Need To Know


Motor oil packaging has experienced a number of significant changes in the past century. Although some of the changes pale in comparison to what we are now seeing, its of value to revisit one of the first big changes of the past to better understand how we might address the challenges we currently face.

As history buffs, petroleum memorabilia collectors and most centenarians likely know, motor oils used to be sold almost exclusively at filling stations in glass bottles. Glass bottles were the packaging of choice back in the day because they could be filled and refilled from bulk and the buyer could see the color and cleanliness of the motor oil, as well as the quantity purchased. As an added bonus, the bottle came with a fill spout.

But as good as they appeared, serious questions were asked in the late 1920s about the accuracy of the quart measure and the integrity of the product in the bottle. The concern was that bottles could easily be short filled by 2 to 4 percent and there was no practical way to know if the brand consumers were sold was actually the brand in the bottle. This matter became a significant focus of discussion at the National Conference on Weights and Measures in 1931.

At the gathering, Pure Oil went on record to say it had long recognized deficiencies in the present methods of dispensing motor oils in bulk to customers, both at service stations and at retail dealers. In addition to concerns about the consumers being short-changed on volume, the company said, Another of the great evils of present methods of oil dispensing is that of substitution and that accurate measure and delivery of oil to the customer rests entirely in the hands of the service attendant and is subject to his possible dishonesty or carelessness.

Shell acknowledged similar concerns at that conference and made a groundbreaking announcement that in order to protect the consumer and eliminate any doubt of the genuineness of the product in the minds of the motoring public, it would retail its motor oil in factory-filled, sealed, quart containers. Further, Shells name, brand and a fill line would be blown into the glass, and the sealed caps on the bottles would bear the companys name, API Service Category and SAE viscosity grade. Other lubricant manufacturers and marketers soon followed.

So it happened: A problem was identified and the lubricant industry came up with a solution. This drove the first major change in lubricant packaging.

Since those early days, there have been a number of other notable changes in lubricant packaging, the next being the move from glass bottles to metal cans (square and round) back in the 1930s and 40s. In the 1950s through the 70s, metal cans were being pushed off the shelves by composite cans, and plastic bottles did the same to composites starting in the 1960s and 70s. But through most of these changes, the one thing that didnt change was the ubiquitous quart container.

If you looked hard, you could find some larger containers sold at retail in the early days, but the quart evolved to become the unit of measure for oil in passenger cars with statements such as, You are down a quart, My car takes five quarts, and others becoming part of our lexicon.

But even that has changed over the past two decades. The first change was when 1-gallon jugs made an appearance on retail shelves. This was followed by 5-quart jugs and now we are seeing a growing presence of 2.5-gallon containers of diesel engine oil sold at retail. In fact, when taken together, these big shots have muscled in on the space of quart bottles and now account for 60 to 75 percent of the retail shelf space for motor oils at leading big box and auto parts stores. There is little wonder why. The volume in these containers more closely matches that typically used for an oil change; it offers consumers a lower unit price; and disposing of the used oil is made easier by one container instead of multiple quart bottles.

So here we are, almost 90 years after the first big change in motor oil packaging took place. Thats when our industry came up with a solution to address concerns about short filling and substitute motor oils sold directly to consumers at service stations. Although that went a long way to help protect consumers with retail purchases, there is still a nagging concern about the installed market that harkens back to 1931 when the NCWM took up the issue of the volume of oil in glass bottles and substitution at service stations.

To the credit of our industry and the NCWM, its clear that considerable progress has been made over the past few years to establish regulations requiring installers to label tanks, hoses, meters and invoices with the same information majors agreed to place on bottles back in the 1930s.

But even with that, fundamental questions remain. The most pressing is whether or not we still have systems in the installed segment where substitution and the accurate measure and delivery of oil could be subject to dishonesty or carelessness of the service attendant.

If so, maybe its once again time for our industry to come up with a solution.

Tom Glenn is president of the consulting firm Petro­leum Trends International, the Petroleum Quality Institute of America, and Jobbers World newsletter. Phone: (732) 494-0405. Email:

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