How to understand Motorcycle Oils...
And How to Choose Motorcycle Motor Oils...
Oil: Basic Theory 1101 -- friction & how oil works...
Oil: Intermediate Theory 2230 -- formulation, viscosity, ratings, dino vs. synth...
Oil: Advanced Theory 3150 -- what breaks it down, good & bad additives...
Oil: What You Really Need To Know! -- the short version.
Oil: Basic Theory 1101
In any situation where two surfaces slide over each other at medium to
high speeds, the rubbing of the two surfaces against each other creates
friction. Friction translates into vibration as one surface bounces off
the other repeated, and this bouncing causes both wear and heat (since
heat is nothing more than vibration at an atomic
Friction In the Simplest
Think of an "Indian Burn" from 3rd grade (no
slight meant to our native tribes) -- this is an example of friction
caused by two surfaces (skin on skin) in motion relative to each other.
It burns (causes heat) and it wears away a thin layer of
The simplest way to reduce friction is to use a material which is
designed to dampen the vibration, while at the same time being slippery
enough to reduce the interaction of the surfaces, by doing two things:
filling up the voids between the parts (including any microscopic bumps
and pits), and being able to roll or slide over itself, so the two main
surfaces never actually meet (at least in an ideal world). Many fluids
and powders can fulfill this requirement in general, from graphite
powder to mineral oils, from molypolydisulfide (anti-seize) to
A gasoline-powered engine (such as in cars and trucks) has surfaces that
are in very close quarters (tight tolerances) and which are moving
incredibly fast compared to each other. Plus, the frictional surfaces
and any lubricant used on them are subjected to a wide range of heat
(from below freezing in some climates before the engine starts, to well
over 2000°F along the walls of the cylinder during
detonation for a poorly tuned engine). The lubricant is also exposed to a variety of chemical
contaminants (including sulfuric acids, carbon molecules, gasoline
vapors, et cetera). The only obvious answer which is cost-effective for
this particular in-engine environment is motor oil, and many different
types of motor oil exist to fill that need.
Motorcycles Engines are
In most motorcycle engines, those same engine surfaces generally move much
faster than they do in car and truck engines, conventionally twice to ten times
as fast, due to difference in RPM ranges, stroke lengths, stroke speeds (i.e. -
piston speed), et cetera. Additionally, most modern street-oriented motorcycles
have a "wet clutch", which means that the clutch plates also sit in the same
oil that the rest of the engine uses to lubricate itself. Most also have the
transmission also sharing this same oil. Throw in the fact that some
motorcycles are still oil-air cooled (which causes the oil to run 1.5 to 3
times hotter than a water-cooled engine). These four differences (speed,
clutch exposure, transmission exposure and oil temp) are the grounds for the
basic differences between formulations of motorcycle oils and car oils.
I.E. - Mobil 1 V-Twin 20W-50 contains 25% more anti-wear and anti-oxidation additives
than the equivalent traditional Mobil 1 automobile oil.
Oil: Intermediate Theory 2230
MOTOR OIL FORMULATION:
Every manufacturer which makes motor oil (whatever the intended use),
controls the manufacturing process to ensure that their product comes
out with certain qualities, from a specific weight range, to specific
viscosity and additives (both discussed further down). This process of
creating a specific blend is called formulation. As far as I am
concerned, for purposes of this discussion, we can ignore the actual
steps used in refining crude oil and formulating basic motor oil, but if
you're interested in more information about the mechanical process, you
can visit How
Oil Refining Works.
VISCOSITY (AN OIL'S WEIGHT):
All motor oils are graded by viscosity, which refers to how well the oil
flows at specific temperatures (at 40°C, and at 100°C, are the
standard measuring temperatures). The higher the viscosity number, the
thicker the oil, and the more slowly it will flow through a specific
sized opening. Generally, the higher the viscosity (also called
"weight"), the thicker the oil is, and thus the better the oil is at
reducing friction when the oil is hot.
MULTI-WEIGHT (multi-viscosity) OILS:
A multi-weight oil is an oil formulation that acts as if it has two
different viscosities, depending on the temperature. At the lower test
temperature (40°C), it flows as the first number would indicate,
and at the higher test temperature (100°C), it flows as the second
number would indicate. This multi-weight nature is made possible by the
addition of long-chain polymers to the oil, which are coiled up when
cold, but straighten out when hot, and thus change the flow
characteristics of the oil. Thus a 10w40 oil will flow like a 10 weight
oil when at 40°C (fairly thin), but will not thin out more than a
40 weight oil would when hot (100°C). As a second example, a 10w60 oil will flow like a 10
weight oil when at 40°C (fairly thin), but will not thin out more than a
60 weight oil would when at 100°C -- and most motorcycle engines can't take
a 60 weight oil (even if it will thin out again as it gets even hotter) without starving
the tighter passages for oil supply!
Engine Manufacturer's Oil
The thicker the oil, the more it will
dampen vibration, but at the same time, an oil can be too thick
(especially when cold) or too thin (especially when hot) for the pumping
system of an engine to move it effectively. Oils that are too thick (or
contain too long a polymer string, such as a 10W60) can also starve
tight passages, such as between the piston rings and cylinder walls, of
adequet oil supply (not enough of the thicker molecules fit in the same
space). Thus engine manufacturers specify a recommended weight class of
oil for use in their engines, one which balances the need for friction
reduction with the oil pump's ability to move the motor oil when the oil
is cold and when the oil is hot, and which will reach all parts of the
engine properly at all times. Since motor oil normally never gets colder
than the ambient environment around the engine, engine manufacturers
often specify different weights or viscosities for motor oil for their
engines based on the ambient temperature the engine is to be operating
and parked in.
CLINGING OR "MAGNETIC" OILS:
Some manufacturer's are touting their oils as being clinging or magentically binding
oils which cause a film of oil to stick to metal parts even when the engine is switched
off (to provide protection on start-up). Virtually all motorcycle-specific oils have
some degree cling action (haven't found any that don't), and this is a polar-attraction
feature of specific base stocks (PAO Group II thru IV). Don't sweat it -- all good
motorcycle oils that meet your bike manufacturer's specs will have about the same degree
of cling to them irrelevant of brand, since they are all generally made from one or more the same
three types of base stocks, and the cling or magnetic message is just a way of marketing
a feature that has always been there.
DINO VS. SYNTHETIC-BASIS VS. FULL SYNTHETIC:
Manufacturers have traditionally refined conventional crude oil into
various products, including motor oil. This process, if not amended
further, results in what is often referred to as "Dino Oil" (dinosaur
oil, although that's a misnomer, as oil is actually created of
decomposed plant materials, mostly single-cell plants). Dino oil
contains some degree of impurities (most are filtered out), as well as
varying lengths of the hydrocarbons the make up the actual oil, including
(unfortunately) paraffin waxes.
Synthetic for our purposes here means "not occurring in nature."
Synthetic motor oils are traditionally made by further processing the
base dino oil to extract all the hydrocarbons of a specific length, and
using that extraction as the "synthetic oil". Sometimes chemical or
electro-mechanical coaxing the incorrect-length hydrocarbons to split
and/or combine to form the desired length hydrocarbon is also done prior
to the hydrocarbon selection and separation. This generally separates
out the impurities in the process, since the base stock remains behind
and only the desired portion is removed to be used. Thus, a fully
synthetic oil is one which is uniform in it's composition (at least
prior to addition of additives, et cetera). The benefit of having an
uniform base is that every molecule will act as it should, providing the
It is also possible to build the hydrocarbons for a full synthetic oil
from scratch in the lab, basically manufacturing hydrocarbons of the
required length. Obviously, synthesized hydrocarbons would be inherently
pure (free of impurities), including paraffin waxes. As far as we are concerned, as long as the
results are identical (uniform hydrocarbon length, free of impurities, and non-existant
parrafin content), either manufacturing method is equally desirable. The question then
remains to the actual manufacturer of whether it is more cost-effective
to remove the impurities and coax and separate the desired length
hydrocarbons out or to build them from scratch. Either way, they're not
likely to tell you on the bottle, so you'll probably never know before use (sometimes
you can tell post-use by the presence of sludge, indicating paraffin content in the oil,
which in turn means it was a dino-synthetic and not a lab-synthetic).
Synthetic-basis (aka mixed) motor oils are a combination of the two
differing types (dino oil and synthetic oil), which are created for
cost-effective purposes. Such mixes provide much of the benefit of a
synthetic while off-setting the cost of creating a full synthetic.
Do Synthetic oils cause leaks in old engines?
Most synthetics contain high detergent loads and little or no paraffin content. The combination
can cause existing paraffin sludge deposits to be washed away, exposing damaged seals that were previously sealed
up by the presence of the sludge. Thus, while the synthetic doesn't create the leak, it appears to, since
the leak starts weeping or leaking shortly after switching to a synthetic. The reality is that the leak was there
all the time, and poor oil maintenance was responsible (the seals, once blocked off, deteriorate because there is
no fresh oil running against them). Note that switching back to a dino-oil won't fix the leak...
However, the break-down and removal of sludge in the engine is far better for the engine's lubrication and
cooling, so it's a switch I recommend. If you pop a leak, the leaking gasket was toast already anyway and
needed to be replaced -- so replace it.
Are all Synthetics
Unfortunately, a synthetic-basis mixed motor oil
can be labelled as a "synthetic motor oil" under US trade law and
resultant court decisions, which means it can be hard without reading
the label exactly and doing some research to know whether an oil is
truly a full synthetic or a partial-synthetic mixed with dino oil. This isn't
the case in Europe, where the synthetic label can only be applied to oils created
by lab creation of pure hydrocarbon chains. But oils formulated for the European
market normally use different formulations that US-market oils (example: Castrol GPS,
which varies formulations between the US, Europe and Australia).
API OIL RATING GUIDE:
The American Petroleum Institute provides standards for rating the
viscosity and certain contents of motor oils. This permits oils from different
manufacturers to be compared in terms of standard viscosity weights. It also
permits oils from different manufacturers to be compared in terms of
meeting specific guidelines for content formulation (primarily
to ensure compatibility with specific pollution control systems mandated by
the government, such as catalytic converters, as well as fuel-mileage increases
by reduced oil-based frictional loses), but it refers specifically
to automobile engines, not motorcycle engines.
API CLASS RATINGS APPLICABLE TO MOTORCYCLES:
Is SL or SM better than SF/SG for my
API's Standards Rating is influenced by
government mandates (such as pollution control), and thus oils meeting
newer ratings do not necessarily perform better (or even the same as)
oils meeting an older rating, depending on your motorcycle engine type.
API standards are created for automobile engines, not motorcycle engines.
For their rating system explained, see the API MOTOR OIL
GUIDE (current guide with SM classification on it).
- SA through SE OBSOLETE -- Use SF/SG or SH unless you find motorcycle
oil which still meets the original rating that your bike calls for in the owner's manual. I am not
familiar with any SA/SB/SC/SD/SE rated oils still on the market, but there may be some available for
special vintage class bikes (bikes built between 1910 and 1970).
- SF & SG TECHNICALLY OBSOLETE FOR CARS, BUT STILL IN
COMMON USE FOR MOTORCYCLE OILS -- You can find
motorcycle oil which still meets the SF/SG rating (such as
offerings from Castrol, Mobil, Royal Purple, Amsoil, Bellray,
Motorex, Motul, Repsoil, etc). If your bike calls for that in the owner's
manual, there are still a large number of motorcycle-specific
motor oils on the market that are SF/SG rated, including every
motorcycle oil which meets the full JASO-MA specification. Most
current motorcycle engines still call for SF/SG rated motor
oils. If you can not find an SF/SG rated oil and that is the
rating called for, use an SH or SH+SJ rated oil -- but do not use
API SJ, SL or SM!
- SH Technically obsolete. This oil
specification is used by some motorcycle manufacturers, and you can
still find many SH rated motorcycle oils on
the market. Do not use if your motorcycle calls for API SJ/SL/SM rated oils (only a few do).
- SJ Technically obsolete. For 2001 and older
automobile engines. An "Energy Conserving" motor oil (something good for late model cars, not most motorcycles).
Note that this standard reduces the phosphorus contents of the motor oil, which
is not necessarily a desirable reduction for most motorcycle engines. Check
your motorcycle owner's manual specifically for recommendation of an SJ-rated
motor oil before using it in your motorcycle, or stick to using SF/SG-rated,
SH-rated or dual-rated (SH+SJ) motorcycle oils instead. Do not use unless an API SJ rating is specifically called
for by your motorcycle manufacturer.
- SL Technically obsolete. For 6/2001 - 11/2004
automobile engines. An "Energy Conserving" motor oil (something good for late model cars, not most motorcycles).
Note that this standard reduces the ZDDP (zinc and phosphorus) additive
contents of the motor oil even further than SJ rated motor oils, which is not a
desirable reduction for most motorcycle engines. Check your motorcycle owner's
manual specifically for recommendation of an SJ or SL rated motor oil before using an API SL rated oil
in your motorcycle! Do not use unless an API SJ or API SL
rating is specifically called for by your motorcycle
- SM NEW/Current. For all 12/2004 and later
An "Energy Conserving" motor oil (something good for late model cars, not most motorcycles). The
API increased the standards for anti-foaming, increased detergent levels, and improved
low-temp performance, while lowering the ZDDP package contents again. API SM now
replaces API SJ and API SL -- but SM-rated oil is still not suitable for most motorcycle
engines (just as SJ and SL rated ones weren't), especially virtually every air-cooled,
oil-cooled and air-oil cooled motorcycle engines and ANY motorcycle engine designed
prior to 2001 (such as Suzuki Katana 600/750/1100, Suzuki Bandit 600/1100/1200). Check
your motorcycle owner's manual specifically for recommendation of an SJ/SL/SM rated
motor oil before using API SM rated oils in your motorcycle! Do not use unless an API SJ, SL or SM rating is specifically
called for by your motorcycle manufacturer.
Comments from the API in repsonse to our query, 11 Aug '05:
(Note this correspondence has been trimmed for length)
Higher performance engine oils such as API SJ thru SM will contain some level of friction modifier.
While the friction modifier improves fuel economy, it is not compatible with wet clutches used on
motorcycles. The friction modifier causes the wet clutch to slip. This is especially
true if the motorcycle manufacturer recommends using only engine oils carrying API SF or
SG Service Categories.
API recommends following the Original Equipment Manufacturer's (OEMs) oil
recommendations. Typically an API SJ through SM engine oil would include some friction
modifier. Only if the [motorcycle's] OEM indicates that higher performance engine oils such as API SJ, API
SL and API SM it is possible to use these engine oils in these motorcycles.
Dennis L. Bachelder
American Petroleum Institute
1220 L Street NW
Washington DC 20005 USA
JASO OIL RATING:
Unlike the API, which is an petroleum-specific institution, JASO is a consortium
of major vehicle manufacturers in Japan. JASO stands for the Japanese Automotive
Standards Organization (although translated from Japanese it might be more
accurate to say Japanese Vehicle Manufacturer's Organization). JASO rates oils for
compatibility with their products (cars and motorcycles), and all the major
Japanese motorcycle manufacturers (Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Yamaha) specified a JASO
standard for compatibility with their four-stroke motorcycles' oil needs starting
in 1998, called the JASO-MA standard. Most non-Japanese motorcycle manufacturers (Aprilia, BMW, Ducati,
Triumph, etc.) now also specify a JASO standard for use in their motorcycle
JASO only has two standards for four-stroke engines at this time: JASO MA (higher
friction oils) and JASO MB (low friction oils). The
JASO specifications include HTHS Viscosity requirements (covered further down on this page), sulfated
ash content and a number of other important characteristics that are not specified or
are not as rigidly specified by the API specifications.
Updated: JASO split their JASO-MA standard into JASO-MA1 and JASO-MA2. MA1 is the follow on for bikes that call for JASO-MA oils.
You can find more information on JASO MA-series requirements and the specifications in this
JASO MA1/MA2-series Implimentation Document (PDF)
API or JASO?
your motorcycle manufacturer specifies both an API rating (such as SH),
and the JASO MA rating, use only motor oils that satisfy both of the
standards listed (the packaging for the oil will carry symbols for both
if it meets both standards). Do not use an oil that only meets one
standard but not the other, if both standards are specified by your
owner's manual or the motorcycle manufacturer. Note that Shell Rotella oils
are not JASO MA certified as of the time I write this due to the high sulfated
ash content (JASO spec is maximum of 1.2% by weight). If your motorcycle engine
was build between 1980 and 1998, it will not have a JASO specification, but will
benefit from using a JASO MA spec oil (in conjunction with whatever other specifications
the manufacturer requires).
Oil: Advanced Theory 3150
Motor oil operates in a very hazardous environment, with great changes
in heat, differing degrees of chemical exposure, and mechanical forces
acting upon it. One of those forces is shear force, or forces which want
to tear the actual molecules of the oil apart by mechanical means (this expecially
applies to the polymer additive chains in multi-weight oils). When
a piston suddenly changes direction in it's movement, the oil directly
under the rings of the piston experience shear force. It also experience
shear forces when it catches the edge of two gears interfacing with each
other. In wet-clutch motorcycles, shear forces are also applied whenever
the clutch engages, as oil on the surface of the friction plates is
stretched by the two surfaces closing against each other. Additionally, oil
exposed to the actual detonation event in the cylinder can be sheared by
the force of the pressure wave from the explosion.
Within an engine, many different conditions exist which
chemically expose motor oil to other, undesirable chemicals. The most
obvious one is gasoline vapors within the combustion chamber, some of
which are driven into the motor oil coating the walls by the pressure
wave of the detonation (imagine setting off a firecracker -- the
pressure at the center of the firecracker will cause the paper, some of
it still containing the gun powder in the firecracker, to explode
outward; same concept). Since gasoline is formulated with a variety of
different chemicals (or may have some of these chemicals in it
natively), such as sulfur, MTBE, oygenators, et cetera, some of those
chemicals also get "pressed" into the oil at the edge of the combustion
wave. These chemicals combine with the motor oil that coats the piston's
stroke range and often get carried away during the next piston stroke
back to the oil reservoir (oil pan or sump). Some of the chemicals
change their composition given the heat and pressure of the blast, when
mixed with the hydrocarbons in the oil, and the results can include the
creation of sulfuric acid from sulfur in the gasoline mixing with oxygen
in the air or oil (which in turn can break hydrocarbon chains). And this
is just the tip of the ice berg, so to speak, when it comes to chemical
Motor oils can bind with oxygen in the air, a process known as oxidation, which results
in a thickening of the oil into a sludge that is thick and gooey (and doesn't lubricate
well or at all and is difficult for the oil pumps to move). The oxidation interaction
also loses electrons in the process, which can act as a source for dielectric rusting or
welding (accelerating the rust-binding of certain metals). Primarily this occurs with
the paraffin wax content of the oil, which is why traditional dino oils tend to sludge
up worse than synthetics (synthetics normally have very low or non-existant paraffin
The oxidation process is accelerated heavily by running hot
(because high temps help facilitate oxydation of oils). Although you might imagine that
the sludging can help offset viscosity breakdown (discussed in the next paragraph), the
reality is that sludged oil coats the metals (reducing heat exchange) and reduces the
total lubrication available to the actual metals (by acting as a barrier) as well
restricting or clogging up oil passages (sometimes to the point of critical
For a good bit on sludge, take a look at Carbibles.com: Case Study in Sludge
Previously we mentioned that the higher the base oil's viscosity, the better it is
at fighting friction. Viscosity breakdown is the act of the oil's hydrocarbons
being split, reducing the effectiveness of the oil's ability to deal with
friction. If the viscosity breaks down too far, the oil simply won't protect
the engine's friction surfaces any more (and you can readily imagine what that
leads to -- metal on metal contact). Viscosity breakdown is one of the three
primary reasons we change our oil in our vehicles, to replace the oil with oil
that hasn't suffered yet (the other two reasons are suspended particles or
contaminants which may induce wear on the friction surfaces, and oxidation, aka sludging).
As anyone who watched TV during the 80's and 90's knows (from seeing
Castrol GTX commercials), higher revving engines encourage faster
viscosity break down. This is due to the higher incident rates of shear
force exposures (faster turning of mechanical parts) and higher incident
rates of chemical exposure (more detonations, etc), as well as a third
source of viscosity breakdown: heat exposure. By comparison to car
engines, motorcycle engines rev much faster and thus encourage viscosity
breakdown even faster. And heat exposure is even more of a source of
viscosity breakdown in air- and oil-cooled motorcycles than in
water-cooled motorcycles (and far more than in car engines). Thus
motorcycle oils are designed with this increased rate of viscosity
breakdown in mind.
Where has my Viscosity
In multi-weight oils, the viscosity breakdown
causes the second number to decrease more rapidly over time than the
base oil, because the long polymers sheer more readily (what starts
as a 10W-40 will become a 10W-35, then a 10W-30, until it finally
reaches a 10 weight baseline, effective 10W-10). Hopefully you will have
changed your oil before it breaks down significantly.
HTHS VISCOSITY (A BETTER MEASURE):
Although oil manufacturers don't tend to advertise their High Temp High Shear
(HTHS) viscosity ratings, you can obtain them from most manufacturers by asking
directly. This test is of how well the oil behaves as a lubricant at high speed
under high stress and high shear while running under load at approximate full operating
temperature for the oil (150°C). The higher the HTHS number, the better a
job the oil does in preventing engine destruction under real world operating
conditions, and the thicker the boundary layer of oil on a spinning bearing
surface will build up. On the other hand, the lower the number, the easier a time
the engine has spinning up (changing RPM's) because of the lower amount of work required
to move the oil. As a result, you'll generally find lower HTHS numbers in oils that
permit the engine to be a bit zippier, but you're trading off reliability for this power
Most motorcycle engines are looking for a minimum HTHS value of 2.9
(required for JASO MA & MB standards as minimum HTHS value). Like all forms of
viscosity, HTHS values break down with use of the oil and degrade over time. Note that not all
manufacturers HTHS values break down at the same rate under the same conditions, depending
on the formulation of the oil, the viscosity stabilizers/enhancers used, and acid-neutralizers
Some comparison HTHS numbers for fresh oils:
Castrol R4 (5W40/USA) - 3.9
Castrol GPS (10W40/USA) - 4.1
Castrol GPS (20W50/USA) - 4.6
Amsoil Synthetic Motorcycle 10W40 - 4.2
Amsoil Synthetic Motorcycle 20W50 - 4.9 to 5.0
Mobil 1 MX4T (10w40/USA) - 3.9
Mobil 1 VTwin (20w50/USA) - 4.9
Redline Synthetic 10W40 - 4.7 (NOTE: No JASO-MA rating found)
Shell Rotella Synthetic - Greater than 4.0 (they wouldn't elaborate further even when we asked; note
that no Rotella products are JASO-MA rated as I write this due to sulfated ash content levels).
NOTE: The /USA info is marked because these are values provided by the manufacturers for their US-market production
oils listed; if the same oil is available in other markets, it may have different formulations and differing HTHS values.
ALSO NOTE: Valvoline's HTHS values are unpublished, but we have an information request in with them for
this info (Mobil's is also unpublished, but a call to their tech-engineers provided the above answers).
All motor oils have some temperature where they vaporize and/or
spontaneously ignite, and then breakdown into other compounds. For most
motorcycle engines under normal conditions, as long as this point is
higher than the general engine temp and lower than the combustion &
spark plug temperatures, it's not too much of an issue whether the flash
point occurs at 380°F or 480°F (in such cases, the detergent load
to wash away the by-products is more important).
Motorcycles which are air-oil cooled or air-cooled (i.e. - don't use a
secondary water cooling method to reduce heat), are a different story, and in these engines it
can be extremely important that you use an oil with a higher flash point
for the health of your engine. Additionally, any motorcycle engine that
experiences certain extremely high-thermal-stress conditions, including racing,
extended operations at temps above 95°F, and going from long-haul high speed
interstate riding to getting caught in stop-n-go traffic (traffic jams or streetlight-to-street
light city traffic) may need and can really benefit from higher flash point oils.
Some comparison Flash-point values for fresh oils:
Castrol R4 (5W40/USA) - 406°F (208°C)
Castrol ACT/Evo (10W40/USA) - 390°F (199°C)
Castrol GPS (10W40/USA) - 410°F (210°C)
Castrol GPS (20W50/USA) - 414°F (212°C)
Amsoil Synthetic Motorcycle 10W40 - 453°F (230°C)
Amsoil Synthetic Motorcycle 20W50 - 449°F (232°C)
Mobil 1 MX4T (10w40/USA) - 487°F (253°C)
Mobil 1 VTwin (20w50/USA) - 518°F (270°C)
All major motor oils (motorcycle motor oils included), contain some
degree of additives designed to help reduce (primarily) viscosity
breakdown, by reducing or eliminating as many possible causes as is
cost-effectively feasible. The major additives include Zinc, Phosphorus,
Magnesium, Calcium, Boron. Additionally, various chemicals are added to
operate as detergents, which help ensure contaminants stay suspended in
the oil rather than adhering to surfaces. Then they often toss in
something designed to help ensure oil seals stay healthy and swollen (so
you don't get oil leaks). Plus they toss in some anti-foaming agents (to
keep the oil from frothing as it's churned).
And then some manufacturers also add graphite, teflon (PFTE),
and/or molybdenum as an anti-wear agent, NONE OF WHICH (graphite/PFTE/Moly)
ARE RECOMMENDED FOR WET-CLUTCH MOTORCYCLES; these last chemicals are also
contained in many of the off-the-shelf oil additive packages like DuraLife and
- Zinc and Phosphorus -- the two primary metal anti-wear additives.
Their purpose is to provide some degree of lubrication for
metal-to-metal contact when oil pressure is too low (such as bearing
surfaces while starting an engine). These two chemicals are usually
packaged together by additive companies for the oil companies to use, as
zinc dithiophosphate (ZDDP), and the oil companies add varying amounts
to different formulations of their oils. Good for your engine, but high
contents of it may foul catalytic converters if present. Note that motorcycles
requiring API SF, API SG or API SH are not served by API SJ and API SL rated
motor oils, as SJ and SL are lower in ZDDP quantities (and SJ/SL are car-specific,
not rated for motorcycles by the API).
- Magnesium, Calcium and Boron -- these are used as anti-corrosives,
to prevent the formation of various chemicals which break down
viscosity, including sulfuric acid. Neutralizing these acids helps keep
the oil effective as a lubricant. The result is also that these
chemicals help keep sludge and varnish from forming. Again, different
motor oil manufacturers add different amounts of these chemicals to
their various formulations (from none to lots).
- Detergents -- too many possibilities to list, but they help ensure
that by-products (varnish, sheared oil, dirt, dust, etc) stay suspended
in the oil rather than adhering to the metal surfaces of the engine.
- Graphite, Molybdenum (aka "Moly" aka molybdenum disulfide) -- appear in some
automotive motor oils and many aftermarket oil additives, and
unfortunately, in some motorcycle oils. These chemicals are good
anti-wear, anti-scuffing additives, but are totally incompatible with
motorcycles which have wet clutches!
Note that molybdenum is
normally used in anti-seize paste in the USA as the primary ingredient (the type
you put on your spark plugs and wheel bolts).
- Teflon (aka poly tetrafluoroethylene or PFTE) -- Teflon in specific is not intended for
engines of any type according to it's original manufacturer (Dupont),
and you should never use a product containing teflon in the oil system
of any engine. Furthermore, it is 100% incompatible with any motorcycle
using a wet-clutch.
A Motorcycle-specific Oil
The JASO MA standard was passed in 1998 specifically for motorcycle
engine/tranny requirements that weren't being met by solely the API standards.
As a result, if your manufacturer has specified an oil that meets JASO MA and
API SF/SG/SH/SH+SJ (any of these), it is critically important that you meet
BOTH of those standards and not just one or the other. If you ride a Japanese
motorcycle build between 1971 and 2005, and it calls for one of the following
API specs (SD, SE, SF, SG and/or SH), then the JASO MA standard is recommended
(but may not be required) -- as it will help keep your older motorcycle from
encountering some of the problems that induced the JASO organization to create
the JASO MA standard in the first place. This is expecially true for air and oil-air
cooled high-RPM motorcycles. Note that JASO MB is a competing
standard specifically for a different engine type, and does not replace nor
supercede the JASO MA standard. Be careful to read the specs fully, as some oils
claim to "exceed the JASO-MA friction standard" without meeting all of the JASO-MA specs.
In 2008, JASO split the JASO-MA standard into two substandards: JASO-MA1 and JASO-MA2. If your needs called for
JASO-MA, JASO MA1 is the follow-on standard for your bike.
What you really need to know...
OIL AND FILTER CHANGES:
Changing your oil and filter by the recommended interval with an oil
that matches your all of engine manufacturer's requirements is far more
important than whether you use a dino oil or a full synthetic or
something in between. If any of the following applies to you, change
your oil more frequently than recommended by the manufacturer:
- The motorcycle forms condensation where it's parked (meaning it also forms it inside the crankcase);
- The motorcycle operates in a dusty environment (deserts, back roads);
- The motorcycle operates in a high-humidity environment (85% or greater humidity);
- The motorcycle operates in a high-temperature environment regularly (over 88°F / 32°C);
- You tend to drive short trips (under 15 miles);
- You tend to rev the engine a lot (riding close to redline);
- You regularly get stuck in stop-and-go traffic or traffic jams or city driving in general (accelerates oil viscosity
break down by up to 50%);
- You drive irregularly (less than once every 4 days);
You should also change your oil immediately any time:
- The motorcycle overheats or shows signs of overheating;
- The motor oil gets contaminated with liquid gasoline.
SPECIAL NOTE FOR MC's WITH
Although the motorcycle market is migrating to injectors, a lot of bikes out there still
have carburetors. Anytime a motorcycle with carbs gets layed over (whether a high-speed
spill or just a parking-lot drop), some of the fuel from the carb's float bowls will run
down into the engine. Bikes with stuck carb floats can exhibit the same behavior.
Gasoline robs motor oils of it's ability to lubricate and does not lubricate itself.
Thus, any time you have liquid gasoline run into the oil, change the oil ASAP! Failure
to do so is a good recipe for early engine failure and highly accelerated parts
CAR VS. MOTORCYCLE OIL:
Car oils are formulated for cars. Motorcycle oils are specifically
formulated for motorcycles. Motorcycles induce accelerated viscosity
breakdown, and thus motorcycle oils contain additives that car oils do
not to correct for this. Additionally, many car oils contain additives
which are not suitable for motorcycles with wet clutches; if you have a
wet clutch (or aren't sure), always stick to good motorcycle oils.
EMERGENCY TOPPING OFF:
If you find out that you are lower than the low mark on your oil
indicator and are stuck in the middle of Podunk with no access to
motorcycle oil, use the best automobile oil you can get to top off, then
change your oil & filter at the first available chance (back to
motorcycle oil). In a pinch, we recommend Mobil 1 car oil, and although
it's not our first choice in oils, it is compatible with all major
motorcycles' oils in a pinch, and available at Mobil stations across the
country 24 hours a day. Do not ride with less than minimum amounts of
oil! Once you get to where you're going, change your oil (both because
you used car oil and because what was there was too little at some point,
implying it needs to be changed anyway).
VARYING THE OIL WEIGHT OR VISCOSITY:
Use the weight recommended by the manufacturer of your
motorcycle for the ambient temperature you will be riding in. Although
thicker (higher viscosity) oils in theory reduce friction better, the
difference in their thickness can also reduce the quantity of oil
flowing past a bearing or between two tight surfaces, resulting in oil
starvation at that point (and thus actually defeating the reason for using
the thicker oil to begin with). Never use a thinner oil than recommended (i.e. --
if your specification calls for a 10W-40, do not use a 5W-40 in it's place).
OIL FILTER QUALITY:
Not all oil filters are created equal by a far measure. Unless you have
gone through the effort of cutting open an aftermarket filter and
comparing the amount and type of pleating material and by-pass valve
design to the one from the factory-spec oil filter, stick to the
factory-specified oil filter. You know that your motorcycle was designed
specifically to work well with the factory filter, and the couple bucks
difference you might save in the short haul is not worth the wear difference
If you have a wet-clutch on your motorcycle, you need to remove the clutch
pack before using any engine flush (such as Gunk "5 Minute Engine Flush").
If you have a dry clutch, this is not an issue, and we recommend using this flush
if you notice any varnish on your engine internals or sludge deposits in your
oil (especially as you change it). Changing your oil more frequently, and using
a good grade of oil will help keep you from needing to use an engine flush product.
NOTE: Some motorcycle engines have oil coolers and other reservior areas retain
oil during a typical oil change (example: Bandit and GSXF engines retain up to 35% of the
oil between the tranny, oil cooler and upper engine); when you do an oil flush on such
an engine, you need to drain the cooler afterwards and do two oil changes in short sucession
to each other (with 5 to 10 minutes of engine run-time between the oil changes). This will
net you about 95% of the oil being renewed and gaurantee enough of the oil flush product has
been cleared out. If doing this, change your oil filter at the time of the final oil change.
Oil Types Recommended:
The most important thing is that you use a motorcycle oil with
the specific ratings and weight that the engine manufacturer calls for (e.g. - API SF/SG,
JASO MA, 10w40).
NOTE that API SJ, API SL and API SM do not replace API SH & earlier for motorcycle
engines, so if your engine spec calls for API SH or earlier (such as SF/SG),
you should not substitute in API SJ or API SL!
The type of driving you do & the type of bike you ride obviously plays a role
into the recommendation, but as a general rule of thumb for most bikes, we
highly recommend any motorcycle-specific motor oil that complies with your
required API spec for your bike and meets JASO-MA specs (exception: 2-strokes
and motorcycles specifically designed to use API SJ or API SL rated motor oils --
which shouldn't use JASO-MA spec oils as a result). Personally, we use Castrol GPS
10w-40 and 20w-50 as a cost effective, well performing synthetic-basis oil --
one that we've personally used for eons. We also have verified reports of a
Honda CBR rider getting over 200,000 miles out of his engine without any
oiling-system related damages, nor burning any significant amount of oil at the
end of this time (less than 1/4 cup per 3,000 miles at 200,000 on the odo)
using only this type of oil.
BRANDS CHANGING OIL SPECS UNNOTICED
Several of the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers sell their own "house" brand
of oil through their dealer networks. In some cases, these house brands have recently been reformulated to
API SJ and/or API SL, which may not be compatible with your motorcycle
(specifically, if your motorcycle engine calls for API SH or earlier, such as an API SF/SG rating).
Suzuki brand motor oil is a perfect example; their standard 10w40 formulation recently changed
from being API SF/SG to being an API SL-rated oil, which is thus unsuitable for most older
bikes, and even some of Suzuki's newest models (such those which are air-cooled
and/or air-oil cooled - such as '00 - '05 Bandit 600, and '98 - '05 Katana 600 & 750
The Analogy Tale... Toothpicks and Oil
To put this all in a way that most laymen can readily understand:
You start out with a pile of toothpicks (which represent the carbon chain
lengths of oil). With a synthetic, they should all be the same ideal length;
with a traditional dino oil most of them will be the length you want, with some
shorter & a few longer bits in the pile.
Your teeth are going to represent the engine/tranny/clutch -- the idea is to
keep your teeth from touching by putting the toothpicks on the top surface of
your teeth as you chew (engine turning) while holding them with your fingers
(because your mouth is facing the ground, head tilted forward). And you don't
get to select the toothpicks -- you pickup a bunch of them blindfolded each
time. The teeth (engine/tranny/clutch) chop up or mash the toothpicks to some
degree or other, leaving behind shorter pieces. If the pile ends up with too
many short pieces, the toothpicks are useless because they won't keep your
molars from touching. If you get too many short pieces, you might inhale them
and choke (representing oil gunk build-up in the engine passages). If the
toothpicks get too soggy, they won't work well either (representing build-up of
viscosity-reducing pollutants in your oil).
When you change your oil, you are removing some of the
toothpicks and replacing them with new ones. Some bikes can drain all their
oil in an oil change; many other brands have designs that only change out a certain
percentage each change (Suzuki Katana's and Bandit engines come to mind; they change
about 65% with each regular oil & filter change).
So, the question is how can you best keep your teeth from touching? The best
answer is still to replace the toothpicks on a regular basis so you have
sufficient long ones every time you pick up some toothpicks.
"Is this the Right Oil for my Bike?" by Jeffrey P. DiCarlo, September 1999, for the Internet BMW Riders.
"Oils Well That Ends Well"
By Don Smith, Originally published in Sport Rider, August 2003.
"The myths, facts, and mysteries of the slippery stuff that keeps your engine happy."
By Gordon Jennings, Originally published in Motorcyclist, October 1996.
JASO MA1/MA2-series Implimentation Requirements & Specifications for Compliance (PDF)
Practicing Oil Analysis: Lubrication breakdown
"How Oil Refining Works" at How Stuff Works.
Kit Sullivan's Oil info (BOSS-302 Registry)
Bob Is The Oil Guy Website
NOTE: Obsolete Links have been removed and/or updated (Feb 08)