT (Ministry of Transport) test is an annual roadworthiness inspection that all cars have to go through once they’re three years old. It’s a wide-ranging test that makes sure a car is safe and that it complies with exhaust emissions regulations. It’s just a one-off inspection, straight after which a car could be damaged or suffer a breakage/failure, so a current MoT isn’t necessarily a guarantee of roadworthiness. As a cheap professional inspection before buying a used car, an MoT is great value – you can MoT a car at any time, as you don’t have to wait for a year between tests if you don’t want to.

VIC (Vehicle Identity Check)

When a car will cost more to repair than it’s worth, it’ll be written off by its insurer. This might be because a virtually worthless car has suffered minor damage or it could be that a very valuable car has been in a major crash. Either way, the repair bills will be too high to make repairs economically viable.

In an attempt to make things harder for scammers who might try to ring the car, the DVLA will put a note against the car on its database, to say the car has been written off. This note is called a Vehicle Identity Check, or VIC marker and it prevents a vehicle being returned to the road without an official inspection to check its provenance.

Total loss

A total loss is another term for a write-off, which is a vehicle that costs more to repair than it’s worth. It can also be a stolen car because the insurer will have to pay out the full value of the car, so that on the insurer’s books it’s a total loss.

Condition alert

All vehicles written off since January 1997 have been allocated a category A, B, C, or D,  depending on the severity of the damage. Categories A and B can’t be returned to the road because they’re too severely damaged, but categories C and D are legally repairable. However, once declared a write-off, a car will be added to the Condition Alert register which will automatically devalue it.

Condition inspected

Some written-off cars can be safely returned to the road and when this happens, to show it’s been done legitimately, the car will go onto a Condition Inspected register. Set up in 1990, the register features cars that have been officially inspected to make sure they’re safe.

Security watch

It’s illegal to sell something that isn’t yours but some people do exactly that with cars. It might be a hire car or dealer demonstrator and in a bid to offer some protection such cars can be added to the Security Watch database. Get an HPI check  on a car you’re thinking of buying and it’ll be flagged up if it’s on the Security Watch register.

Grey import

Sometimes a car maker chooses not to sell certain models in the UK or they’ll build UK-market cars with a particular spec. This doesn’t stop buyers importing from overseas markets such as the US or Japan, but it can mean having to modify the car to comply with UK regulations – such as fitting the correct lighting or a speedometer that reads in mph. These unofficial imports are called grey imports, as opposed to the official imports brought in by their maker.

VRM (Vehicle Registration Mark)

This is an easy one – it’s a car’s registration number. VRM is a term used generally by the motor trade.


If a car is of indeterminate age it’s issued with a Q-plate. This could be because it’s been imported without the necessary paperwork to prove when it was made, or it could be because it consists of parts from several cars (bodyshell, engine, gearbox from separate sources for example). Once a Q-plate has been issued a conventional registration can’t be assigned to a car – not even a personal registration.

And there’s more…

There are lots of other terms that you might not understand when it comes to buying and selling cars, such as ringing, clocking and cloning. For the full low-down on what all these things mean just check out our recent blog on used car scams.

Richard Dredge

January 2016