Generic lubes may not quench your vehicle’s thirst

  • Mar. 28, 2011 2:00 p.m.

When looking to solve what seems a tricky vehicle problem I often resort to the ubiquitous “Google search” or “Bing” for you Microsoft mavens.

I initially use professional networks that I pay for but when nothing is coming up I’ll try anything. I am usually looking for factual detail.

Performing these searches quite often lands me on specific vehicle discussion forums that so often are populated with misinformation.

Many of the people using these forums are seeking free information that will also result in saving them money when it comes to vehicle maintenance and repair. Free information, believe me, can sometimes be very costly.

One area that seems not well understood, by professionals and non-professionals alike, are fluid specifications. That is, the specifications that lubricants must have to function correctly.

The most obvious is motor oil but just as important are transmission fluid, transfer case fluid, differential fluid, power steering fluid, brake fluid and engine coolant.

Many a discussion starts with “Do you no how much the dealer wants for a litre of automatic transmission fluid? That is outrageous!”

Inevitably, Joe Blow chimes in with, “I have been using the basic red stuff from Wally World for two years now and it works great. I saved a bundle.”

So let’s just discuss this issue a little further. How long do you expect your automatic transmission to last?

A lot that I see make it to a couple hundred thousand kilometres. For the average person that would be 10 years of driving.

The guy who saved a bundle; what does he know after two years of trouble-free driving? I would say, not much! When it comes to a fluid causing a premature failure, how will you know?

There is a lot of science in a lubricant. Colour and slipperiness are not all there is to it. Think about compatibility with materials, ability to flow at specific temperatures, prevention of wear, grip under load, maintaining these properties under severe use.

So Joe Blow’s basic red stuff was not compatible with the seals and gaskets in his transmission. Year 3 comes along and his automatic no longer functions due to internal hydraulic system leaks because the O-ring material is all cracked and no longer seals.

A one-time saving just took two-thirds the life from a major component. Ouch!

I think this scenario is going to play itself out more frequently. Vehicles are built under much more demanding specifications and there is a lot less margin for error. Service intervals have been extended. A very specific fluid might be required for one of these systems to provide the function and service life that is expected.

I know I spend a lot of time trying to find fluids that meet specifications and like anyone, I would like to inventory as few different fluids as I can. I am always looking for that one-size-fits-all scenario. That is happening less and less as I am stocking more and more different fluids.

In general, mechanics are basic, down-to-earth humans, to a fault, I might add. Out of their mouths you may very likely hear, “Oil is oil, coolant is coolant.”

That just is not true. There are many operations that strive to have one tank of liquid for all applications. Ask some questions and make sure that isn’t the advice you are getting.


Trail’s Ron Nutini is a licensed automotive technician and graduate of mechanical engineering from UBC. He usually writes every other Thursday. E-mail: