The rise and fall of DIY From Lubes and greases

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I started learning to DIY in the late seventies. Thought this was interesting. The Rise and Fall of DIY BY STEVE SWEDBERG d o it yourself or DIY is a part of the American language. It is everywhere, from magazines to television (there’s even a cable channel named DIY) as well as books and internet sites. Yahoo delivers almost 800 million results on the topic, running the gamut from home improvement projects to medical techniques, from how to build a metal detector to how to change your own engine oil. Where did DIY come from? And in engine oil markets, what were the dynamics of its growth as well as its decline? DIY in general is related to the philosophy behind the arts and crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which tended to romanticize the whole idea of the craftsperson taking great pride in his or her personal handiwork. In architecture, for example, the movement spawned some great achievements with one of the best examples being Frank Lloyd Wright. His work was all about bringing the human element back into design. Given that the United States didn’t become an urban society until after World War II, DIY was always part of the rural economy. People built their own homes and barns (think barn raisings) and had their own workshops to repair and rebuild the equipment they needed to survive. When they did buy something, it was a utilitarian item that would have been difficult or impossible to build on their own: The kitchen stove or farm implements are great examples. Popular Mechanics and Mechanix Illustrated, starting in the 1930s, were the first magazines to offer advice on how to accomplish many DIY projects. Interestingly, that acronym itself, DIY, didn’t enter common usage until the 1950s. WWII was over and returning veterans were going to school on the G.I. Bill and moving into suburbia. They had learned many skills during the war, including equipment maintenance, and were about to put those skills to good use. Unfortunately, changing motor oil was not yet easily accomplished because there were few outlets where a DIYer could buy packaged oil. According to motor oil marketing consultant Larry Solomon, of Strategic Resources Inc., the standard for oil changes in the 1950s was still the local service station. Almost ritually, men would take their cars to the local station to get the oil changed and the chassis greased. “While there, they could kick back and talk with their buddies about the important events of the day,” Solomon said. Often, their sons would go along with them and poke around the service bays in the station, building familiarity with the tools and tasks. Auto dealers did some maintenance work, but not much. The service station was Mecca. All that began to change in the mid-1960s, Solomon continued. The economy got a little tighter, spurring a desire in most to save wherever possible. For many, the family automobile’s engine oil seemed like a natural place to start. After all, how hard could it be to do it yourself? However, some things had to change before DIY could really take off. What set the stage for the great DIY boom? How did the newly motivated DIYers get the oil they needed to keep their cars in top shape? David George, retired Pennzoil senior vice presi- dent of sales, recalled that the main engine oil outlets beyond the service stations and automobile dealerships were a few local general merchandise stores. It was difficult for an oil marketer to get its product into the hands of consumers. Service stations were one channel but most sold only their own company’s brand, making few others available to the buyer. To counter this, Pennzoil began a very successful “Ask for it” campaign, encouraging customers to ask for Pennzoil at their local dealership or service station. During the 1960s and 1970s, Kmart, Wal-Mart, Sears and Target all experienced significant growth and became primary outlets for motor oil — creating the socalled “shelf market.” In addition, auto-parts stores became common, and merchandisers such as Kragens, NAPA and Car Quest became household names among DIYers. Seeing an opening, Valvoline Co. responded by creating the 12-quart case, a shrink-wrapped, single layer of motor oil cans instead of the then-standard 24-quart case. The appeal was immediate. Motor oil buyers were not stuck with a large number of extra oil cans to be stored for up to a year in the garage at home; it also was easier to carry for both men and women. Another watershed event took place in the same timeframe : Following the oil shocks of the 1970s, service stations were phased out in favor of the “gas station” which didn’t provide other services. They were limited to pumping gasoline, and later to providing convenience items such as snacks, beverages and other nonpetroleum products. Now the field was open to the DIYer to buy his oil at a reasonable price and quantity from a retail store. The 1970s were the heyday of DIY. By catering to mass merchandisers, discounters and other retailers, Pennzoil, Valvoline, Quaker State and Castrol became the big names in the market, while of the major oil companies, only Texaco’s Havoline brand was able to maintain a significant share. The DIY market became so dominant that by the early 1980s it represented about 85 percent of U.S. passenger car motor oil sales, according to Solomon. The first NPRA U.S. Lubricating Oil Sales Report, published for 1980, showed motor oil sales of over 1 billion gallons, with about two-thirds of that being gasoline engine oils. The best selling grades were SAE 10W-40 and SAE 30. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the innovations came at a furious rate. The onequart plastic bottle was introduced, first by Quaker State as a round container, not too different in shape and size from the traditional composite can. Soon Pennzoil, followed by others, introduced the rectangular plastic quart bottle with an offset neck that we now associate with motor oil. The advantages of the rectangular bottle were immediately apparent to merchandisers: More containers could fit in a designated shelf space, and the face had a larger “billboard” to advertise the product’s benefits and features. Shrinkwrapped trays of 12 quarts became standard for most marketers, although a few continued to use cartons. With pricing driven to rock-bottom levels by all-out competition on the shelves, the cost of the containers became paramount, so innovations in plastic content, label materials, cap design, and so on drove all of the major oil marketers, recalled David George. Major changes in containerfilling technology were needed to handle the new bottles and cases. New multihead fillers were created as were new techniques to mass-produce bottles. In some engine oil manufacturing operations, the raw plastic was delivered to one side of the building where it was converted into bottles, and passed through the wall to the packaging plant, while oil was blended in another part of the building. The two streams merged at the fillers where the oil was precisely delivered to each bottle which then was conveyed through the system to case fillers and then shrink-wrapped and loaded on pallets for shipment. From the manufacture of the bottles to the delivery of finished oil to a Sears or Kmart could take as few as 24 hours. However, the handwriting was already on the wall in 1974, when Ed Washburn opened the first Jiffy Lube operation in Ogden, Utah. Washburn soon franchised a few service centers in Utah and from there the race was on. (Jiffy Lube’s website claims its first stores opened in 1979, but there is reliable documentation for the 1974 date.) The do-it-for-me — DIFM — market was set to boom. The ranks of quick-lube outlets grew rapidly until 1989 when there were a series of financial setbacks and consolidation of the industry. Since then, growth has been steady if not spectacular and today there are over 3,500 outlets represented by the Automotive Oil Change Association (AOCA). By 2000, the DIFM market had caught up with DIY in share of the engine oil aftermarket and has continued to grow. DIY continues to slip and is now less than 40 percent of aftermarket oil sales, according to Strategic Resources. There are a lot of reasons for the decline of DIY. Steve Christie, former head of Dallas-based AOCA, cited three key factors: social changes, original equipment manufacturers, and the proliferation of fast lubes. Socially, Christie said, the biggest reason for DIFM growth has been convenience, as well as the fact that the generation which came of age in the 1980s was more interested in other things than performing maintenance on their vehicles. This also was the first generation not exposed in school to auto shop and other “hands-on” skills. The problem of how to dispose properly of used oil and filters, and the pure frustration of crawling under the car to drain the oil are other DIY “de-motivators.” Cars have become more streamlined and lower to the ground, so unless you own drive-on ramps to get under the vehicle, oil changes have become more or less of a nightmare. The OEMs have designed vehicles that are much more complex, Christie continued. Ignition systems are driven by sophisticated computers which are necessary to maintain optimum fuel economy and emissions control. The cost to maintain a vehicle is now such that few are comfortable with being a backyard mechanic. In fact, about the only thing left for the DIYer is the oil change. However, even finding the dipstick and oil fill cap can be a project. Obviously, fast lubes and other installers are there to fill the void and provide the convenience the car owner wants. They take care of supplying the oil and filter as well as the ancillary fluids (brake, power steering, window washer, etc.) and dispose of the used oil. The choice for the automobile owner is an economic one, with DIFM considered to be good value. This is not to say that DIY is dead. There is a corps of auto enthusiasts, Solomon pointed out, who will change their own oil no matter how inconvenient it may become. Current estimates are that this die-hard group is about 20 percent of the DIY market. There is also a new demographic to consider: the recent immigrant. Traditionally, the Latino market is much more DIY oriented due to economic factors. As time goes on and this group assimilates into U.S. society, they may become more DIFM oriented. Ultimately, if and when crankcases are sealed for life, DIY will finally become obsolete — but that will be years from now. DIY is still a potent influence on American behaviors but it is now focused on home and garden endeavors. The recent downturn of the economy has made DIY more important as a cost-savings effort, though. Who knows, the day of the DIY oil changer may not be over. Save your drip pans and filter wrenches, you may need them again.
 
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Awesome article - thanks for that! One question I have often wondered, that rises from this, is when did 'bulk tank' storage and dispensing of oil become commonplace? In the early days of the service-centre oil change, and then fast-lube oil change; I can imagine individual quarts were used. But when did large oil tanks and dispensing guns first show up?
 
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DIY in England has an entirely different meaning than we have. To define it for you would get me kicked off the forums, so refer to the Peter Gabriel song of the same name....LOL. Thanks for the info, nice read.
 
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Originally Posted By: oilboy123
This is not to say that DIY is dead. There is a corps of auto enthusiasts, Solomon pointed out, who will change their own oil no matter how inconvenient it may become. Current estimates are that this die-hard group is about 20 percent of the DIY market.
That's me. LOL
 
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Most of my friends (who are young professionals as I am) practice DIFM on many things. For me DIY is economical. As my grampa (who grew up during the depression) pointed out, I pay myself $50-$100/hr whenever I work on my car (and nearly always end up with better results), and $25-$50 when I do something around the house!
 
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+1 mareakin! After having the pan bolt stripped and the sump overfilled, I still DIY at age 76. Just did my Accord with NAPA syn 5-20 and Filtec filter this week. The OLM has been giving me 7500 mile OCIs. I will continue to DIY until I can no longer drag the Rhino ramps out of the garage!FWIW -- Oldtommy
 
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Originally Posted By: Swedberg
The cost to maintain a vehicle is now such that few are comfortable with being a backyard mechanic. In fact, about the only thing left for the DIYer is the oil change. However, even finding the dipstick and oil fill cap can be a project.
Wouldn't increased cost be a good reason to DIY? Maybe he's referring to the time cost of educating yourself if you're not mechanically inclined. Are there really vehicles where it's hard to find the dipstick and oil fill cap? Aside from those few dipstick-less cars, of course.
 
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I think the biggest reason for the decline of DIY is when lube job is a loss leader that bring in new customers for other more expensive services (i.e. tires, tune up, alignments, shopping while you wait, etc), there is no more incentive to DIY. $15 oil change coupon is not going be more expensive than doing it yourself at home when oil cost $2/qt at a discount.
 

01rangerxl

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Very interesting article. My dad is a baby boomer who used to do oil changes himself. He told me that he stopped when FWD became common. The car that made him go to quick lubes was our 1990 Taurus. He said it was too low to the ground and too much of a pain to change the oil on, so that's when he started going to quick lubes. For me, that's less of a deterrent because I just like working on anything with a motor. However, most people don't, and I completely understand why most people just go to the local Jiffy Lube and think about it as little as possible.
 
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If you look at "petronalia" collections there are lots of oil cans from way before the 1970's. My dad did his own oil changes until around 1987 then stopped cold turkey, even abandoned 10 of 12 bottles of GTX 10w40. Same cars he always had etc just gave up.
 

oilboy123

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Actually I started DIY ing more like around 1976. When I bought a lawn mower to make money in the neighborhood. Then it progressed to cars a couple of years later. Ahhhh the sound the of punching a spout into a can makes...... Would be interesting to know when everyone started DIY ing. I guess I really learned when I used to take things apart as a kid. memories........
 

Kestas

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Some people like to point out that I enjoy working on cars. I correct them by telling them that I don't enjoy working on cars. What I do enjoy is saving money and the satisfaction of having the job done right. If I enjoyed it, I'd be soliciting work on other people's cars. Otherwise I'd rather be parked in front of my television.
 
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You mean you couldn't buy cans of, say, Quaker State at your local hardware store in the 1950s? You had to go to a service station to buy oil? It's true, I've been doing less DIY in the last two years. The Buick is built close to the ground, the filter is down at the bottom of the engine, and my Topsider oil-sucker won't work on this engine. I check and top off most fluids, but the power steering reservoir is tucked away behind some hot pipes, so it's tough for me to check its level. (Though when I bought the car, I drained the reservoir with the Topsider, then refilled it.) Ramps would be hard for me to store and hard to use. Instead I've been saving $$ by extending my OCIs, and by buying the oil on sale and taking it to my regular mechanic. But I miss the sense of accomplishment.
 
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I guess even the early 60's are a little foggy to me now. I had a car in 1962, but don't remember where I bought any oil before K-Mart in 1968. They had round gallons of Standard.
 
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I DYI my own oil changes becausee 1) it's easier and quicker and less hassle than taking it in [I won't go the quickie lube route, but only trust one shop] and 2) I still enjoy pouring oil into the engine, but the rest I could live without, especially the grease job. I did have the shop do my last oil change because they were changing the oil pan gasket, so I figured no choice. I trust this one shop and so now I think if the car is going in anyway and it is due for an oil change, I'll let them do it. Oh and of course, I had them use my oil and filter.
 
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People throughout history have been DIYers. As much as they good, whenever they could [except for any ruling elite]. In the last century or so, civilized societies have allowed us to remove ourselves from being self sufficient.
 
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Originally Posted By: Kestas
Some people like to point out that I enjoy working on cars. I correct them by telling them that I don't enjoy working on cars. What I do enjoy is saving money and the satisfaction of having the job done right. If I enjoyed it, I'd be soliciting work on other people's cars. Otherwise I'd rather be parked in front of my television.
I enjoy working on cars while listening to music only when the car is well-maintained, I've done the same job before, and I don't encounter any problems. In other situations, the satisfaction comes only from finishing the job, and doing it right without having to trust anyone but myself. Occasionally new jobs will go smoothly too, and I can look back and say that it was somewhat enjoyable. But there's always that feeling that I'm going to run into problems whenever I do something new.
 
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