Engine Oil Bible

Engine Oil Bible

File: Engine Oil Bible.doc - Click here to download!

Engine Oil – What It Does & How To Choose

What does my oil actually do?
An engine oil's job is primarily to stop all the metal surfaces in your engine from grinding together and tearing themselves apart (and that's the last thing we'd want!). But it also has to dissipate the heat generated from this friction too. It also transfers heat away from the combustion cycle. Another function is that a good engine oil must be able to hold in suspension the nasty by-products of fuel combustion, such as silica (silicon oxide) and acids, whilst also cleaning the engine of such nasties. And it must do all of these things under tremendous heat and pressure without succumbing to fatigue.

Mineral or synthetic?
Mineral oils are based on oil that comes from dear old Mother Earth which has been refined. Synthetic oils are entirely concocted by chemists wearing white lab coats in oil company laboratories. For more info, see the section on synthetics further down the page. The only other type is semi-synthetic, sometimes called premium, which is a blend of the two. It is safe to mix the different types, but it's wiser to switch completely to a new type rather than mixing.

A couple of words of warning:

  • If you've been driving around with mineral oil in your engine for years, don't switch to synthetic oil without preparation. Synthetic oils have been known to dislodge the baked-on deposits from mineral oils and leave them floating around your engine.  It's wise to use a flushing oil first.
  • If you do decide to change, only go up the scale. If you've been running around on synthetic, don't change down to a mineral-based oil - your engine might not be able to cope with the degradation in lubrication. Consequently, if you've been using mineral oil, try a semi or a fully synthetic oil. By degradation, we’re referring to the wear tolerances that an engine develops based on the oil that it's using. Thicker mineral oils mean thicker layers of oil coating the moving parts (by microns though). Switching to a thinner synthetic oil can cause piston rings to leak and in some very rare cases, piston slap or crank vibration.
  • Gaskets and seals! With the makeup of synthetic oils being different from mineral oils, mineral-oil-soaked gaskets and seals have been known to leak when exposed to synthetic oils. Perhaps not that common an occurrence, but worth bearing in mind nevertheless.


Despite their name, most synthetic derived motor oils are actually derived from mineral oils - they are mostly Polyalphaolifins and these come from the purest part of the mineral oil refraction process, the gas. PAO oils will mix with normal mineral oil which means Joe public can add synthetic to his mineral, or mineral to his synthetic without his car engine seizing up. The most stable bases are polyol-ester (not polyester). What we meant by 'stable' is 'less likely to react adversely with other compounds.' Synthetic oil bases tend not to contain reactive carbon atoms for this reason. Reactive carbon has a tendency to combine with oxygen creating an acid. As you can imagine, in an oil, this would be A Bad Thing. So think of synthetic oils as custom-built oils. They're designed to do the job efficiently but without any of the excess baggage that can accompany mineral based oils.

Pure synthetics
Pure synthetic oils (polyalkyleneglycol) are the types used almost exclusively within the industrial sector in polyglycol gearbox oils for heavily loaded gearboxes. These are typically concocted by intelligent blokes in white lab coats. These chaps break apart the molecules that make up a variety of substances, like vegetable and animal oils, and then recombine the individual atoms that make up those molecules to build new, synthetic molecules. This process allows the chemists to actually "fine tune" the molecules as they build them. Clever stuff. But Polyglycols don't mix with normal mineral oils.

A quick guide to the different grades of oil.

Fully Synthetic



Fuel economy savings
Enhances engine performance and power
Ensures engine is protected from wear and deposit build-up
Ensures good cold starting and quick circulation in freezing temperatures
Gets to moving parts of the engine quickly




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




Basic protection for a variety of engines
Oil needs to be changed more often


So what should I buy?
Quality Counts! It doesn't matter what sort of fancy marketing goes into an engine oil, it's what's written on the packaging which counts. Specifications and approvals are everything. There are two established testing bodies. The API (American Petroleum Institute), and the European counterpart, the ACEA (Association des Constructeurs Europeens d'Automobiles - which was the CCMC).

[api]The API classifications are different for petrol and diesel engines:

  • For petrol, listings start with 'S' (meaning Service category, but you can also think of it as Spark-plug ignition), followed by another code to denote standard. 'SM' is the current top grade, which recently replaced 'SL' and 'SH'. 'SH' will be found on most expensive oils, and almost all the new synthetics. It's basically an upgraded 'SG' oil which has been tested more sternly.
  • For diesel oils, the first letter is 'C' (meaning Commercial category, but you can also think of it as Compression ignition). 'CH' is the highest grade at the moment, (technically CH-4 for heavy-duty) but 'CF' is the most popular and is well adequate for passenger vehicle applications.


[sae]The ACEA standards are prefixed with a 'G' for petrol engines and a 'D' or 'PD' for diesel. Coupled with this are numerous approvals by car manufacturers which many oil containers sport with pride. ACEA replaced CCMC in 1996 primarily to allow for greater read-across in test programs (eg. for viscosity, viscosity modifiers and base oil). The CCMC specifications were G (1 to 5) for gasoline, D (1 to 5) or heavy duty diesel and PD1 and PD2 for passenger car diesel. ACEA though have a slightly different nomenclature they can be summarised as A for petrol, B for passenger car diesel and E for heavy duty diesel. The ACEA grades may also be followed by the year of issue which will be either '96, '98 (current) but coming soon is 2000.
Full ACEA specs are:

  • A1 Fuel Economy Petrol
  • A2 Standard performance level
  • A3 High performance and / or extended drain
  • B1 Fuel Economy diesel
  • B2 Standard performance level
  • B3 High performance and / or extended drain
  • B4 For direct injection passenger car diesel engines
  • E1 Non-turbo charged light duty diesel
  • E2 Standard performance level
  • E3 High performance extended drain
  • E4 Higher performance and longer extended drain
  • E5 (1999) High performance / long drain plus American/API performances. - This is ACEAs first attempt at a global spec.

Typically, these markings will be found in a statement similar to: Meets the requirements of API SH/CD along the label somewhere. Also, you ought to be able to see the API Service Symbol somewhere on the packaging:

If this is all confusing you, then rest assured that all top oils safely conform to the current standards. What you should treat with caution are the real cheapies and those with nothing but a maker's name on the pack.  Cheap oil doesn’t mean it’s good!
A Brief History of API ratings
Some people have asked about the old standards, and although they're not especially relevant, some rampant plagiarism from an API service bulletin means we can bring you all the API ratings right back from when the earth was cooling.

Petrol Engines

Diesel Engines









For all automotive engines presently in use. Introduced in the API service symbol in November 2004



Introduced in 1998 for high-speed four-stroke engines. CH-4 oils are specifically designed for use with diesel fuels ranging in sulphur content up to 0.5% weight. Can be used in place of CD, CE, CF-4 and CG-4.



For all automotive engines presently in use. Introduced in the API service symbol in 1998



Introduced in 1995 for high-speed four-stroke engines. CG-4 oils are specifically designed for use with diesel fuels ranging in sulphur content less than 0.5% weight. CG-4 oil needs to be used for engines meeting 1994 emission standards. Can be used in place of CD, CE and CF-4.



For all automotive engines presently in use. Introduced in the API service symbol in 1996



Introduced in 1990 for high-speed four-stroke naturally aspirated and turbo engines. Can be used in place of CD and CE.



For model year 1996 and older engines.



Introduced in 1994 for severe duty, two stroke motorcycle engines. Can be used in place of CD-II.



For model year 1993 and older engines.



Introduced in 1994 for off-road, indirect-injected and other diesel engines including those using fuel over0.5% weight sulphur. Can be used in place of CD.



For model year 1988 and older engines.



Introduced in 1987 for high-speed four-stroke naturally aspirated and turbo engines. Can be used in place of CC and CD.



For model year 1979 and older engines.



Introduced in 1987 for two-stroke motorcycle engines.



For model year 1971 and older engines.



Introduced in 1955 for certain naturally aspirated and turbo engines.



For model year 1967 and older engines.



Introduced in 1961 for all diesels.



For older engines. Use this only when specifically recommended by the manufacturer.



Introduced in 1949 for moderate-duty engines.



For much older engines with no performance requirement. Use this only when specifically recommended by the manufacturer.



Introduced in 1940 for light-duty engines.







SAE Grade counts too!  The API/ACEA ratings only refer to an oil's quality. For grade, you need to look at the SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) ratings. These describe the oil's function and viscosity standard. Viscosity means the substance and clinging properties of the lubricant. When cold, oil can become like treacle so it is important that any lube is kept as thin as possible. It's cold performance is denoted by the letter 'W', meaning 'winter'. At the other end of the scale, a scorching hot oil can be as thin as water and about as useful too. So it needs to be as thick as possible when warm. Thin when cold but thick when warm? That's where MultiGrade oil comes in. For ages, good old 20W/50 was the oil to have. But as engines progressed and tolerances decreased, a lighter, thinner oil was required, especially when cold. Thus 15W/50, 15W/40 and even 15W/30 oils are now commonplace. Synthetics can go down as far as 5W which seemed unbeatable until some brands came up with a 0W30 formulation! 'Free flowing' just doesn't describe it! It's predominantly a workshop oil but recommended for use in places like Canada in the winter.
So again: what should I buy? That all depends on your car, your pocket and how you intend to drive and service the car. All brands claim theirs offers the best protection available - until they launch a superior alternative. It's like washing powders - whiter than white until new Super-Nukem-Dazzo comes out. For most motorists and most cars, a quality mainline oil is the best. Ones which are known to be good at their job and accepted by the general public.  Go up a step again and you're looking at synthetic oils aimed squarely at the performance market.  These are the ones which provide better endurance and favorable oil pressures for the demanding drivers. 



[SAE rates]
Viscosity and Viscosity Index (VI).
The proper viscosity is the single most important criteria of a lubricating oil. The basic performance of machinery is based on the viscosity of the lubricant. Viscosity is, if you like, the resistance to the flowability of the oil. The thicker an oil, the higher its viscosity. The chart on the right shows a rough guide to ambient temperatures vs oil viscosity performance in both multigrade (top half) and single grade (lower half) oils.

Multigrade oils work by having a polymer added to a light base oil which prevents the oil from thinning too much as it warms up. At low temperatures, the polymers are coiled up and allow the oil to flow as it's low number (W number) indicates. As the oil heats up, the polymers unwind into long chains which prevent the oil from thinning as much as it normally would. The result is that at 100°C, the oil has thinned only as much as it's higher rating. Think of it like this: a 10W30 oil is a 10-weight oil that will not thin more than a 30-weight oil when it gets hot.
The viscosity index of a lubricant is an empirical formula that allows the change in viscosity in the presence of heat to be calculated. This tells the user how much the oil will thin when it is subjected to heat. The higher the viscosity index, the less an oil will thin at a specified temperature. Multi-viscosity motor oils will have a viscosity index well over 100, while single viscosity motor oils and most industrial oils will have a VI of about 100 or less.

Servicing and checking
You can never check your engine oil too often. Use the dipstick - that's what it's there for - and don't run below the 'min' mark. Below that, there isn't enough oil for the pump to be able to supply the top of the engine whilst keeping a reserve in the sump. All oils, no matter what their type, are made of long-chained molecules which get sheared into shorter chains in a running engine. This in turn means that the oil begins to lose it's viscosity over time, and it uses up the additives in it that prevent scuffing between cams and followers, rings and cylinder walls etc etc. When this happens, fresh oil is the key. And don't worry about the engine oil turning black. It will lose it's golden-brown colour within a few hundred miles of being put in to the engine. That doesn't mean it's not working. Quite the contrary - it means it is working well. It changes colour as it traps oxidised oil, clots and the flakes of metal that pop off heavily loaded engine parts. Just don't leave it too long between oil changes.
So how often should I change my oil?
You can never change your engine oil too frequently. The more you do it, the longer the engine will last. The whole debate about exactly when you change your oil is somewhat of a grey area. Manufacturers tell you every 10,000 miles or so. Your mate with a classic car tells you every 3,000 miles. Ole' Bob with the bad breath who drives a truck tells you he's never once changed the oil in his car. Fact is, large quantities of water are produced by the normal combustion process and, depending on engine wear, some of it gets into the crank case. If you have a good crank case breathing system it gets removed from there PDQ, but even so, in cold weather a lot of condensation will take place. This is bad enough in itself, since water is not noted for its lubrication qualities in an engine, but even worse, that water dissolves any nitrates formed during the combustion process. That leaves you with a mixture of Nitric (HNO3) and Nitrous (HNO2) acid circulating round your engine! So not only do you suffer a high rate of wear at start-up and when the engine is cold, you suffer a high rate of subsequent corrosion during normal running or even when stationary.
The point is that the optimum time for changing oil ought to be related to a number of factors, of which distance travelled is probably one of the least important in most cases. Here is our selection in rough order of importance:

  • Number of cold starts (more condensation in a cold engine)
  • Ambient temperature (how long before warm enough to stop serious condensation)
  • Effectiveness of crank case scavenging (more of that anon)
  • State of wear of the engine (piston blow-by multiplies the problem)
  • Accuracy of carburation during warm-up period (extra gook produced)
  • Distance travelled

Items 1 to 3 have to be taken together since a given number of "cold" starts in the Dakar in summer is not the same as an equal number conducted in Fargo in January. The effect in either case will be modified by how much gas gets past the pistons. What we are really after is the severity and duration of the initial condensation period. All other things being equal, that will give you how much condensate will be produced and that more than anything else determines when the oil should be dumped.
What else happens when I change the oil then?
Engines pump about 10,000 litres of air for every litre of fuel consumed, and along with all that air, they suck in plenty of dirt and grit. A good air filter will stop everything bigger than a micron in diameter - everything smaller mostly just floats around harmlessly in the 0.001inch minimum thickness oil films that separate all the moving parts. Despite all of this, there will always be submicron particles that get in and there will be places in the engines oilways where they will gather. Every time you empty the oil from your sump, you're also draining this fine grit with it.
Checking the oil in your engine, and topping up.
You'd be surprised by the number of people that don't know how to do even this basic task. When checking the level of oil in the engine, the car should be on a level plane, and should be relatively cold.  This is what happens when you check it while it’s still hot :
Reading the oil in this way results in an erroneous reading because a quantity of oil (usually about half a litre) is still confined in the oilways and passages (galleries) of the engine, and takes some time to drain back into the crankcase. On the image, the blue areas are where oil is likely to still be running back down to the sump. But on seeing what appears to be an abnormally low level on the dipstick, these people then add more oil to the crankcase. The oilways and passages all empty, and suddenly the engine becomes over-filled with oil, going way above the 'MAX' mark on the dipstick. The problem with this is that the next time the engine is run, the windage in the crankcase and other pressures generated by the oil pump, etc. place a great strain on the seal on the rear main bearing.

Eventually, often much sooner than the ordinary man in the street might expect, the rear main bearing seal ruptures, and the engine becomes a 'leaker'. If you've got a manual gearbox, this means one thing: this oil goes right onto the flywheel and the face of the clutch disc. A lubricated clutch is A Bad Thing.

If this still goes unnoticed, the front seal is the next to go, and the engine then becomes a 'gusher'. As well as smothering the clutch with oil from the rear, the oil now coming from the front leak will be neatly distributed about the engine bay as it hits the front pulley - often propelling it out as far as the brake discs.


Oil filters and filtration.
It's all very well changing your oil often, but it's not just the oil that helps prevent engine wear. The oil filter does its part too. Dirt is the prime cause of engine wear. Not big dirt, like you'd see in a yard, but minute particles of dirt. It's dirt nevertheless, and it's abrasive. These contaminants vary from road dust (which are razor-like flakes from an engine's perspective) that doesn't get filtered out by the air filter, up to actual metal particles - the byproducts of the casting scarf from the original engine manufacture, and basic engine wear. All this nastiness is carried around by the oil into the minute parts of your engine, being rammed into the precision clearances between bearings and other moving parts. Once in, they don't come out easy, but tend to stay there, wearing grooves, grinding and generally messing up your engine. Other debris that causes problems are a by-product of the mere way an engine works - sooty particles from the combustion process can be forced past the piston rings and transported around in the oil too. This is definitely A Bad Thing - the soot acts like a sponge and soaks up other oil additives reducing the oil's anti-wear properties, and messing up it's viscosity. All this dirt is why oil goes black when it's used. That lovely syrup-like yellow that it is when you put it in is pure oil. The black stuff that comes out at an oil change is the same oil full of contaminants and by-products from wear and tear.
That's where the oil filter comes in. It's job is to catch all this crap floating around in the oil, and to stop it from recirculating. Most oil filters we see are the spin-on type. They're shaped like an aluminium can and spin on to a threaded oil feeder poking out of the side of the engine somewhere. They're called 'full-flow' oil filters because they sit in the normal flow of the oil through the engine. Because it sits in-line, it has to be designed not to restrict the flow of oil around the circuit, and thus can only really be effective at stopping the larger particles. Large, in this case, is around the 20micron size. So here's the catch. The smallest contaminants are in the 10-20micron size range. Not only is that "extremely small", but it means that they pass right through the oil filter and back out into circulation. This is why regular oil changes are a necessity, because these tiny little things can be the most damaging.


This is a cutaway of a typical spin-on oil filter used in automotive applications. I've put a few arrows in to show the normal flow of oil through such a filter. Typically the oil enters through the ring of holes in the outside, passes through the filter element and then down through the central core and back into the engine.



Magnetised oil traps
Recently, magnetic filter additions have started to surface.
The idea is that the magnets will attract any metal debris in your oil and stick them to the inside of the oil filter wall, thus preventing them from going back into the oil circulation.

Reproduced & edited with permission from Chris Longhurst
First Published By / Original Author : Chris Longhurst