This Is The Hidden History Of Motor Oil
As a perishable product, motor oil on the store shelf has to support pretty much any engine and driving condition someone can throw at it. Hey, Alfa Romeo Giuliettas still need oil changes, right? Weekend warriors complete engine rebuilds all the time, and need oil before their race cars are brought back to life. So, too, does the clueless commuter 50,000 miles past due for an oil change.
Being a consumable also means that lessons learned over the years are, even in some small way, have probably been applied to the oil in your car.
And all the lessons learned began, interestingly enough, with steam engines. To think we can trace every bottle of 10W-30 you’ve seen back to a man named Dr. John Ellis is astounding, if only because you haven’t given much thought to the “invention” of motor oil at all.
Dr. Ellis is credited as being the first person to devise a way to keep friction at bay in large steam engines, settling on petroleum lubricant for the task. All motor oil today solves the same problems it did back in 1866, albeit to a far better standard.
And with the internal combustion engines set to revolutionize the world, the first lubricants were pitched by Dr. Ellis’ nascent company, Valvoline. Henry Ford was an early customer, with a demanding request: the World Land Speed Record.
Henry Ford himself set a land speed record in 1904, behind the wheel of a monstrous and primitive machine called the “999”. His up-to-100 horsepower engine gave the bodywork-less 999 a top speed of 91.37 mph. As early inventors also often showed, Ford was not short on bravery: the speed was hit on a frozen lake in Michigan.
A few years after his speed record helped attract press and investors for his new automotive venture, Henry Ford’s Model T arrived on the scene with a curiously specific warning on its dashboard: “This car is filled with Valvoline light motor oil. We recommend its use. No other oil should be used in this car.”
Being an ever-evolving lubricant for ever-changing applications, the history of a consumable liquid like oil isn’t easy to piece together. But one of the first big developments was to create a near-universal motor oil that could be used in any engine.
Manufacturers have long included oil recommendations for vehicles, but in 1939 this was rather problematic. At the time, there were hundreds of active and defunct car manufacturers in the U.S. alone, all supported by a relatively spotty network of garages, gas stations, and repair facilities to serve everyone. In other words, imagine trying to find a specific motor oil for, say, a Bugatti—only in the middle of Nebraska. When X-18 was released by Valvoline in 1939, it solved a problem drivers had been facing for more than 30 years, namely, the need for an oil that was suitable for a huge range of applications.
Just because an oil will work in most vehicles doesn’t mean it’ll work for most applications, however. Cruising down a country road is a much less strenuous task for your car than, say, entering the Bathurst 1000, so the oil you pick is pretty straightforward.
If you were to drive enthusiastically, enter a race, or own a high-performance car, by 1965 you could pick up VR1, one of the first developed to stand up to demanding conditions, or more recently, an oil suited for vehicles with high-mileage engines.
The history of oil is often a story of getting our machines to perform in incredible ways. But the future is a bit different: even though the specific formulas, applications, and conditions are always changing, the future of oil is where you’ll be taking it.