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I can't seem to figure this out exactly.

My understanding is that in either case it is a belt that is connected to the crankshaft and via a series of pulleys powers all the peripheral systems of the car.

My understanding is also that a fan belt and drive belt are the same thing, and that a V belt and a serpentine belt are subtypes of that entity.

Please fill in the gaps and correct any mistakes in my understanding of this.

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up vote 10 down vote accepted

V belts are traditionally found in older motors, where you would have a series of those belts coming off the crankshaft, each to their own individual accessory group (alternator, a/c compressor, etc).

See how the belts are staggered? enter image description here

Serpentine belts are much thicker by comparison and generally unify all accessories under one belt system.

enter image description here

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+1 for good photos – Dan Jan 31 '13 at 9:02

V belts also derive their name from the cross-section of the belt itself. In the first photo above a V belt will ride in grooves on the pulleys. Serpentine belts don't have this same cross-section because as you can see in the 2nd photo both sides of the belt come in contact with various pulleys.

Get ready for some awesome ASCII artwork of a V belt cross section: :)

|       |
 \     /
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+1 for awesome ASCII artwork. – StyxRiver Jan 31 '13 at 19:58
LOL. It's a gift. – spartygw Jan 31 '13 at 21:20

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