By John F. Katz
Your oil is changing, whether you change it or not.
“The press and the industry in general have done a pretty good job of hammering home the story about ZDDP for flat-tappet cams,” notes Lake Speed Jr. of Driven Racing Oil in Huntersville, N.C., “and about new oils not being good for old cars.”
But there’s more to the story than that—much more. Due primarily to environmental and fuel-conservation concerns, the oils consumers can buy are changing rapidly in character and content. And just as rapidly, the oil market is diversifying, developing more, and more specialized, products for more narrow and specific applications.
“Today’s passenger car engine oils are a complex mixture of base oils and additives, engineered to provide good engine lubrication and increased fuel economy while reducing emissions,” explains Ken Tyger Sr., technical service representative for Brad Penn Lubricants in Bradford, Pa. “They accomplish these goals in a number of ways, including the use of lighter-viscosity base oils, high concentrations of friction modifiers and reduced levels of certain functional additives.”
Several of our experts point to a new set of API specifications that are due for industry review in 2017. Chris Barker of Royal Purple LLC in Porter, Texas, believes these are likely to result in “A and B versions” of each new service grade—one optimized for fuel efficiency in the latest engines, and the other backward-compatible with older vehicles.
Speed heartily agrees; in fact, he sees this as just the beginning of a totally fragmented market.
“We already know from experience that today’s off-the-shelf motor oils do not work well in older engines, particularly in engines from before 1986, flat-tappet engines and any kind of performance engine based on that architecture. But the day is coming when there will be oils on the shelf for a specific make, model and year of vehicle. And that’s it, that’s all they will be good for. GM already has their own oil spec called dexos,” which the automaker licenses to oil manufacturers. “In Europe, Ford has a single oil that’s approved for their three-cylinder, turbocharged direct-injection engine. Such manufacturer-approved oils are becoming more common in Europe and Japan—and we’re going to see this becoming more common in the U.S. as well.
“So as oil selection becomes more and more fragmented for ordinary passenger cars, it logically follows that selecting an oil for a modified and/or historic vehicle is going to become exponentially more difficult,” he continues. “There are very few industry specs, and the few specs there are, are not very well defined.”
That situation may actually provide opportunities for independent retailers to sell more specialized products, as we’ll see later. First, let’s review the latest news from the industry. We’ll attempt to separate fact from fiction regarding synthetic oils. Then we’ll look beyond the engine and ask our experts about oils for high-performance transmissions and rear ends—including best practices for break-in and maintenance.
Certainly, the industry trend is toward lighter-weight oils. Mark Negast, technical director of Lucas Oil Products Inc. in Corona, Calif., notes how, as recently as April 2013, industry standard SAE J300 was revised to introduce SAE 16-grade engine oil.
Kinematic viscosity is set at 6.1-8.2 mm2/s at 100 degrees, and a minimum high-temperature/high shear (HTHS) rating of 2.3 cps is required.
According to Karl Dedolph, director of performance & racing products for Champion Oil in Clinton, Mo., “the main objective behind SAE 16 is to facilitate fuel efficiency by reducing hydrodynamic friction between moving engine parts, including piston rings, bearings, and valvetrain components.”
The new SAE 16 specification will serve as an even lighter alternative to SAE 20.
Dedolph also outlines the coming changes in engine oil for diesels.
“Currently, the vast majority of the U.S. market uses SAE 15W-40 CJ-4 for diesel engines. But to address the issues of fuel efficiency and emissions, this will soon change. We’re already seeing an increased use of lower-viscosity SAE 10W-30 CJ-4 oils. This is opening the door to a divided market—one selling oils to meet evolving market needs and government mandates, the other providing backward compatibility in higher viscosity grades.”
Two-cycle engines have few, if any, applications in the hot rod world, but we suspect that at least a few hot rodders may also enjoy a dirt bike, ATV or personal watercraft.
“Direct injection systems have helped minimize emissions,” says Negast, “but regulations are being introduced to eliminate personal watercraft with carburetors from national parks.” Meanwhile, the industry is introducing biodegradable two-cycle oils, which will undoubtedly become more prevalent as Federal mandates require them.
What Makes an Oil Synthetic?
According to Barker, the most important fact to remember regarding synthetic oil is that “synthetic does not imply quality.” Thirty years of marketing has successfully associated synthetic oil with the best protection available; while 30 years of industrial bean counting has blurred the distinction between synthetics and their conventional counterparts.
To understand the distinction at all, it’s helpful to know something about base stocks. API—the American Petroleum Institute—groups base stock oils according to sulfur content, viscosity and other chemical characteristics. Groups I, II, and III are mineral oils (that is, they come out of the ground), with Group I being the least refined and Group III the most. Group IV oils are synthesized from polyalphaolefins (PAOs) and Group V oils are synthesized from esters.
It also helps to know that, according to Tyger, the legal definition of a synthetic was changed some years back. Originally a full synthetic oil was legally defined as one manufactured predominantly from esters and PAOs. (Synthetics have always contained a small amount of mineral oil, between 2 and 7 percent, to dissolve the additive package.) Under current law, however, a blend of Group III stocks and PAOs, or even an oil refined from Group III stocks alone but meeting certain performance criteria, can call itself synthetic.
“Group III is pretty good stuff,” adds Barker. “It’s extremely refined and comparable to synthetics in performance.”
Which is probably why, according to Negast, oils labeled synthetic still “typically have better thermal and oxidative stability, and better cold temperature properties than conventional mineral-based engine oils.”
A common belief is that synthetic oils can exacerbate or even cause leaks in older engines. In fact, PAOs tend to shrink the elastomers often used in oil seals—but esters tend to swell them.
“Sometimes the sludge that keeps old gaskets sealed gets swept into suspension by a better lubricant,” suggests Cameron Evans, president of Red Line Synthetic Oil Corp. in Benicia, Calif., “and that exposes an existing leak.”
Negast advises against using a synthetic oil when breaking in an engine, “since the oil may be too slick to allow piston rings to properly seal. In most cases, break-in oils are mineral-based.”
The Transmission Transition
Speed predicts that gear lubes will diversify as quickly as engine oils, as “friction losses in transmissions are one of the major areas the OEMs are investigating” in order to achieve federally mandated fuel economy averages.
Even with today’s lubricants, it’s important to know that a transmission and rear end should not be using the same oil.
“Most synchro-based transmissions require GL-4,” Evans explains, “which is less slippery to allow synchronizers to operate properly. It is not backward-compatible with GL-5, which contains a friction modifier to cool rear end gears and avoid LSD chatter. GL-5 also contains extreme-pressure additives to protect a hypoid gear set.”
The issue becomes more complicated when the transmission and differential share the same case—and therefore the same lubricant. Replacing traditional brass or bronze synchronizers with a carbon or ceramic material helps them operate in the same environment as the differential—but again complicates the choice of lubricant.
Regarding drain intervals for transmissions and rear ends, our experts agree that the manufacturer’s recommendation is a good place to start: With a vehicle modified for performance, you know you’re going to have to change the lube more frequently.
Dedolph recommends changing transmission fluid based on regular inspection.
“For some applications, the drain interval may consist of six weeks of racing. Others may need to change the fluid only once a year. But if the color or odor begins to change, it’s time for new fluid.”
Negast suggests “taking a sample of your fluid and having it tested by a third-party laboratory.”
“If you really want to get the most cost-effective life out of your transmission fluid, then you’re going to have to spend $60-$70 on oil analysis kits. Almost every town has a Caterpillar dealer nearby, and Caterpillar tests literally thousands of samples every day for their equipment. So that’s one inexpensive, easy alternative for novices who want to be sure they are protecting their vehicle properly. It is $15 per kit, and for someone who’s just spent two or three grand on vehicle modifications, that’s not very much.”
Which brings us to the subject of a break-in procedure for transmissions and rear ends.
“You don’t need a special fluid for break-in,” says Speed. “But it’s a decent idea to change the oil in a new or rebuilt transmission after about 1,000 miles. Any equipment that has contacting surfaces is going to experience some initial surface wear, and the material that wears off is going to remain suspended in the lube.”
“Break-in of a ring and pinion with new bearings can cause excessive heat, softening the gears and bearings,” adds Dedolph. “For hot rods and muscle cars, perform a ‘run-in’ prior to driving, with the rear wheels jacked up and operating at idle speed in high gear for a minimum of five or six minutes. Then drive the vehicle 10 miles at normal speed, allow everything to cool for an hour, and repeat. Similarly, drag racers should jack up the rear end and let it idle in high gear for five minutes. Then after the first burn-out and timed run, jack it up, inspect it and top it off if necessary.”
Evans suggests adding “a friction modifier” to the first fill-up. “Limited operation with a batch of gear oil that’s been dosed for slipperiness usually does the job.”
As mentioned earlier, diversification may actually enhance sales opportunities for independent retailers.
“The opportunity is to get ahead of the game through education,” Speed advises. “You will need to learn how to speak to the customer, who is going to be confused by all the mixed signals they are going to be receiving. That’s when you explain that these are the changes that are happening, this is the way forward, and here is the right product made specifically for your vehicle. And this is where the independent speed shop will have an advantage, because the big-box stores that operate on volume are going to resist selling the specialty oils that hot rod enthusiasts will need.”
Barker also emphasizes the value of in-person sales.
“People today are better able than ever before to research something before they buy it. But a testimonial from someone they trust and perceive as an expert is what’s going to make the sale.”
Sell product based on facts, Negast says.
“Does the product do what its manufacturer says it does? Lucas can supply you not only with catalogs but with technical data books, counter mats, display racks, demonstrators and starter kits. We’ve also completely revamped our Web page to bring all of our information up-to-date.”
“The industry recognizes the need to educate,” Speed concludes. “There will be more technical seminars, more webinars and other after-hours training events. Over the past four years we’ve conducted 20 live, in-person training events with Engine Performance Warehouse, which is one of our major distributors. We tell them about the issues that are coming down the road.
“We make products to meet these needs, but you have to educate the consumer about the issues and the solutions before you can sell them the products.”
The Latest Word on Zinc
Much of what has been written about oil lately in the performance trade press has focused on “zinc”—in reality zinc dialkyldithiophosphates (ZDDP), which are compounds of zinc and dithiophosphoric acid.
As we reported in our November 2013 issue, the zinc in ZDDP is particularly effective at preventing wear between an aggressive cam and the flat face of a non-roller lifter. So even mainstream oil brands responded to the mid-’60s muscle-car boom by boosting concentrations of ZDDP.
But zinc doesn’t actually dissolve in oil; that’s why you need the DDP part, a phosphoric acid to dissolve the zinc. And phosphorous significantly shortens the life of catalytic converters, which, by the late 1970s, had become critical to meeting Federal emission standards.
ZDDP levels in most consumer oils peaked at around 0.14 percent in the 1990s, by which time the automakers were getting hammered by warranty claims on dead or dying cat converters. API responded by reducing the percentage of phosphorous—and hence zinc—as it released new service grades.
Current API SN-grade oils are limited to 0.08 percent phosphorous by weight, or 800 parts per million (ppm).
“The reduction of zinc in new oils and the effect it has on flat tappet cams and other critical valvetrain components continues to be a major concern,” says Ken Tyger Sr. of Brad Penn Lubricants. Roller-cam engines aren’t immune, either, as “we’re hearing from a number of engine builders that they are seeing needle bearing failures caused by reduced zinc.”
“There’s a pervasive mentality,” agrees Lake Speed Jr. of Driven Racing Oil, “that says, ‘I have an ’05 Mustang with a roller cam, the reduction in ZDDP doesn’t apply to me.’ But certain cam manufacturers tell us that it does apply, because wherever they see off-the-shelf motor oils used in late-model engines with performance upgrades, they are also seeing an increase in warranty claims.”
Still not everyone agrees about the severity of the situation.
Chris Barker of Royal Purple believes that “the whole thing has been massively overblown. There were issues with flat tappet camshafts for a brief period of time when the oil chemistry changed. But that’s also when a lot of U.S. aftermarket parts suppliers started to off-shore their manufacturing. So they were losing direct control of material choice, and losing direct control of manufacturing quality, at the same time that oil was arriving with reduced anti-wear properties. If any one of those three things hadn’t happened, there never would have been an issue. If your older vehicle is stock and in decent running order, an API-licensed SN oil should work fine.”
Just remember that API ratings apply only to factory-stock vehicles.
“If the vehicle is modified,” Barker adds, “the API-licensed oils aren’t intended for that.”
Furthermore, new oils present additional challenges.
“It’s not just ZDDP that protects the valvetrain,” notes Red Line’s Cameron Evans. “It’s film strength as well. That comes from using products with higher-quality base stocks that are at least Group IV.”
Then there’s modern gasoline, which presents its own perils. Speed cites the example of a mildly hopped-up cruiser:
“You’re only going to take that car out in nice weather, and you’re not going to drive it that many miles a year—and you’re probably only going to change the oil once a year. But while you’re cruising to the car show, with your carburetor running rich, ethanol from modern gasoline is mixing with the oil in your crankcase—and ethanol is very corrosive. That’s why our Hot Rod oils contain extra corrosion inhibitors.”
In fact, all of the companies we contacted offer oils specifically engineered for historic and/or modified engines: Brad Penn Penn-Grade1; Champion Classic & Muscle; Driven Hot Rod Oil; Lucas Oil Hot Rod & Classic Car; Royal Purple High Performance Street; and Red Line Synthetic.
Meanwhile, the mainstream oil industry is investigating more environmentally friendly anti-wear alternatives.
“Liquid/organic titanium is the buzzword today,” observes Mark Negast, of Lucas Oil Products. “Traditionally, titanium was regarded as a wear metal, but now a number of oil manufacturers are adding it” to oils containing low amounts of zinc—where together the two metals provide “a synergistic protection against wear.”
John F. Katz is a freelance automotive journalist and historian. He is a regular contributor to Performance & Hotrod Businessas well as other automotive industry publications. He lives and works in south-central Pennsylvania.