What does motor oil do in a car?

Helpful tips from Don’s Pro Tech Automotive


September 11, 2021

Motor oil is critical to the functioning of vehicles equipped with internal combustion engines. Just as blood travels through the human body and brings oxygen and nutrients with it, oil travels through the engine, supplying lubrication to keep essential parts moving. Changing the oil on a regular basis is important, and neglecting to do so can bring forth catastrophic consequences.

So what does oil do in a car? Once you know the specifics, you’ll surely keep this maintenance task at the top of your list.

An oil overview

The first petroleum-based lubricant was developed in 1866 by Dr. John Ellis and was designed to lubricate steam engines. Through constant innovation, this became the motor oil that kept early race cars and mass-produced vehicles like the Ford Model T moving. Since then, motor oils have become so essential to vehicle operation that even the newest, most complex gas and diesel engines still rely on them.

Lubrication and protection

Ford Engine Bay Engine parts that seem to touch are often designed to glide on a thin film of oil. Because oil helps the pieces slide easily, it greatly reduces engine wear. Friction also means heat, which can be bad for mechanical parts over time. By lubricating the engine components, oil helps to keep things cool.

Oil also prevents harmful deposits from forming on engine components and catches and holds debris, which will then be caught by the oil filter. This filter should always be removed and replaced during regular oil changes. In engines equipped with variable valve timing, oil serves as a hydraulic fluid to keep critical parts moving.

Finally, motor oil also has an environmental component. Specifically, it helps protect the emissions system through such additives as detergents, dispersants and friction-control substances. As a result, emissions levels fall. Picking the right oil viscosity can help the oil flow more easily through the engine and reduce resistance for moving parts, improving fuel economy.

Doing it better with synthetic motor oil

Conventional motor oils help keep engines running, but synthetic oils do it better. Synthetic oils utilize a complex chemical development process that removes impurities from crude oil and controls specific molecules to supply enhanced performance and protection.

Notably, synthetic oil does a better job of managing oil breakdown, thwarting sludge accumulation and deposit buildup, reducing wear, and protecting against high temperatures. Modern engines with boosting technologies like turbochargers and superchargers typically require synthetic oil. Other engines can benefit from them too, as oil change intervals are extended when you choose a full synthetic over conventional oil.

Shoppers can also find high-mileage oil options, with their own formulation and additives to maximize engine performance.

The owner’s manual will also list the type of oil recommended for your car. The manufacturer will usually note the oil types based on the climate where you live or based on the season, if temperatures vary widely there.

Older cars built before 1990, however, usually have to use conventional motor oil instead of synthetic motor oil. Switching to synthetic can cause engine leaks or engine damage. Older cars actually need some formation and buildup of engine sludge. Their oil seals and gaskets may not be as tight as in newer cars.

Oil change intervals

Always consult your owner’s manual for the recommended oil change intervals for your vehicle. Usually, manufacturers offer two maintenance schedules based on your driving habits: normal and severe. According to a survey performed by a member company of the Filter Manufacturers Council, only about 20 percent of vehicles on the road are regularly driven under “normal” conditions. This shows that normal isn’t actually that normal.

Listed below are some guidelines to determine whether your driving habits are normal or severe:

Severe (average) conditions

• Driving short trips of less than 5-10 miles

• Driving in temperature greatly below or above average

• Driving in any dusty conditions

• Idling more than recommended such as in traffic

• Driving with a heavy load or while towing a load

From the list above, you can see why severe is a misleading term for that type of driving; it is a much more common driving experience than the type defined as normal, especially in the Greater Tehachapi area.

Never neglect oil changes

If you skip an oil change or are running low on oil, your engine will run less efficiently. Moreover, dirt and debris will build, the engine will run hotter, and parts will simply wear down faster. In the worst-case scenario, the friction of metal against metal will eventually cause the engine to seize, damaging or destroying it. That’s definitely something worth avoiding, so remember to keep an eye on your oil and take your service intervals seriously.

Have your oil change and vehicle inspection handled by one of the knowledgeable technicians at Don’s Pro Technology Automotive Repair. To make an appointment or chat with one of the knowledgeable service advisors or technicians at Don’s Pro Technology Automotive Repair, visit the shop at 230 E. Tehachapi Blvd. or call (661) 822-1600.


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