#1---Engine Oils 101
What's Best For My Engine?

10/12/2014
Dave Hughes


In life there are some subjects that should not be discussed in polite company without expecting strong feelings to be displayed. Chief among them are religion and politics. Let me add one more for car people oil.

 
Ive seen more arguments started over oil than all other automotive subjects that evoke strong beliefs and feelings that are borne of tradition, advertising, myths and ignorance and sometimes even facts.
 
In view of the above statements, we will try to present some information about oil that pertains to our customers and it will not be tainted by bias from a sponsor. But first, to liven things up a bit, here are three true-life stories to emphasize my introduction.
 
We once had a Harley rider working for us at the shop not one of the new riders, but a traditional pan and knuckle type guy. He and his tribe had several traditions and beliefs that were quaint to say the least one involved oil. It included searching out old caches of oil that had set on the shelf for long periods of time, the longer the better. They liked Wolfs Head best. They would carefully carry the cans home making sure it didnt get mixed up. When they got home they opened the cans and poured off the top half that was all the cream pure oil (not Pure Oil brand) and they disposed of the junk additives left in the bottom of the cans. Hopefully, they did this in an environmentally friendly manor. but not yours!!! Now, before I get any threatening letters from Wolfs Heads lawyers get a grip I didnt say I accepted the tribes theory, and besides, they would accept any old oil. This just points out what some people believe.
 
The ignorance of the tribes belief lies in the fact that with no additives oil is a very poor product to pour into your crankcase. The additives are what make the product what it is good or bad more later. Another erroneous idea is that separation like milk and cream happens with oils, not so, its not 1901 any more.
 
Next, a fellow we call love bug. No, he didnt own a VW. He had trouble with following instructions and had a difficult time articulating his problems he lied a lot! Anyway, he, his father, and his grandfather before him had always used a particular brand of oil in a yellow can- an old family friend! As long as the can was yellow, it was the same good oil his paw paw had used with great success 50 or 60 years ago. The code, type, or viscosity meant nothing just as long as the can was yellow! He had lots of lubrication & wear problems that were always someone elses fault.
 
Third, a racer had one of our cams and claimed he used Shell Rotella T oil, but he was showing some lobe tip problems.  

 It appeared to be crumbling away with only 150 runs on it. Under 8X magnification, the tip looked like freshly laid asphalt, tarmac to the English, lots of cavities, not smooth like the rest of the cam. This damage/wear is a definite indication of oil breakdown or incorrect oil. This racer had another engine with our cam with over 400 runs that still looked perfect. He had also used Rotella T oil with this cam. As the story unraveled, the difference was that when the cars were stored at the end of the season, the first was in a place where it had to be moved several times over the winter. The oil was changed to a 0W-20 synthetic to make starting easier. Well it did start easier, but 0W-20W synthetic is guaranteed to make the cam fail, and it was starting to go.
 
This racer made a common mistake. He thought that if the car wasnt being raced it didnt need the protection of the good oil, but it does. This is just like car owners who build engines that need race gas and think they can cruise around on the street on pump gas, because they arent racing. In this instance, the racer didnt understand that the valve springs have the same pressure regardless of RPM; the cam and lifters need the right oil regardless of RPM. In the case of gasoline, the compression ratio that requires racing gas at 7000 is still the same ratio at 1500RPM, unless, of course, the pistons are changed when cruising!!!
 
 These stories illustrate the basic lack of knowledge of products and their uses that exist. Andthis is more common than you might think it infects a lot of peoples thinking not our well-informed customers, but certainly many others you may know!
 
The oil we pour in our engines is the final act / decision we make before we fire them up. Too many times, it is a poor decision, as described in our anecdotes above, based on impulse or habit, advertising or ignorance. The oil must lubricate and cool as well as pick-up and carry off trash to be trapped in the filter (Woooo, filters another bad subject! See our oil filters tech article). These basic demands can usually be met with some limited success by anything you put in the pan even water!
 
The big problem in the lubrication area is that many of todays oils are not fit to be in our oil pans. We may upset some people with our explanations and positions, a situation we are not unfamiliar with, but the folks need to know. We are primarily concerned with the 80-90% of our customers that use flat tappet cams in high performance applications. Cam/lifter wear has become rampant in the past 10 years for all cam suppliers and many are experimenting with ceramic or special lifters, hardened cam lobes, or chemically treated lobes. All of this effort is designed to address the problem of the crappy oil we all have to work with. For purposes of this article, the products we pour in our pan will be classified as oil.
 
All oils are made up of a base oil from the earth. Refining separates all the different elements. The additives are where things get confusing. The additives do fundamental jobs like reducing foaming, adding detergency, reducing rusting, reducing friction, keeping all the stuff from separating, etc.
 
Our specific area of concentration in this article is on the friction reducing additives. The base oil itself reduces friction, but it needs friction-reducing additives to do the job right. These additives have two jobs:
 
1) To provide protection to metal surfaces during normal operation. The oil film separates the two adjacent metal surfaces and cushions shocks between them.
 
2) To serve as a boundary lubrication when the oil film breaks down.
 
Look at the boundary layer protection like catastrophic health insurance. When your regular insurance (the oil film) breaks down, you need a back up. Without catastrophic insurance (boundary layer protection), severe damage (or death) and expense will result.
 
The additive that provides this boundary layer of protection in engine oil for many years has been a zinc phosphate package. It cannot be poured in like the stuff you see on late night T.V. It has to be incorporated in the original formulation of the oil. The zinc phosphate package acts somewhat like the babbit overlay on main and rod bearings or for those more race oriented, like the special coatings now available and applied to almost any component in the engine, for catastrophic insurance when the regular oil film breaks down, and it will!
 
This zinc phosphate package in the oil constantly coats the moving parts as long as the engine is running. It runs off when the engine is stopped. Since the zinc phosphate package is an integral part of the oil, it is constantly being applied to all of the friction surfaces. All this information is not news the zinc phosphate package in oil has been around for about 50 years, back to Love Bugs paw paw.
 
So what is the problem?
 
The Environmental Protection Agency, catalytic converters and bad news! (as if the first two werent bad news?!). When the oil with the zinc phosphate package gets burnt, as the oil residue on the cylinder walls does, the zinc phosphate contaminates the "Cadillac converter". This renders the converter useless, and the E.P.A. has mandated that the O.E.M. converter be warranted to last 120,000 miles. To make this happen, the automakers have specd oil for their newer gasoline vehicles (to have reduced amounts of the zinc phosphate package in them. This is to help get the converters through the warranty period. What this means in numbers is that the zinc phosphate package is reduced to 900ppm (parts per million) or less. All engines using flat tappet cams need a bare minimum of 1,200ppm to have a chance to live or even break-in.
 
Sorry to burst your bubble, but the oil you see your favorite racer pour in his engine on T.V. is not the same oil you get in the same bottle! The oil problem is so bad that engine builders, like Joe Gibbs, are now formulating their own good oil mixtures.
 
This is not a problem for the newer engines with roller tappet cams and low tension springs (beehive type usually). But, these later oil specs such as SJ, SL, and etc. or any oil considered energy conserving (E.C.) is definitely not fit for the flat tappet cams. Most synthetic oils have these same problems they are not fit for flat tappet cams either.
 
In the last few years any oil listed as H.D. (heavy duty) or diesel oil had the 1200ppm of zinc phosphate in them. We, along with a few other cam suppliers, have been recommending H.D. and diesel oils. However, it seems some diesel engines are now using catalytic converters, so we are becoming reluctant to recommend diesel oil, but at this point we have no alternative.
 
We, as cam suppliers, and our customers are faced with decisions about oil. One of the problems we have is finding out what is in the oils we use and need. We are not talking about some zippy advertising cute name. We need to know exactly what additives are being used and in what quantities. The problem is that these chemicals are proprietary information and are treated like national defense secrets (the ones the liberals are trying to give to our enemies). So finding out what works and what doesnt and how much is used is next to impossible.
 
We are looking at oils and/or additives that can replace the zinc phosphate package. There are many named additives with cute names with zs and xs and numbers in their names that are worthless. One additive that is used by some additive manufacturers is lead. Yeah, it works, but it is very illegal if you havent heard. They fly under the radar until they have made enough money to move to Cancun. Another popular additive is moly. Moly comes in 2 different forms, but they are both called moly. The more common and popular is molybdenum disulfide; it is a dark gray color and is hard to get off of your hands or out of your clothes. This moly is a very good extreme pressure lubricant, but it falls out of suspension (wont stay mixed in the oil) and the oil filter will take it out (or plug up). Some sources even complain that the moly disulfide is causing wear on some of the engine parts.
 
There is an S.A.E. paper (2000-01-3553) done in conjunction with the guys at R.C.R. (Richard Childress Racing as if you don't know) examining various anti-wear additives. The molybdenum additive used in one test would not mix properly with the original antiwear compounds resulting in higher than normal cam and lifter wear. The more we dig into this subject the more contradictory and confusing it gets.
 
As far as I can determine at this point, the best stuff for your crankcase is a heavy duty oil (not an energy conserving oil) either a straight weight or 10W-40 or 20W-50 racing oil or 15W-40 diesel oil if it has a CI-4 or CI-4+ rating. At this time we do not recommend any synthetic oils for use with flat tappet cams.

The photo below on the left hand side shows the logo that The International Lubricant Standardization and Approval Committee (ILSAC), in association with the API, have created for the front of the oil bottle that indicates that an oil meets the latest performance category.
 
 
The symbol above in the center is referred to as the "API DONUT". It gives you valuable pieces of information.  One of them is the API (American Petroleum Institute) Service Rating. This two letter classification, found in section #2, identifies the vehicle fuel type and quality level of the motor oil. The first letter indicates the vehicle fuel type that the oil is designed for. Ratings that begin with an "S" are intended for gasoline engines. Ratings that begin with a "C" are for diesel engines. The second letter designates the quality level of the motor oil. The higher the letter, the more advanced the oil is (supposedly).

If section #2 on your oil says "Energy Conserving" drop it like abad habit! It is a CAM KILLER! 

Normally section #3 is where you will see "HD" for the Heavy Duty oils, but, it can appear anywhere on the bottle.
  

The Japanese have better (slicker) oils that still protect flat tappet cams, they are good enough that they can even improve fuel mileage and protect that cadillac thing. With all the pressures from the environmentalists on our so-called elected representatives in Congress, along with $4.00 a gallon gasoline, the oil companies are doing lots of research on improving oils to catch up with the Japanese. One of the additives that may prove to be the answer is called molybdenum carbamate. This moly is soluble so it mixes with the oil and stays in suspension. It is very slippery like its cousin the gray stuff and it actually sticks to, or plates up, on metal parts as opposed to zinc phosphate, that does not stick to the metal. In the start and stop situations that our cars go through it is actually better than zinc phosphate. Some race only oils may have super high amounts of the zinc phosphate that is fine for a 500-mile race where the engine is never shut off.
 
Why, you ask, isnt this moly carbamate used in some oils now, if it is so good? Two answers: 1) price, and 2) it is used in some industrial oils where use is more severe and the quality of oils make a real difference. As to cost, the oil companies have been getting by with the crap they have been selling if it aint broke dont fix it!
 
We can assure you that there are going to be many so-called racing only oils appearing in the market. Whether they will all be what you need for flat tappet cam use or not is undetermined at this time. This is an opportunity for some shysters to jump into a new market with junk oil and then disappear.
 
To sum up our take on oil and additives for flat tappet cams, the zinc phosphate additive of 1200ppm or greater is an excellent and relatively inexpensive extreme pressure lubricant for flat tappet cams. Its drawback is that it does not stick to metal parts. The larger problem will be finding out just how much of this additive may be in particular oil. We use and recommend Joe Gibbs Driven racing oils for all flat tappet cam applications. Finally, the molybdenum carbamate (soluble moly additive (P/N HUG 3690)  is so good that it should even bring the crap oil up to the point where it can be used with flat tappet cams. Now Love Bug can use his paw;s paws crappy oil! Not only that but this additive wont affect the precious cadillac converter like the zinc phosphate will.
 
Molybdenum carbamate has been used for 50 years or more in the industrial and H.D. trucking industry. We will be offering this product as an oil additive.   HUGHES EXTREME PRESSURE OIL ADDITIVE (P/N HUG 3690) is recommended specifically for flat tappet camshafts where they will be used in stop and go applications. It can be added to any oil, good or crap. It will not affect catalytic converters. Yes, you can use it with roller cams, too! It is super slippery (slick) so if your rocker and pushrod tips live longer dont be surprised. The manufacturer claims, better mileage, improved fuel mileage and reduced oil consumption. All of that is possible, but we are offering it for cam and lifter protection.
    
Note: For those of you who are interested in more information on this subject check out Hot Rod magazine, the June 06 article.
 

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