Manufacturers of motor oil have been trying to convince motorists for years that engine oils are not commodity products … “it’s more than just oil.” While that’s certainly true technologically, it’s also been about branding and the ability of some brands to carry a consumer impression of higher quality or technology. That’s a good thing; we should always be able to offer our customers choices. There is a dark side, however and it’s coming from the other side of the fence, namely the OEM manufacturers.
The issue is the proliferation of oil specifications and the need to use very specific oils in many engines. If you thought 5W-20 in Hondas was a pain, wait until you see what’s coming. As engine designers come to grips with tightening emissions regulations that remove some popular additives like phosphates and the need for lower internal engine friction, they’re turning to the oil companies for special, highly stressed oils. You can see it inside the newer engines. Pistons have minimal skirts today, almost like racing parts of thirty years ago. Rings are extremely thin and run in close tolerance lands that need strict sludge and varnish control on top of better lubricity. And there are European environmental regulations that drive longer change intervals over there, meaning oils that are even more specialized … and expensive.
Then there’s the engine designs themselves: lighter, even higher redlines and the return of turbo-charging over cubic inches going forward. Long-stroke designs seem to have disappeared outside truck and Diesel units as makers of even mundane family sedans boast higher and higher horsepower figures. We all know that no four-door Camry or Accord owner is going to probe the peak of the power band over 6500 RPM … but the lube has to be able to stand it.
So what does the repair aftermarket do? The short answer is to stock more oil. In a perfect world, you’d have the good bulk tank product, maybe a mid-range semi-synthetic or premium mineral oil, and the full synthetic stuff at the top end … then you might add a specialty product like high-mileage oils. Of course all would be 5W30. Now, you have to think about manufacturer approvals and oddball grades, too. Is it really necessary? To maintain engine warranties, yes, but in a world where gasoline octane ratings have been standardized, why can’t the major engine builders settle on two or three multi-grade motor oils? They can, but OEM’s will take that 1/10th of a mile-per-gallon even if it means a crankcase full of Chanel No.5. In this world, the best we can do is to use our knowledge of our customer base to plan ahead. Do you have the odd Mercedes or Volkswagen in your fleet? Try to book their oil changes well in advance to bring in the special lube you need, if you can’t justify the shelf space or cost of carrying it.
Consider noting the exact brand and type of oil you use on the work order … if you maintain a customer’s vehicle, the manufacturer’s regional service rep will suspect your work if there’s a warranty claim. Maybe keep the exotic bottled stuff out front, near the service desk … you may as well advertise your ability to maintain all makes, including rare models.
But do dust the bottles once in a while. To move oil, it should look as if it moves more than once every two or three years.