Oil – where did it all go wrong?

I have always enjoyed the company of people who have a passion, whether it is an area I have a knowledge of or not, their enthusiasm can be infectious. Growing up in the Ireland of the 60s, I admired people who were mechanically-minded and their pioneering expertise to strip down an engine, recondition and assemble, and if you possessed the ability to partake in rallying, you were to be revered. I was surrounded by aspiring Billy Colemans and their quest to emulate his success was in itself inspiring.

Understanding the workings and complexities of a car seems to be within the grasp and capabilities of a skilled DIY enthusiast as well as a trained mechanic. Understanding oil certainly seemed to be a lot simpler; usually there was the one barrel of oil in a garage to service cars of all makes and models. As a boy, I remember my father using the one drum of oil to top up a Ford Anglia car, a Ford 3000 tractor and also to lubricate the vacuum pump in the milking machine. We always checked the car for oil and water, kicked the tyres before going on a long journey (anything in excess of 20 miles!) and with good reason as it regularly required a top-up.

Machines had just replaced the horse in rural Ireland and fuel, oil and water was the new fodder and maintenance routine. Oil was oil and the concept that specific oils existed for different machines would have been as alien as our neighbour Matty being offered tea and requesting a skinny latte. In the company recently of a vintage mechanical a cionado who was reminiscing and extolling the challenges, achievements and glories of that era, brought me on a trip down memory lane.
However, his assessment of the modern day vehicle was peppered with disappointment and regret, complaining that it was all in the hands of electrical and software technicians nowadays. And as for oil, with the daunting extensive specifications and range . . . “where did it all go wrong” was his sorrowful moan. I know we all tend to look at the past through rose-tinted glasses, especially if the memories we cherish are fond ones. We remember the good times and let go of the negative, a healthy habit in positive mental health. However, for the purpose of this article, we have to look at the facts and understand where the reality lies.
Firstly, the vehicle engines of the 60s had a lifespan in the region of 50,000 miles, some more, some less. Fuel consumption was heavy, certainly compared to today’s standards – 25 miles to a gallon of petrol was the norm for an average family car. Emissions were excessive and would be totally unacceptable by today’s environmental standards. As already described, regular checking was required.
So having looked back at the engines of the 60s, we see what it achieved in partnership with the one barrel of oil. How does it stack up against today’s engines and the 200 approx. engine specific oils they require. The fact is, the modern engine out performs in every way. It is more responsive, compact as well as being lighter, smoother, quieter, burns considerable less fuel, has lower emissions and has a lifespan between 300,000 – 500,000km.
I’ve lately seen a diesel engine reach 964,000km. The vehicle had an impeccable service history in oil, and oil and fuel filter changes. Let’s take a closer look at what has evolved in design and manufacturing, explaining why the modern engine requires such specific and high tech oils. Also, I’ll explore the pitfalls of not adhering to the vehicle manufacturers’ oil specifications (pardon the pun if you are from a generation that has only worked under a lift).
Declan Ennis, the Top Part MPM oil specialist, makes the point that substandard oils, unlike car parts, are usually visibly indistinguishable from OEM quality. And on top of that of course, a ‘wrong’ fluid always ‘fits’, while a ‘wrong’ car part never fits.
The manufacturer of a vehicle prescribes the quality and viscosity of engine oil to be used in a specific vehicle. This means that engine oils that meet those specifications have undergone costly development and have been tested extremely thoroughly to make sure they meet the required standards and can be placed on the market. The use of an OEM engine oil approved by the vehicle manufacturer provides the vehicle owner with the best guarantee that the engine will function optimally and be protected in all conditions.
Engine oils, without OEM approval and their underlying extensive engine testing programs, unnecessarily increase fuel consumption and are therefore more harmful to our environment. In addition, the use of these motor oils can eventually lead to costly repairs. Ennis and MPM’s technical advisers say engines are becoming increasingly complex. Car manufacturers must meet the CO2 emission targets set by the national or European government. These objectives are of course, aimed at slowing down or halting global climate change, under the so-called “climate treaty”.
In order to meet these CO2 emission requirements, fuel consumption must be reduced. Among other ways, this is achieved by minimising friction losses. One way to minimise friction loss is to construct the engine in such a way that low viscosity engine oil can be used. This trend of decreasing viscosity continues. The current standard is usually an SAE 0W-20 engine oil, but in the future more and more engine oils with an even lower viscosity such as SAE 0W-16, 0W-12 or even 0W-8, will be recommended.
In addition to the CO2 emission requirements, car manufacturers must also comply with other increasingly stringent environmental emission requirements. For example, the current EURO 6 standard will eventually be replaced by the EURO 7 standard. Car manufacturers are therefore constantly developing new technologies and materials to optimise combustion.

MPM gives the modern TGDI engine as an example:
In such an engine, the engine oil has to do its work under increasingly high operating temperatures, which causes the ageing (oxidation) of the engine oil to increase rapidly. Oxidation is the cause of sludge and deposits on engine parts. In order to combat this efect, very high quality antioxidant additives are used, in addition to an often different basic oil mix. These very high quality additives are the result of a long and thorough research and testing process. Another problem of TGDI motors can be LSPI “low speed pre-ignition”,
(at low rpm and high load, the fuel mixture ignites too early), which can cause enormous engine damage (such as piston damage). By using other additives in the lubricating oil, LSPI can be prevented. LSPI tests are therefore included in the latest (OEM) specifications.
In order to meet increasingly stringent emission standards, exhaust after-treatment equipment is also becoming increasingly sophisticated. An example of this is the GPF (Gasoline Particle Filter). This system, too, requires an adjustment of the composition of the additives used in a lubricating oil. Engine oils with so-called ‘high SAPS’ additives [Sulphated ash (SA), Phosphorus (P) and Sulphur (S)], such as those we still used a few years ago, would otherwise cause contamination and/or blockage of the exhaust after-treatment equipment. This not only leads to premature replacement but costly damage can also occur to other parts (for example, turbo damage).
To prevent this, so called ‘mid and low-SAPS’ engine oils have come on the market. These modern engine oils contain fewer of the traditional additives, thus preventing problems with exhaust after-treatment equipment. At the same time, the classic ‘high SAPS’ engine oils ensured proper cleaning, neutralisation of acids, and protection of the engine. To preserve this effect in ‘mid and low-SAPS’ engine oils, completely new additives have been developed.
The result is that modern engine oils, despite being lower in SAPS, still offer better engine protection than in the past, while at the same time reducing environmental impact. The ever more complex engine and exhaust after-treatment technologies also make the composition of modern engine oil increasingly complex. Simply put: High Tech Engine innovation = High Tech Engine oil innovation.
Ennis makes the point, at the end of the day we don’t have to understand the complexities of engines or oil, only to know one fact; for optimium performance and longevity, just use the correct oil.
And selecting the correct oil is as simple as typing in your car registration number in a web page or ask your local Top Part motor factor store. So while back on the farm in the 60s we used only the one oil, today we still have to use only the one oil – but it has to be the correct oil – the one specified by the vehicle manufacturer.
But look on the bright side, we still have choices, we are no longer confined to just tea – we can choose Earl Grey, green, peppermint . . . coffee, Americano, cappuccino, mocha, latte, skinny latte and as we drive off into the sunset, we won’t have to dip for oil or kick the tyres before every journey. Maybe it didn’t all go wrong after all!

– Tom Moore, Top Part

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Published on: September 5, 2021

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