Motor oil purchases should be determined by a combination of auto makers' specifications and practical experience.
Tire dealers and service shop operators who prioritize a lubricant's price are putting the proverbial cart before the horse.
At the risk of repeating myself, I remind readers that expensive, sophisticated machinery such as today's vehicles needs the proper oil. This is an outlook borne of my own experience as well as that of trusted sources in automotive service facilities.
Price lands a distant third place behind factors such as OEM specifications and real-world outcomes using particular brands of oil. Assuming that cheaper oil will perform as well as more-expensive products is just that — an assumption.
Sometimes owners and managers gripe about the cost of OEM or OEM-equivalent motor oil, automatic transmission fluids, etc. However, their service sales personnel should be confident and conversant selling the proper lubricants for the vehicle.
OK, suppose you have chosen one or more brands of oil that, at the minimum, meet or exceed OEM specs. If so, then try them on a variety of vehicles and closely monitor the results.
First, try to focus on trustworthy customers who log reams of miles per week. This helps you gather test results sooner rather than later.
Second, be sure you have good existing records of each vehicle's oil consumption and overall performance. It's impossible to evaluate a product fairly without having a valid baseline.
Third, carefully inspect each vehicle for engine oil leaks before you begin a test.
Abundance of hearsay
There seems to be abundant opinions — hearsay — about motor oil. I'll cite one recent example before delving into my archive of oil opinions versus real-world results.
I was shooting photos at an import-vehicle specialty shop and noticed some 55-gallon drums labeled 0W-20. There were no brands or logos on the drums. It appeared that someone had applied the viscosity designation with spray paint and a stencil.
Although my homework didn't involve motor oil, those stark oil drums piqued my interest. The shop owner said he bought the oil from a lubricant distributor. The company's sales person claimed that this was synthetic oil; some local new-car dealers were using it without any complaints.
For all I know, this oil may have met some impressive specs. Eventually it may prove to be a good product. Nonetheless, I sensed that this fellow was very self-conscious about the topic that day.
Meanwhile, I always tried to learn as much as practically possible via simple, controlled experiments. The real-world results often contradicted the prevailing opinions about motor oil.
First, I have maintained a variety of cars for family and friends over the years. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, some of these were second-hand cars on which the engine oil had not been changed regularly. These engines had noisy lifters.
I manually cleaned as much sludge as practically possible from these neglected engines.
Afterward, the old-timers at the service station warned me to use non-detergent oil or risk ruining these abused engines. (To grossly simplify, "detergent" refers to a dispersant in the oil formulation that helps keep the engine clean.)
These guys also insisted that a major engine overhaul was the only way to stop the annoying valve lifter "tap."
Later, I patiently read the service station's literature on its various oils. I decided to experiment by using its premium, high-detergent oil as well as top-quality oil filters. Then I changed the oil and filter on each engine at relatively short, 1500-mile intervals.
The bottom line is that the lifter noise disappeared after several oil/filter changes. Eventually, we racked up another 60,000 to 70,000 trouble-free miles on those engines before eventually selling those cars.
Second, I did a revealing experiment with another alleged engine wrecker known as graphite-based motor oil.
Forty-odd years ago, Atlantic Richfield Co. ("Arco") offered graphite-fortified oil. Some service personnel swore by it, but others swore at it.
Coincidentally, I was attending a class where a sharp instructor fielded a technician's question about the potential impact of Arco's graphite oil. The teacher claimed that the oil created or aggravated engine leaks. He added that engines burned more of it than conventional motor oil.
I scribbled these comments into my workbook, assuming that they were supported by real-world testing.
Later, another coincidence occurred when a colleague said he was changing his service station from Atlantic Richfield to another brand. When I happened to visit his station, he was selling off the last of his Arco graphite oil.
It was the same viscosity as the oil I already used in several family cars. I offered 50 cents on the dollar and the man accepted.
Ultimately, I used that graphite oil for several years without incident in familiar, known-good cars. These included a Mazda, Nissan, Chevrolet and Buick.
I measured no increase in oil consumption and found no oil leaks after changing to the graphite oil. Draw your own conclusions.
Third, I began experimenting with synthetic oil on some family cars in the early 2000s. I changed over two high-mileage cars, a Honda and a Subaru, to a popular brand of synthetic oil.
I was reorganizing my garage in order to keep both cars inside during winter weather. Sometimes the Subaru sat outside overnight; its traditional "hydraulic" lifters clattered after a cold start in single-digit temperatures.
Several techs admonished me at the time, insisting that the engines would seep oil like crazy after I switched to synthetic oil. They had culled this information from the Internet.
To be fair, industry sources had told me that engine seals on some older, high-mileage engines could leak after a change to synthetic oil. During that era, oil makers were trying to address this risk of oil seepage.
Maybe I just have good luck experimenting with oil because no leaks occurred in spite of those dire warnings. Plus, oil consumption in both the Honda and Subaru engines decreased.
Best of all, the Subaru's lifter clatter disappeared quickly after those cold starts in frigid temperatures. The noise reduction was dramatic, noticeable.
Last but not least for this column, I was cautioned against using synthetic engine oil while breaking in a freshly overhauled engine. For one thing, some techs disagree as to what constitutes effective "break-in" methods for an overhauled engine.
For another, I frankly forgot about their warnings and proceeded with my favorite brand of synthetic oil at the time.
To cut to the chase, this rebuilt Honda engine did use oil — but less than one quart in 2,500 miles. I think the vast majority of your customers could live with that consumption.
Mind you, these are but a few of my own personal experiences. I don't pretend to have the final word on motor oil issues.
But time and again, auto service people of all kinds have lectured me about various perceived oil problems.
All too often, these folks are evasive when I politely inquire about monitoring oil consumption and engine leaks on customers' vehicles.
Hearsay about motor oil is one thing. But a reasonable conversation about the topic demands more than idle chatter.
For example, I want to know the brand or brands in question. I expect to see valid measurements of oil consumption — not to mention awareness of leaks and overall engine performance over a meaningful period of time.
These are the first steps toward analyzing any oil's merits and cost-effectiveness.
Do you have an opinion about this story? Do you have some thoughts you'd like to share with our readers? Tire Business would love to hear from you. Email your letter to Editor Don Detore at [email protected].