Image: David Tracy

I can’t remember the first time I ever heard the word “gearhead,” though it definitely wasn’t a thing my dad, an erstwhile car mechanic, ever said, though he did fit the definition. I suspect that the first rule of being a gearhead is that you never, under any circumstances, use the word when describing yourself.

What is a gearhead? According to Merriam-Webster, it is, “a person who pursues mechanical or technological interests (as in automobiles or computers).” The bar for being a gearhead is very low.

When, exactly, did people start calling each other gearheads? Before investigating the answer, I had assumed that it was sometime long ago, around the time gears first came into existence; I was certain that the vast population of ancient Egypt included a number of gearheads, and people who called each other such. But I was wrong.

In Nexis, a vast catalogue of tens of thousands of newspapers, magazines, and other media that reaches into the 19th century, the first appearance of the word used with something approaching our definition doesn’t appear until February 9, 1982. It was in a United Press International story about gossip.

Snidely and Debbie broke up; Charlie’s on the sauce again; that gear-head kid, Kenny, got a ticket for speeding; the judge said it should have been for flying too low.

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The second appearance was in the October 2, 1983 edition of The Miami Herald. It was a story about how high school students were studying harder because colleges were raising admissions standards. Here’s the relevant passage:

While studying may be considered a necessary evil by students anxious to succeed, students who go overboard still elicit their share of ribbing. According to University of Florida linguistics professor David Pharies, those who study too hard are called “worms,” “good-attitude” students, or “gearheads.”

Nearly three years later, the paper was using it in a headline. “S. FLORIDA’S TOP GEARHEADS,” the April 24, 1986 edition of the paper roared, before a story about the best high school car mechanics in the region.

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Indeed, by the late ‘80s, the word was appearing in many more places, as it gained cultural currency.

Here’s a passage from the August 11, 1987 edition of the Chicago Tribune, about a club of chi-chi motorcyclists (emphasis mine):

The Scramblers talk a lot about riding safety and restraint. But get Gutman and some of his more daring club brothers on a pretty country road and motorcycle mania takes over. Now they speed northward toward the comfortable lakeside summer home of Scrambler Stu Anderson, where roast beef in wine and butter sauce, several salads, and homemade spice cake and brownies await. No alcohol will be served. The Scramblers don’t like to drink and drive.

The club hasn’t changed much since it was formed in 1963 by a group of successful businessmen who belonged to the Chicago Yacht Club. “What they really wanted was to have fun,” said Rick Bisbee, a second generation Scrambler, whose late father was a founding member. “First they got into sports-car racing, then scrambling or dirt bike racing, and finally, touring.”

Then as now, Scramblers were selective about membership. Prospective members must be introduced to the club by a current member, attend several rides and then be voted on by the board of directors. Club president Guy Leekly, a law professor at Northern Illinois University and one of the few gear heads, or avid mechanics, in the group, stresses that prosperity is definitely not a condition for membership. But, he adds diplomatically, “we want our members not to have to worry about taking two weeks off and staying in some nice places on a cross-country trip.”

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Here’s a another passage from the March 13, 1988 edition of The Los Angeles Times (emphasis mine):

The obvious point: Cars that would stop the town clock and entire population of Hudson, Ohio, are at every other parking meter and most stoplights in Southern California.

Here are more exciting vehicles, more Ferraris, Duesenbergs, Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, Bugattis and Packards, all the flyers and speedsters, tourers, runabouts and raceabouts, coupes and cabriolets, than in any other corner of the world.

Here are the best motor cars. Here are the worst automobiles. Here are all ranking gear heads who drive, restore, collect, race, create, buy, sell and duplicate most things automotive from Bonneville bullets through the Batmobile to the Great American Pedal Car Co.

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And here’s how a reader defined the term in the January 31, 1988 edition of The Washington Post:

gear head, var. motor head n. A person who spends altogether too much time working on, buying accessories for and polishing his car

(I’ll stop to note that “motor head” or “motorhead,” a slightly more obvious nickname for someone who’s really into cars and car repair, appears to have been around for a little longer, but that’s a blog for a different day.)

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The rise of the gearhead in the late ‘80s feels right; for some reason I associate the word with that era’s rock music. I bet there were a lot of gearheads among the Judas Priest fanatics of Heavy Metal Parking Lot.

Still, according to Merriam-Webster, the term probably goes back further. Peter Sokolowski, an editor-at-large for the dictionary, said in an email that the first reference they can find was in 1974, from the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang by J.E. Lighter.

Hendrix College student: “A gearhead is an engineer.”

Univ. Tenn. student: “A gearhead is a computer man or an engineer or a mathematician. They’re also called slide rules.”

These citations are a bit unusual in that they don’t come from published, edited sources such as a newspaper. But because slang is often spoken long before it’s recorded, Dr. Lighter took careful observations of the spoken language of university students during the compiling of his dictionary.

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We can surmise that gearhead, then, probably was being bandied about for years, if not decades before that. And, in any case, gearheads themselves definitely existed, even if they didn’t have a word to describe their particular avocation. They probably never needed one anyway.

Update: Ben Zimmer, the language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, dug up several more examples of “gearhead” appearing in print, including one that appeared before Merriam-Webster’s earliest example. That one appeared in Waukesha (Wisc.) Daily Freeman on Oct. 10, 1973:

Back in high school we called them gearheads. They were the guys who were wrapped up in their cars. Most of them had oil in their veins instead of blood... This reporter thought that gearheads were an extinct breed until a recent encounter with one of them on Main St.

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Here’s more from Ben (I edited his email slightly for clarity):

I found several car-related examples from 1975. The first one appears in a guide to teen slang in Lincoln, Neb. (where the term was popular, judging by the how many examples there are from the mid- to late ‘70s):

Lincoln (Neb.) Star, May 22, 1975, p. 19

“Gearhead . . . a car fanatic.”

Syracuse (N.Y.) Post-Standard, July 12, 1975, p. 15a

“He talks of his Charger squad which, with 58 members, is the largest in the 26-team field, with all the pride and love that a gearhead displays when speaking of his car.”

Lincoln (Neb.) Star, Oct. 18, 1975, p. 1

“He finds his high school peers a very homogeneous lot who gravitate into groups of ‘gearheads,’ ‘jocks,’ and ‘freaks.’”

Crystal Lake (Ill.) Herald, Oct. 24, 1975, p. 2

“On the way to the reception at St. Thomas Church’s Loras Hall friends of the groom kown in Crystal Lake as ‘gearheads’ helped make the car processional a little more exciting by having their hot rod cars in the parade along with the groom’s hot rod car.”

More Nebraska examples from later in the ‘70s...

Lincoln (Neb.) Star, Jan. 14, 1978, p. 1

“Randy Kehres, a Northeast High School senior who custom-designed his ‘66 Supersport: ‘I suppose I’m a gearhead in one sense. I want to be different. I don’t want my car built by Henry Ford. I want my own personal trademark on it.’”

Plattsmouth (Neb.) Journal, Oct. 19, 1978, p. 29

MOM’S A GEARHEAD

“Disaster has struck in my family and we are all struggling to live with that inevitable realization — our mother is a closet gearhead.... As time passed the tell tale signs began to appear, and we duly ignored them, considering gearheads (also known as speed demons) to be young, even reckless in appearance.”

Lincoln (Neb.) Journal, Jan. 27, p. 4

“Parents of teen-agers should make sure their children are responsible and mature enough to have their own cars. Life is too valuable and important to throw away by trying to be in the “in” crowd by being a gearhead.”

Most of these “gearhead” examples refer to young people (typically high-school age) who are obsessed with their cars, with an emphasis on custom modifications and hot-rodding. The last couple of examples focus on the dangerously fast driving of hot-rodders.

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Another one Ben found was in the Sept. 19, 1974 copy of The Virden (Ill.) Recorder, and basically describes the Jalopnik ethos in one tidy sentence:

The cars will be wacky, weird, or just plain old “gearhead” cars. 

Ben also said that a member of mailing list he’s a part of found an example of “gearhead” in print in 1972, making it the earliest example yet of the term being used to mean “car enthusiast.” That was in the April 27, 1972 edition of The Virden Recorder. It’s almost poetic:

In spring, a young man’s fancy supposedly turns to love. But not so of a particular species of male found in one of the leading gear head centers of the world; the death defying, daredevilish Virden Speedshifters. Yes, you heard right, and in case you are wondering where all the racing takes place, the main strip is on the West Fortune Speedway, “where the big ones run, run, run!”