Is oil a major contributor to long engine life?

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May 13, 2003
Toronto, Canada
This is going to be a kind of long post. In the mid seventies I always heard that japanese engines are good for 60,000 miles and then they're toast and that domestic V8s were good for at least twice that. Nobody said anything about oil.

Fast forward today - I keep hearing about long lives of Toyota and Honda engines and then keep hearing about "inherent" design flaws of domestic engines. GM, Ford and Chrysler (MB)

Is the engine at fault? Are imports better cared for with better oil and changes? Or did the domestic mfrs really mess up. Will oil changes really make a difference to the life of a domestic engine when all these "problems" exist?

Imported engines are under much greater stress and yet they appear to last longer!
1) Pick an engine that has a reputation for excellent reliability,
2) Maintain it per the manufacturer's instructions (or better),
3) Drive it on long trips. Avoid long warm ups and trips under 10 miles, particularly in the cold. Avoid starting the car to move it around your driveway.
4) Oil choice is not a main contributor to long engine life, but it is a factor. If you use an oil that meets the manufacter's specifications, you will do fine.
The 70's Japanese engines were copies of dreadful European
designs. The American manufactures looked at people buying the
dreadful little European cars and started producing similar junk.
Unfortunately the Japanese were the first ones to recognize people
were fed up with crap. With reasonable care, even frequent
patronize of quick lube places, most cars and trucks will last a long
time. You will get some very strong opinions here in both
directions. Back about the time Japanese imports started, I
concluded you should never believe anything anybody said about
their sex life or gas mileage. To the gas mileage, I might add the
durability and service of their car and some other stuff. Good data is
hard to come by due to too many uncontrolled variables.

Many people are driving the same thing year after year, often what
daddy drove, and never have seriously looked at anything else. I
have mostly bought GM, taken care of them and kept them a long
time putting many miles on them with little trouble. I have also
owned a Nash, TR4, Valiant, and am still driving my captive import
77 LUV. I actually looked at a Neon before I bought my 02
Cavalier. For the same dollar, the Neon had a smaller gas tank, no
anti lock brakes, and something else I forget. Ford's hype turned
me off to where I didn't even look at what they had.
I always thought the Japanese quality turn around that left the U.S. automaker behind was due to taking more control over their parts suppliers and pushing them to higher and higher specs. This lead to things like bearings, rings, seals , gaskets, etc, parts in general being made out of better longer lasting materials. Where as U.S. automakers just continued to use whatever components were supplied to them with no push back. If their OEM supplied them with a starter that only lasted 30K then that's just the way it was. Maybe this was just rumor, but it's what I remember hearing 25 years ago.
You've got a collision of factors that lead to your assertions. Let me influx my assumptions/assertions into the mix (that is, don't take it for the "truth" ..just how I formed the opinion).

I'd kinda say the mid 70s (72-74) was the WORST year for any domestically produced engine. Rich idle mixtures ..air injection reactors ...warning stickers attached saying DO NOT IDLE ENGINE MORE THAN 1 MINUTE WITHOUT DEPRESSING THE GAS PEDAL OR THE EXHAUST SYSTEM MAY BE DAMAGED. Heck the API RELUCTANTLY certified oil to work in these engines. ..BUT I'd say either slightly before these years, and perhaps including the 72 models, the main thing that allowed American V8s to be functional for so long was their inherant power. Even at 65% of original hp ..they were rather potent powerplants. You could have two dead cylinders and still be a viable engine. Also keep in mind that you rarely (it happened) saw a functional vehicle with 100k on it. This has become commonplace now least it is FAR MORE common than it EVER was in the pre cleaner burning/lower compression engnines of 75 foward (advancing improvments occured ..injection etc.)

I'm uncertain of the "junk" Japanese engines referred to above. I've noted that most appear to fall prey to blow by somewhere in the latter part of 75-100k miles ...but they tend to also remain otherwise functional. I also tended to observe that they appeared dirty their oil into a deeper varnish tone than American iron did. Most that I've actually seen serviced required new rings ..but rarely had cylinder wall ridges so common with American iron. That is, I "assumed" that these engines were "third world" rated. They could be refreshed without extensive machining. This was reinforced when I refreshed a Mitsubishi engine with 100k on it (rightously maintained) ...and it only required valve work. A machinist neighbor clued me in that the Japanese tend to cast a much harder cylinder wall ..hence the rings tend to be the weakest link.

Again this is opinion formlulated on observed data ..and has little basis in bona fide fact (although bona fide facts are in the mix).

As far as the factor of oil in the whole thing (again under the same lame formula)??? The domestic iron were mostly hydraulic lash. They responded well to routine maintenance. That is, 'change the oil and filters' and your small block chevy will last almost forever (minor restrictions and conditions apply). The Japanese, on the otherhand, didn't seem to benefit to the extent that domestic engines did from this tenet. That is, excellent maintenance did not necessarily extend their service life substantially ...nor did the lack of it shorten their life a whole lot.

Naturally there are exceptions ....
i think oil is the single most important thing in keeping a car running.
without oil you might last a minute or 2 before total seizure.
without antifreeze you might last 20 minutes before total seizure
without air filter or oil filter you would still probably last many thousands of miles.
without oil your dead in under a couple minutes tops.
crypto coolant while good can be operated around. THe N.Star is a good example. It has a limp home mode that allows it to continue to be driven in the event of a coolant loss. It only fire half of the cylinders on any given cycle and pumps air through them in a sequential fashion to cool them off.

You can also go quite some time with no oil in your engine. Sure you are going to have to rebuild it but it is do-able. I once drove a 1985 Ford Tempo for about 1 hour at 70 MPH with no oil in it. The idiot light did not come and my coolant temp stayed just within normal range. I had just bought the car and changed the oil that day. While I was out driveing something punctured my oil pan. The oil drained completely out. The car started to make some awful noises. I droped my date off at home and drove home. The next morning I started checking things and that is when I noticed the hole in the pan. I got another 30,000 miles out of it before I had to overhaul it. The bores were fine but the bearings, lifters , seals and rings had taken a beating. I was suprised that the cylinder case and head held up so well.

I am not disagreeing with you about the importance of oil and regular maintence. What I am trying to say is that their is a much larger margin for consumer error then most of automotive zelots can handle. The design of the engine, materials used and quality of manufacture seem to play a bigger role then anything else. I have seen to many cars with no air filter and factory installed oil filter make it to 90,000 miles inspite of the owner. The difference is that we as zelots want to maintain the origanl perofrmance for as long as possable. Their have been to many people go 200,000-300,000 miles with dino oil and 3000 mile oil changes. This does not mean that we can not improve on it though.

P.S. I am just as anal as most on this site so this is not a flame rather an observation.

[ June 28, 2003, 10:33 PM: Message edited by: JohnBrowning ]
I beleive Oil plays a big part. Fortunately in the US, the difference between oils is minor. You can get a good group I, or various qualities of Group II, II+, III, IV, etc.
Just this week I got analisis back on 4 different South American oils (2 Bolivian, 1 Brazilian and 1 Argientine)in 7 different vehicles. All 4 have high wear metals (2 to 4 times normal) with no contaminants. Apparent sheardown. Next cycle we will confirm with "made in USA" products.
I DON'T believe the type of oil is a large contributing factor to how long your engine lives as long as you normally maintenance your car. This is how I rank the factors:

1. Design/craftsmanship of your engine.
2. How you drive
3. Type of driving (highway, city, short trips)
4. Luck (hopefully your ride won't get totaled)
5. Your environment (Arizona vs. Canada)
20. Type of oil you use (as long as it has a star
on it)

[ June 29, 2003, 08:12 PM: Message edited by: ryansride2017 ]
john, come on man, an HOUR with no oil? i dont mean to call you out but man you sound like a prolong commercal.
consumer reports did a test similar to your drivig expierence, and the engines without oil seized in a matter of minutes.

my sandrail's oil pump sheared and i lost oil pressure. this was just after than oil change and i had started the engine and let it idle.
the engine lasted literally 2 minutes before seizing up solid. i mistakenly thought the guage had went out. i had to rebuild that entire engine. the cylinders were scored, the cam scored, the rods and mains scored. nothing really salvagable but the intake and exhaust. one of the bearings on the crank seized to the crank and spun in the case.

as far as northstars limp home mode, thats really interesting. i never knew about that.
but i was refering to normal engines.

Originally posted by cryptokid:
i think oil is the single most important thing in keeping a car running.
without oil you might last a minute or 2 before total seizure.
without antifreeze you might last 20 minutes before total seizure
without air filter or oil filter you would still probably last many thousands of miles.
without oil your dead in under a couple minutes tops.

if your engine lasts 30 seconds with no coolant in the whole system then i'd be amazed.

Originally posted by Greg:
if your engine lasts 30 seconds with no coolant in the whole system then i'd be amazed.

If you shut the car right down and let it cool off totally, you could drive without coolant for a few miles if you really had to.

[ June 30, 2003, 05:28 AM: Message edited by: Patman ]
I think improved quality of motor oil is a major facor to today's long engine life, but so is the design of today's motors. I have heard the theory that computer controls, fuel injection and emmissions control my also help extend engine life by reducing fuel dilution of the oil and lending to a cleaner running engine. Works for me.
Another set of engines with a "limp home" mode are the Triton V8's in the Ford F Series (the 4.6l and 5.4l). If the engine overheats (as detected by a temperature sensor in the head), it shuts down alternating injectors. The air in the cylinders acts to cool them. If the temps keep rising, more injectors are shut off. Once it reaches "catastrophic temps", the computer will completely shut off the engnine to protect it.
Better technology all around has made engines more reliable. This includes, but is certainly not limited to, oil.

IMO, the reason the Japanese engines are more reliable is that they put more technology into them. And not just grafting new technology onto old engines (a la GM), but designing engines from the ground up with the latest technology. How do you think Honda can sell 100hp/liter engines to the general public?

The American Mfgrs don't do this nearly enough. Look at GM. Their most popular passenger car engine is still the old 3.8L pushrod cast iron V6. They've been using this basic engine since the '80's (at least, it could be older). This is ridiculous.

The American Mfgrs don't do this nearly enough. Look at GM. Their most popular passenger car engine is still the old 3.8L pushrod cast iron V6. They've been using this basic engine since the '80's (at least, it could be older). This is ridiculous.

MikeW, I agree to some extent with what you said, but there is a reason why they still use them. They work. GM's 3.8l v6 is a strong engine that lasts very long and the Chevy 350 in the trucks and Vettes is a work horse.

The Corvette will outperform many Ferrari's, BMW M3 and other high end cars using the 350. It is also on JD powers list for quality. I know what your saying and I think GM is about to roll out all new 4cyl engines and get with the variable valve timing gang. They do lag behind in interior quality but the two engines I mentioned above are two of greatest engines ever built without a doubt.
> A good exception is the new GM Ecotec 4 banger. My wife's 2003 Cavalier has this motor and I just love it. Time will tell how reliable it is, but in terms of smooth operation, economy, power and responsiveness, its killer. I'm glad I have the 'old' 3.0 OHV V6 in my Ranger, this has to be one of the most reliable American engines ever produced.
This thread is veering off a little but it certainly appears that design, more than oil is more important to longevity. So if you start with a poor engine, you're kind of wasting your time with all the oil changes etc.. Heresy!!!! on this board. Oops I'll be banned here now.

That said, I had a 97 Bonneville with the 3.8l V6. That car consumed no more than 10% in fuel averaged over a few months than a 91 Honda Accord with PGM-FI. Incredible! However, after 2 1/2 <60,000 miles years and 2 rebuilt transmissions and the last one had to be pretested by GM before it was OK, the car was gone!!!! Not a bad engine, quite good in fact, but the car was getting "loose" and .... that's why domestic cars are not selling. Ridiculous, but the Honda trannies are equally bad now. Problem is, mfrs are packing too much power and technology into small pieces. We're gonna be sorry. 100 hp into 1 liter? The reputation of durability will go down. I believe there's only so much lubrication can do.
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