It’s all change for oil

Comma's range of oils cater for the vast majority of the UK car parc
Comma's range of oils cater for the vast majority of the UK car parc

Life isn’t getting any simpler, whether you’re talking about tax returns or the fluids that the UK’s millions of cars need to keep ticking over.

The days when one or two different viscosities of oil would do for most of the car parc are long gone. As tolerances, materials and technology develop and change, engines are putting ever more specific demands on their oils.

Gravesend-based Comma Oil and Chemicals says coolants are going through the same proliferation, so garages face even more potentially critical decisions. What used to be a simple swap of liquids at service time has become a minefield.

For the garages, factors and manufacturers that can keep pace with the times, however, there are great opportunities.

Comma, of course, is keen to take advantage, protecting and building on its 24 percent UK market share of oils and the 30 percent chunk of the market for other fluids. Sales and marketing director Mike Bewsey believes getting Comma’s message and advice down the line to the garage, helping them to sell the benefits to the consumer, will have the company’s cashtills ringing.

“The extended chain of communication is difficult, it can break down at any point if you’re not clear about it. It’s very difficult to get the quality message all the way down to the consumer,” he says.

Comma has been hard at work on a new programme to help get that message across. To help garages and factors identify the right fluids for the right cars, Comma has developed new features for its website and updated packaging and marketing material. The company did research to find out what the market wanted.

“Rather than do what we believed would be right, we did research on it to make sure it was right,” says Bewsey.

Comma's new site promises big business opportunities
Comma's new site promises big business opportunities

The new site, up and running now, features a vehicle registration look-up, as well as make and model dropdown menus, to display the appropriate liquids for a particular car.

Limitations with the information held on the DVLA database mean there isn’t always an immediately definitive answer, but in these cases the site asks the user questions to reach the right product. Is there a diesel particulate filter or catalytic converter fitted, for instance?

The results of the research that Comma did also means the site explicitly says when the company doesn’t have a suitable fluid – for the rear transaxle of a Ford Kuga, for instance – rather than leave a result field blank. After all, if there’s a gap, garages or factors might assume the fluid for a similar car will do.

It might, but it might not. It’s important not to underplay the difficulty in providing the information on which fluids to use, since it’s such a complex area. The website covers 98 percent of the car parc – more than 8500 different engine types.

Nearly half of these (48 percent if you want to be picky) are covered by 5W-30 oil. Not all 5W-30 oils are created equal, however. Comma has seven different blends, and the consequences of using the wrong one, or any other fluid, can be costly.

There’s the unfortunate case of one garage which fitted the recommended oil for a four-wheel drive 3.0-litre Audi to a two-wheel drive model. It ruined the continuously variable transmission and resulted in a bill running into the thousands.

Then there’s the different oil needed for Volkswagen Group cars on longlife service schedules rather than fixed intervals. Or unit injector engines versus common rail. Or delightful DPF differences on Renault Lagunas.

The 1.5-litre engine used in this model is available with and without exhaust after-treatment. Use the wrong oil, with too high a sulphated ash content, and you’ll clog the filter.

Bewsey says: “We’ve had two enquiries this year from factors over this model where the DPF has ended up broken when the guide wasn’t followed and a wrong oil was used. In each case, the factors ended up having to meet the cost of replacement systems, and they probably wouldn’t have got much change from £1,800.” Ouch.

These types of problems aren’t going to go away, either. In general the market trend towards smaller cars, with smaller-capacity engines with higher outputs than before, will drive the proliferation forward as tolerances get ever tighter and newer materials, such as magnesium alloy, are used.

Smaller and smaller engines are also using turbocharging technology, with the majority of failures in these systems being traced back to the incorrect fluids being used. They generate more heat, too, so coolants are having to do a lot more work to keep temperatures down.

Use the wrong coolant? It could cause erosion of the waterpump and turbocharger failure – not a cheap thing to put right if it goes wrong on your account.

“Modern day cooling systems are immensely sophisticated and even, most ‘basic’ are packed with different materials – aluminium, copper, brass, rubber seals, plastics and so on,” says Bewsey. “Finding a fluid that is compatible with, and crucially that prevents corrosion of these different materials isn’t that straightforward!”

If you happen to see a car within its warranty period, too, a manufacturer might well quibble over paying out if the wrong fluids have been used, even for an unrelated problem.

“The aftermarket did very well to retain the right to repair under Block Exemption. In this economic climate it’s a great opportunity for workshops to acquire new business as consumers trade out of franchised dealerships for better value servicing work.

“If workshops want to capitalise on that opportunity with 100 percent peace of mind, they need to get the right product – we can help them to do that.”

To keep in the game, Comma has invested heavily in its on-site laboratory in Gravesend. It tests deliveries of bulk oil, tests the different oil and chemical blends the company then mixes, tests fluids going down the production lines and then tests them again before they’re sent out.

Comma has also invested heavily in motorsport
Comma has also invested heavily in motorsport

Whether it’s oils, coolants or other fluids, the lab conducts more than 21,000 tests a year to ensure the blends exceed the tight ACEA specifications and perform exactly as they should. So far this year there have been only five instances were results were not immediately satisfactory and demanded further checks to confirm liquids conformed to the parameters.

Between the arrival of the raw materials and the dispatch of the goods, products go through a barrage of 30 tests to ensure they’re bang on the money.

It’s this work which backs up the company’s guarantee that a product is suitable. It aims to give garages the same peace of mind they’ll get with a Gates or Dayco timing belt promise, but the research Comma did into the new website and marketing revealed that many garages didn’t realise it even existed.

“The guarantee is what we put on as the ‘skin’ over all of those things, but if we didn’t have those tests underneath, the guarantee wouldn’t work at all. We couldn’t do it, and offer the guarantee, if we didn’t have the confidence in our product.

“In fairness, it isn’t new. We’ve offered our guarantee to the market place for some years, but what we are trying to do now is help distributors and workshops better leverage it.”

Bewsey believes there are plenty of ways to get that leverage and cement the relationship between consumer, garages and Comma other than price (see panel): “The UK is very price sensitive, although not as much as you might think. Price is there, but it’s not first or second – it’s around the sixth consideration.”

Besides the continual development and testing work at Gravesend, Comma spends a great deal of time on the road to reach the industry at shows like Mechanex. It says it has worked hands-on with 2000 technicians at TeckTalk Live events at shows last year and trained a further 3000 in partnership with factors like Camberley Auto Factors.

It also has 11,000 UK workshops signed up to its Professional Partner Programme, which it launched in 2001, all receiving the company’s printed application guide.

It’s not just about the UK for Comma anymore. Over the past eight years it’s enjoyed particularly steep growth in other markets. Export now accounts for 38 percent of the company’s turnover.

The company does particularly well in Iceland where there’s more Comma product in each car than in any other market. A shame for Comma, then, that the Icelandic car parc is 100th of the size of the UK’s, but the company’s still proud about the achievement.

It likes to think Icelanders go for its products because they have the confidence that they’ll continue to work no matter what the extremes of weather.

Wherever the market happens to be, though, it’s the 100 percent attention on the aftermarket that Comma also thinks gives it an added edge.

None of the growth in export has come at the expense of market share or service in the UK, Bewsey is quick to point out.

Comma has unrivalled access to base oils, to keep the UK demand fully met through peaks and troughs, and since the company is able to switch blends and make most of its own containers on site it can very quickly respond to changes in what the demand is for.

“We focus on the aftermarket, that’s what we’re about. If the aftermarket dies, we die with it,” says Bewsey.

As long as both stay on their toes, there doesn’t seem to be any danger of that happening to either, thankfully.

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