It was all so simple back in 1968 when Castrol and Esso launched their legendary GTX and Uniflow household name engine oils; 10W/30 for winter months and the thicker 20W/50 for the summer. But over the preceding 55 years engines have advanced out of all recognition and their lubricants have had to follow suit; from staving off ‘Black Death’ in the 1980s to now preventing hybrid harm due to the latter’s unique ‘duty cycle’ which involves major working temperature swings, leading to acute internal condensation problems. The cure is yet another dedicated formulation – 0W/8 – to further confuse and confound motorists and workshops alike.
Not that the average driver is concerned over what oil they use for topping up – indeed the majority can’t actually be bothered! A study by Kwik-Fit revealed more than three-fifths of drivers (62%) let at least three months slip between oil dips and nearly 10% regarding it as an annual chore. Equally worrying is that a recent survey conducted by Mobil 1 in conjunction with the Institute of Advanced Motorists revealed two-thirds of the 1000 questioned didn’t even know what oil their car needed and a staggering 96% didn’t much care either. So much for all the time, money and effort put into marketing and educating the end user?
Castrol, the UK’s most popular pick, says brand loyalty stems back to the original launch of GTX, which has recently been reissued as GTX Classic 10W-40. “Despite this strong back catalogue, many drivers today won’t necessarily relate to these elements. They might not be car or motorsport enthusiasts, but that doesn’t mean they are any less keen on ensuring their vehicles continue to provide the performance and durability that the Castrol brand has become synonymous with,” crows the company.
French company Motul, who introduced the first synthetic multi-grade back in 1971, says the motorcycle fraternity are far less apathetic. “Interestingly, the motorcycle sector is a really good example of a market where quality is the overriding factor… Motul has been the UK’s best-selling motorbike oil for several years”, enthuses sales and marketing manager Andy Wait.
It’s not that the British motorist – with the UK car parc currently consisting of approximately 40 million vehicles, (a record figure) with an average age being around 10 years old – is exactly stuck for choice. Nobody knows the precise number, but taking into account the proliferation of own branded oils (even Amazon markets its own under the Amazon Basics label) it’s generally regarded that it runs into thousands! The most popular blend is now 5W/30 which displaced 10W/40 some years ago.
Warns Morris Lubricants, the good old days of one oil suits all has gone and despite everyone’s best efforts to simplify the situation, there is still a high degree of differentiation required. “Beware of lubricants purporting to be the answer to this complex situation, with a long list of OEM qualifications; there is no simple answer”. LKQ euro car parts concurs: “Selecting the correct oil has indeed become more complicated for both car owners and industry professionals”.
Engine oils: what is VLS?
Verification of Lubricant Specifications (ukla-vls.org.uk) is an industry-backed independent organisation providing a credible and trusted means to verify lubricant specifications. Formed in 2013 by the United Kingdom Lubricants Association (UKLA), VLS provides an unbiased means of ensuring products being sold meet valid technical specification and performance claims.
The outfit was set up as a result of some gross unfounded boasts by both well established and lesser known oil companies. After discovering that “some products were being sold with claims that were simply not realistic, and some at price points that were not credible” it told CAT. “It’s important that end users have access to the right products in a fair and competitive way” although adds “The majority of products sold in the UK market are what they say they are and can do what is claimed”.
The old and new engine oil brands
In 2024 Duckhams Oils celebrates 125 years in the business having relaunched itself in the UK less than a decade ago. The company introduced Europe’s first multi-grade oil in 1951 and during the 60s and 70s vied with Castrol’s GTX with car enthusiasts where their brand loyalty was almost tribal.
There’s always room for others in this packed market and two recent newcomers stem from Germany; Liqui Moly and a new name, ROWE Motor Oil (www.mcoil.co.uk). The latter is family-run specialist which has been around since 1995 majoring on sustainable manufacturing and developing renewable products, being ‘’fully CO2 compensated” since 2017. Serving over 80 countries with a claimed £140m turnover, a ‘soft’ UK launch’ in 2023 is being followed with a full introduction at the forthcoming Autosport show.
Currently ROWE is looking to partner up with independent motor factors and certain retailers “who get what we are trying to achieve” according to director, Jeremy Aston-Phillps who enthuses that the “Made in Germany tag “commands a level of creditability” and insists that ROWE’s Net Zero drive is about making required change in the industry and not a marketing stunt.
Liqui Moly is Germany’s leading brand and while being available in the UK has only recently set up a dedicated UK subsidiary. UK marketing spokesperson Saadat Matin told CAT the company has signed up with A1 Motor Stores and Motorparts Direct and is further looking for independent workshops, offering what it describes at ‘Cabinet Deals’ where its six motor oil references cover 80% of the current car parc.
What’s the best?
Physically stocking the ever swelling lubricant references is becoming more challenging for workshops admits Frank Harvey of the IGA (Independent Garage Association) to the point that now workshops are shifting to smaller drums for the most popular lubes and purchasing specific types at the point of the service job from motor factors.
LKQ euro car parts agrees selecting the correct engine can be equally challenging for garage owners as it for motorists, “which is why we work hard to make the process as streamlined as possible for them. All ranges come in a variety of pack sizes, making it possible for independent garages to use the right product in the right engine without tying up capital or losing space to excess stock.
“The increasingly specialist nature of oils is such that workshops tend to buy small quantities, frequently. They often buy in the oil they need for the vehicles that are in the workshop on a given day, and therefore rely on us for our extensive range and our capability to get products to them ASAP. This process is further reinforced with face-to-face training sessions for workshops, conducted by technical and commercial experts through our LKQ Academy, ensuring both knowledge transfer and quality assurance.”
A1 Motor Stores agrees that modern lubricants have become super specialised and as a result relies upon the advice given by VLS before instructing its stores but recommends, by and large, to adhere to the vehicle’s handbook’s instructions as the starting point – if the average motorist ever cares to read it that is!