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A guide to Classic Oils

Cats or Classics Published: 24th Jun 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

A guide to Classic Oils
A guide to Classic Oils
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Modern oils may be kind to the environment but they could kill your classic car’s engine! here’s why the choice of oil has never been so important

Going green could see many classic car drivers seeing red and it’s all to do with the engine oil they use. Most motorists know the value of a top quality brew but recent changes to the make up of engine lubricants have slipped under our radar – meaning that you could be killing your classic with kindness and not knowing it. And it’s all due to a cat’s life. No, not the four legged feline type but the precious metal one under the floor that vehicles have been fitted with since the early 90s and doesn’t possess nine lives. What kills a cat are the additives that older engines demand, chiefly the anti-wear agents that provide an oil’s make-up. Known as ZDTP (zinc dithiophosphate) this is a zinc-based additive and an extremely effective one for preventing wear in the piston rings and in the valve train plus it is an effective cleaner of gum and tarnish deposits. However with zinc comes phosphorus which is poison to a catalytic converter and for virtually 20 years oil companieshave gradually diluted the ZDTP additive down to make “cat friendly” oils. So what, you may say? But with the advent of the latest grade of engine oils zinc/phosphorus content is now at an all time low and while this is no problem to the latest engines thanks to their metal technology, older engines, and even those of the 1990s, will suffer from the demise of any anti-wear agents. It’s not simply bore wear you need to worry about, other vulnerable components include the camshaft, hydraulic tappets and other scuffprone areas. In fact one industry expert that we spoke to claimed that it’s probably safer to use a diesel engine oil in a typical classic as they are not as hindered like a petrolbiased lubricant!

“Currently, they have no phosphorus limits – as such many people recommend them for older cars, even though many others say that the detergent levels are too high and the engine will use oil. Well, you cannot have it both ways. Yes, it may use oil, but only until the cleaning period is complete – unless you are unlucky enough to move a deposit that is stopping oil leaks that is. However, an engine in good internal condition will run quite happily on diesel oils as long as the SAE viscosity is correct,” says John Hankin of Penrite Oils. This is one of the reasons why classic oil sales are on a roll. Enthusiasts, bewildered by the sheer magnitude of the market and lack of proper advice, are switching over to dedicated classic lubes for peace of mind and this goes for vintage cars as well as neo classic GTis and turbos. At the other end of the classic scene, vintage and veteran oils sales are soaring, according to Adrian Hill of Morris Lubricants for similar reasons. Penrite Oils, who supplies lubricant to the Beaulieu collection, says the average classic car owner is becoming increasingly discerning, especially pre-war enthusiasts. It costs of course, but for rare and expensive engines it’s cheap insurance, unlike the low cost, low grade oils that although on paper seem suitable for many oldies don’t offer the protection needed. Synthetic oils have been on the shelves for some 25 years, initially introduced to combat black sludge; a by-product on increasing underbonnet temperatures and faster running engines.

Man-made synthetics have the benefit of being far more flexible than natural oils. It largely depends what level of protection you want although using motorsport-based oils for the vast majority of roadgoing classics can be a waste of time and money. “A motorsport oil has a higher performance, etc than a classic oil of the same viscosity and will certainly be better, but one is probably paying for features that are not really required,” claims Millers Oils. It’s 50 years since the multigrade oil was introduced to cater for modern cars like the Mini. And both have changed hugely over the half century – not least road speeds. John Hankin of Penrite says we need classic oils because we drive these oldies harder than when they were new – but we don’t know it!

    What oil is right for you?



  • Essentially for vintage and veteran engines, especially those featuring roller bearing crankshafts. Some pre-1940 engines can’t use oils containing detergents so check first Such as: Austin 7

  • 20W/50 (20W/60) Still a popular pick for classics although aim for SF level quality at least. Specialist oils that boast a fuller bodied “60” rating are worth using to retain good oil pressure Such as: MGB

  • 10W/40 (Semi synthetic) Ideal for modern multivalvers and hot GTis. A similar, cheaper top grade mineral is suitable for most cars produced in the ‘80s Such as: Golf GTi

  • 15W/40 Both mineral or semisynthetic, this is the right stuff for 70/80s engine designs. Huge choice, but ignore the name and go on the specs on the pack Such as: Peugeot 405

    Top Tips


  • Change the oil frequently. There’s nothing worse than cold, acid-filled oil laying in the sump – as can happen to many low-use classics.

  • Don’t go for the cheap stuff. Sure it may have old era grading, but the quality will be out of date .

  • Flush it! A flush is a good idea to remove all the gum – better still if possible, remove the sump and oil pan strainer and wash out the grunge a simple oil change just cannot shift.

  • Thick not thin. You can experiment with oils; a slightly thicker grade can work wonders a wearing engine to improve pressure and oil consumption: say a 20W/50 or 20W/60 instead of a 15W/40 for example. Classic transmission oils and greases are also available. Many old cars are not suited to the lighter, freer-flowing modern lubes or their oil additives and damage to the transmission can be done by using them.

Slick guide to best brews for classics

Lucas Oil Products

Lucas has been a major player in the US for many years with a range of multi-grades and straight oils for older engines. At the recent NEC Classic Motor show it introduced a mainstream classic oil; a 20W/50 brew that carries the very latest API SM quality rating. However, Lucas is one of the most switched-on oil producers and the oil is also fully formulated to cope with older engines which need anti-wear additives. Complementing the oil range is a line of additives (known as Stabilisers) to extend oil life, reduce consumption and wear, quieten noisy, worn units and add to performance and economy, it is claimed. Tel: 01407 830 666/067


Dynolite is a French-based oil specialist who says it was the lack of suitable oils that made it create a specific range of oils and lubes catering for vehicles made before 1914. Also available in 2-litre packs are single and multigrades (25W-70, for example), a mainstream 20W-50, a synthetic 15W-60 plus a running-in oil. Classic transmission oils and chassis greases are also marketed. A fairly recent addition to the line up is a transmission oil to quieten noisy back axles. Tel: 01242 224 777,


Another favourite from the US, a good many UK specialists swear by Valvoline’s high performance oils, such as the 20W-50 Conventional Racing Oil (with added zinc). There’s also 10W-60 semi-synthetic and a universal Durablend 10W-40. For high mileage cars, Maxlife is said to be ideal for well used engines which have covered over 75,000 miles, says the company.


Halfords launched Classic Motor Oil some years back. An utterly conventional brew rumoured actually to be Duckhams Q 20/50, it’s naturally available from all its stores nationwide. However the API CE rating the lubricant wears dates back more than 30 years and so this oil is really only suited to low performance vehicles of the 1950s and 60s like Morris Minors and similar. Straight grade oils for classics of the 1930s and 40s are also available.


Q20W-50 was called The Enthusiasts’ Choice in its heyday and was a rival to GTX. It’s fairly widely available in classic circles if not general sale, still in its distinctive packaging.

Penrite Oils

Penrite is one of the leading lights in the UK and it produces a vast range of classic lubricants – for cars and bikes – including storage and bedding down oils. Its fuller-bodied 20W-60 multigrade engine oil is one of the most popular fills in the market but there’s also a wide choice of straight grades, competition oils and assorted lubes and greases for vehicles dating back to 1885! HPR30 is an SAE 20W- 60 oil which replaces the older SAE30 and 20W-50 brews. Although aimed at post-war performance classics, it’s appropriate for oldies running six volt electric systems, where starter motor cranking can be at a premium says the Aussiecompany – which has started its own blending plant in the UK at the Forest of Dean to boost production and sales in the European markets. 0800 9179588

Castrol Classic Oils

Now owned by BP, the iconic GTX is over 40 years old although it has naturally evolved over the decades and there’s various GTX blends available – so choose carefully. Via the company’s classic oils division, even older XL and Castrolite blends are also available both in consumer and trade sizes. 01954 231668

Millers Oils

Millers Oils manufactures a complete range of engine lubricants for the veteran, vintage and classic vehicle owner which utilise modern additive technology in period viscosities for top protection. For the average enthusiast, Classic 20 W-50 will be of most interest, as will a dedicated oilfor the original Mini called Classic Oil 20w50. Running-in and “storage oils”, classic transmission brews, greases, fuel treatments and others are also available. Classic Sport 20w50 and Motorsport brandCFS 10w60 are both aimed at the harder driver or competition-minded. 01484 713201 0800 281053


Best known as the makers of T-Cut, Lancs-based Tetrosyl is also a prolific lubricant specialist and supplies a good many companies with oil to ownbrand. Under its own Car Lube label is a small but useful range of classic lubricants, including Daytona; a conventional API CE 20W-50 oil, that’s ideal for older engine designs plus a dedicated “60+” oil that’s specifically aimed at higher mileage units. O1617645981 (


Three specific straight grade and multigrades blends are available here to cater for classics dating back to the 1930s, all served in nicely depicted metal cans. 01474 564311,

Morris Lubricants

Recently relaunched, Morris markets a range of classic oils under its Golden Film banner which includes straight and multigrades, flushing and running in lubricants and classic gear oils. Morris says Golden Film SAE 20W/50 Classic Motor Oil is a low dispersant oil and allows the suspended matter to drop harmlessly into the sump. The multigrade properties of Golden Film SAE 20W/50 provide improved cold start flow with good working oil pressure, it’s further claimed.

Anglo American Oil Company

Oil anoraks will know that under the Anglo banner comes some well known names such as Sunoco, Joe Gibbs Driven, PJ1 and R76. Combined you have everything you need, from ordinary oils to race type including ‘qualifying oils’ and a Joe Gibbs high Zinc content Hot Rod oil, blended for V&Vs, muscle cars, racers and so on. 01929 551557,

Gulf Oils

A division of Bayford International who imports good old leaded petrol in the UK, Gulf offers MAX Plus in both 15W-40 and 20W-50 formulations. Its competition offshoot offers a wide range of oils with even a 0W-60 brew. The 0W-40 oil is said to be suited to old and modern 16V designs alike, ideal for club motorsport says Gulf. 0845 456 6300


Founder of the synthetic motor oil way back in 1972, SAE 20W-50 Synthetic Premium Protection Motor Oil is said to provide “multi-functionality and wear protection” that’s ideal for engines where the extra protection of a higher-viscosity oil is desired. It’s tailored at older vehicles but okay for many types of modern units and also compatible with some motorcycles. There’s also a 20W-40 Natural Gas alternative along with a range of special oils and greases. 01598 752 782


Motul made a big splash at Beaulieu a few years back and offers high performance brews such as Synergie, Specific and Competition plus the ‘300V’ Chrono line where the Le Mans 20W/50 lube is most suitable for the majority of classics. 01440 760960,


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