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The secret life of motor oil

Motor oil has a hard job. It leads a secret life inside the crankcase.
Motor oil has a hard job. It leads a secret life inside the crankcase.
Tom Batchelor

When it comes to lubrication, many motorcyclists have come to the conclusion, or perhaps revelation, that motor oil is a living, breathing thing. One could argue that the organic origins of non-synthetic refined lubricants make this a forgone conclusion, but alas we motor nuts and wrench heads have regularly seen these squirmy, slippery golden molecules doing their best to escape the confines of their alloy prisons. If thought about in depth it, this is exactly, what any living entity would try to do, we included. Vintage bike nuts do battle every day, acting as wardens of this crafty adversary, and evidence of a break-out is often found the morning after a hard ride in the form of drips on the garage floor. A casual glance in driveways and parking lots confirms that this phenomenon isn’t limited to internal combustion two-wheelers as similar evidence of the great escape from cars and trucks is easily found.

It's not hard to get a bit feisty in response to seeing this imprisoned nemesis leaving the confines of where we've worked so hard to keep it. We can learn to empathize a bit, putting ourselves in its place to better understand. Motor oil has a really hard job, certainly not one any of us would ever want. It gets dumped into a dark, lonely place, full of sharp edges and rotating stuff, getting thrown about by various parts turning at high-velocity, placed under sometimes very significant pressure and often heated to nearly the point of its own destruction. It has to be everywhere, all the time, flowing about bearings, bushings, rings, cylinders, lifters, various shafts, cams, gears, you name it. Then, to top it off, it gets pushed into a weave of material with a potpourri of fibers, squeezed into micro-particles in the name of removing any “contaminants” which may have hitched a ride. Sounds kind-of presumptive, in retrospect, to assume that it be so dirty to mandate a repetitive cleanse. Most of us probably would get rather upset if we were accused of being in constant need of a good scrubbing. So, putting this slave-labor environment into perspective, I bet we'd all be scrambling to get out.

Knowing how hard motor oil works, we can better appreciate its secret life and it is easy to see why eventually, escapes do happen. Like an old building with covertly rotten walls, our elder machines sometimes release its tenacious captive through openings not previously seen. Maybe the prison guards are getting old, with escapees exploiting the breach in security. Every motor has its quirks, with places that are more likely than others for this to happen. How about those blasted camshaft end seals on some vintage in-line 4 cylinder bikes; or, perhaps a cam chain tensioner o-ring, stator cover gasket, output shaft seal, crankcase gaskets, valve covers, neutral switches, just to name a few. Sometimes, it doesn’t stop there. Motor oil’s bad-boy cousin, lives in the front forks of our bikes and loves to attempt a break-out. It would appear these hooligans often work together by creating a distraction, one raising the alarm and enabling the other to quietly slip away, unseen for the moment. Once an escape has occurred, we owners tend to blame the prisoner and not the prison. “Oh crud, not another #$%&@ oil leak!” This may be our universal call to alarm, with faces reddening, veins popping and heart-rates spiking. Still, we eventually focus and realize that if we had been locked up without any hope for parole, we’d be gone too.

So next time you have a prison break on your hands, don’t fret too much. Oil doesn’t really like to be where it’s at. If it did, seal and gasket manufacturers would be out of business and we would have little reason for spending a big chunk of the spouse’s grocery budget on special tools to replace that impossible to get to seal. But a word of caution is in order: this escaped convict has a perchance for revenge. Just track a bit of the dastardly foe onto the carpet and the spouse or significant other will imprison the dastardly violator. About that time, I bet we'd all be wishing for a lonely crankcase in which to hide.