Finished Lubricants

Small Engines Come Racing Back


Sales of leisure equipment such as motorcycles and boats have been steadily recovering since the recession in 2008. In light of this rebound, its important to revisit small engine lubrication needs and examine some trends in this industry segment.

According to Infineums 2017 Trends report, presented globally and in Los Angeles in May, the worlds motorcycle sales will grow steadily to 113 million vehicles by 2020. Demand volume for motorcycle oil will track motorcycle sales growth, with Asia racing through three-quarters of global demand. Infineum expects Japanese original equipment manufacturers to continue dominating the market, but there are hundreds of manufacturers globally.

In North America, though the average motorcycle is now over 12 years old, sales growth remains healthy. Infineum estimates there are 10 million motorcycles and scooters in use, and about half of those are made by Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha-the big four Japanese brands. Annual sales of motorcycles in the United States revved up to about 1.1 million in 2005 according to The recession of 2007-2008 drove sales down to 430,000 in 2010, but a slow yet steady recovery brought the numbers back up to about 500,000 in 2015.

The leisure marine market in North America also continues to recover following a dip during the recession. At its peak in 2005, the combined sales of boats with inboard and sterndrive as well as outboard engines exceeded 400,000. By 2010, sales sank by nearly half, but had buoyed to more than 260,000 five years later.

Tom Marhevko, vice president of engineering standards at the National Marine Manufacturers Association, confirmed to LubesnGreases that the marine market is getting stronger every year.NMMA has seen record numbers of attendees at its boat shows. Powerboat sales were up about 6 percent last year to near pre-recession levels, and Marhevko expects the growth to continue through 2018.


Infineum sees three key trends emerging for motorcycle oil formulation: lower viscosity to increase fuel economy, higher market penetration of synthetics and specialization. While chasing these developments, formulators must be sure not to lose sight of OEM requirements related to gear pitting prevention, oil consumption and drain intervals.

The four-stroke engine has become dominant in the motorcycle market and the lubricants required for these vehicles must not only lubricate the engine but also provide appropriate friction characteristics, since the sump is common to the clutch and gear box. The Japanese Automotive Standards Organization provides the current industry standards for four-stroke motorcycle engines:

JASO MA- For two-wheelers with a single oil system for the engine, gearbox and wet clutch. These fluids do not contain friction modifiers.

JASO MB-These oils have the lowest friction among four-cycle motorcycle oils and should not to be used when an MA oil is specified.

JASO T 903:2016-Updated in October 2016, this standard introduced new clutch plates and reference oils to the tests. It also reset friction severity to 2006 levels, preventing MB oils from achieving MA performance.

Phosphorus content is being used as a parameter to guard against gear pitting, as a specific gear pitting test was not ready for inclusion in JASO T 903:2016. Once a test is introduced, Infineum pointed out, lubricant viscosity and phosphorus content could be lowered, which could be an advantage for fuel economy and emissions control, Infineum stated.

While four-stroke engines are the norm for motorcycles these days, two-stroke engines continue to power older bikes and other machinery like lawn mowers and leaf blowers.

Japanese motorcycle manufacturers found that the test limits set by API TC-the American Petroleum Institutes two-stroke specification-were too loose. Oils meeting the API TC standard still produced excessive smoke and could not prevent exhaust blocking. This led the Japanese Engine Oil Standards Implementation Panel of JASO in 1994 to introduce its own specifications for two-stroke engines:

JASO FA – The original specification, which established limits for lubricity, detergency, initial torque, exhaust smoke and exhaust system blocking;

JASO FB – Set stricter limits for lubricity, detergency, exhaust smoke and exhaust system blocking over FA;

JASO FC – Kept the same lubricity and torque requirements as FB, but set far higher detergency, exhaust smoke and exhaust system blocking requirements;

JASO FD – Set higher detergency requirements over FC.

The current JASO FB, FC and FD test limits are described in JASO M345 and require the same set of four tests with varying degrees of performance results. But parts are becoming scarce for these tests, so JASO has formed a committee to revise its two-stroke oil specification. The updated specification is expected to be released by April 2018.

For the future, Infineum foresees emissions regulations and fuel economy as the two biggest factors driving hardware changes. The use of after­treatment systems to cut emissions is becoming ever more common, while OEMs are reducing the size, weight and friction of components to meet the need for better fuel economy. These changes are testing OEMs creativity in areas such as combustion, injection and timing.

These hardware changes impact the lubricant. Phosphorus restrictions may come into play, for example, to ensure catalyst durability.

While SAE 20W-40 had been the standard grade, SAE 5W-30 oils are becoming more common in motorcycles, since lower viscosity lubes can boost fuel economy. But as with any vehicle, Infineum reminded, fuel economy cannot come at the expense of performance. The next generation of motorcycle oils will be expected to up their game for engine, clutch and gear lubrication and extend machinery service life, even in a stressful environment. Infineum believes these oils must outperform the minimum requirements of the JASO specification so that motorcycle riders can feel the difference.

Outboard Motors

While new sterndrive and inboard boat engine sales remain slow in the leisure marine market, outboard engines are chugging steadily out of the recession. One-hundred horsepower outboard motors are showing substantial growth, while smaller engines are lagging. However, Infineum points to relatively slow sales recovery of engines equipped with emissions control technologies that contain catalysts. This is likely to impact demand for catalyst-compatible oils in the short term, depending on the economy.

NMMAs Tom Marhevko explained that four-stroke engines are the most popular choice, and will continue to be the choice of new boat owners as these engines become lighter weight. NMMA is also seeing an increase in outboard engine use and sales over inboards. He noted that inboard wake and ski boats have seen the largest percentage growth increase of all boat segments. As watersports remain a significant hobby for boat owners, bigger boats with outboard motors are being offered.

NMMA manages oil specifications for this market, using three standards: TC-W3 for two-cycle engines, FC-W for four-cycle engines and FC-W Catalyst Compatible for four-cycle engines equipped with a catalyst system.

TC-W3 oils have been developed over a number of years, with the objectives of reducing emissions, developing quality oils that reduce the oil-to-fuel mixture ratio, and extending engine service life. Meeting these goals leads to reduced emissions that satisfy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirements and reduces the number of warranty claims. Customers are also more satisfied, thanks to more durable engines that require less maintenance.

Gasoline-powered inboard and sterndrive boats have traditionally been equipped with four-cycle engines, according to NMMAs website. The organization saw a need for an engine oil category specific to four-cycle marine engines, which began as the FC-W specification. As consumer sentiment and legislation began to limit marine engine emissions, exhaust aftertreatment systems were added, thus prompting the NMMA Oil Certification Committee to develop the FC-W Catalyst Compatible specification.

Stresses placed on marine engine oils differ from those of land-going vehicles, including high loads, high speeds and exposure to high humidity and salt water. Protecting the catalyst in aftertreatment systems has added yet another challenge for oil formulators.

Marhevko noted that maintaining the current TC-W and FC-W specifications with a diminishing supply of test equipment is a concern for his organization. This problem is one that faces all testing protocols for engines and is the reason so many engine tests change, even though oil requirements may not have changed.

The increased use of direct-injection engines has made it necessary to look at updating the TC-W3 specification to accurately apply to these engines, continued Marhevko. NMMA has a team working to revise the specification to accommodate DI engines, along with a DI engine oil test that is backwards compatible to all existing two-stroke engines and TC-W3 oils.

For the future, Marhevko believes the boating market will see more electric engines used for propulsion as batteries become more efficient and the range of these boats increases.

Other Small Engines

The range of other small engines covers such items as yard equipment like lawn mowers and string trimmers; all-terrain vehicles; maintenance equipment such as chain saws; and others. They are powered by both two-cycle and four-cycle engines. The four-cycle engines used in this arena are made by many different companies, including Honda, Briggs and Stratton, and Kohler. Two-cycle engines come from some of the same sources.

Since most of these two-cycle engines are air cooled, they run very hot and require an oil containing some detergent to prevent ring sticking and deposits. Two-cycle engine oils-but not the TC-W3 variety-are recommended. Oils typical for these applications meet industry standards such as APIs TC or one of the JASO categories.

Small engines are an important part of todays society. They are tools as well as toys, and their success is important to all, regardless of whether or not we work with them or enjoy leisure activities. The issues mentioned above demonstrate how consumer education is becoming increasingly important in the powerboat engine market, as well as other industries in which lubricant requirements continue to evolve.