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How much can you value the engine with your car? The life span of your engine depends in no small part on the quality of the oil you devote it – oil is its lifeblood. People typically don’t pay much awareness of their oil – oil is oil, right? Within the bad old days, maybe, but engine oil underwent something of a revolution in the 80’s and 90’s when hot hatches, 16-valve engines and turbos started to become popular. Together with the devastating problems of black death the days of one oil catering for anyone were over.

Take Castrol for example. They led the sector for years with their GTX mineral oil. It was eventually surpassed by semi-synthetic and fully synthetic oils, including GTX2 and GTX3 Lightec. Those were surpassed by Formula SLX and a lot recently, Castrol GTX Magnatec. All manufacturers have a similar broad spectrum of oils now – I just mention Castrol particularly as they’re my oil of choice for my own, personal cars.

What does my oil actually do?

Your engine oil performs many functions. It stops all the metal surfaces in your engine from grinding together and tearing themselves apart from friction, and it transfers heat out of the combustion cycle. Engine oil must also be able to hold in suspension each of the nasty by-products of combustion like silica (silicon oxide) and acids. Finally, engine oil minimises the exposure to oxygen and so oxidation at higher temperatures. It does all of these things under tremendous pressure and heat.

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How do I look at the numbers throughout the ‘W’? For example 5W40?

They generally get thinner, as oils heat up. Single grade oils get too thin when hot for almost all modern engines which is where multigrade oil comes in. The idea is simple – use science and physics to prevent the base oil from getting too thin whenever it gets hot. The number before the ‘W’ may be the ‘cold’ viscosity rating in the oil, and also the number once the ‘W’ is the ‘hot’ viscosity rating. So, doesn’t thin any over a 40-rated single grade oil when hot, although a 5W40 oil is one that behaves just like a 5-rated single grade oil when cold. The lower the ‘winter’ number (hence the ‘W’), the easier the engine will turn over when starting in cold climates. There’s more detail on this later within the page under both viscosity, and SAE ratings.

A brief guide to the many grades of oil.

Fully Synthetic Characteristics

0W-30

0W-40

5W-40 Fuel economy savings

Enhances engine power and performance

Ensures engine is safe from wear and deposit build-up

Ensures good cold starting and quick circulation in freezing temperatures

Actually gets to moving aspects of the engine quickly

Semi-synthetic Characteristics

5W-30

10W-40

15W-40 Better protection

Good protection within the first 10 minutes after starting out

Roughly three times better at reducing engine wear

Increased oil change intervals – don’t need to change it quite so often

Mineral Characteristics

10W-40

15W-40 Basic protection for a variety of engines

Oil should be changed on a regular basis

What the heck was Black Death?

Black Death first appeared in early 80’s each time a sticky black substance was found to be the reason behind many engine seizures in Europe. It had been extremely frustrating for vehicle owners because mechanics and dealers had not a clue what was occurring. Black Death just wasn’t covered under insurance – if your engine had it, you paid to fix it yourself. Many engines were affected but Vauxhall and Ford (GM) suffered one of the most. Faster roads, higher under-hood temperatures, tighter engineering tolerances and overworked engine oils turned out to be contributors to the problem. The oils just couldn’t handle it and changed their chemical makeup under pressure into a sort of tar-like glue. This blocked each of the oil channels in the engines, starved them of lubrication and caused them to seize. I don’t recommend this but you can reproduce the outcome with a frying pan, cooking oil as well as a blowtorch. The cooking oil will warm far quicker than it’s designed to and may turn to a sticky black tar in your pan. Either that or it will set fire for your kitchen, which is the reason I said don’t try this.

Anyway, burning kitchens aside, Black Death was the catalyst for the production of newer higher quality oils, many of them man-made rather than mineral-based.

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