Horsepower in a Bottle

David S.
By David S. Wallens
May 11, 2009 | Posted in Shop Work | From the July 1998 issue | Never miss an article

If we told you that pouring a $13 oil additive into your engine would give you five additional horsepower, would you believe us? Neither would we.

For years, all of us in the automotive world have been inundated with pitches from oil additive companies. The claims promise gains that any car owner would desire: “less engine wear,” “more horsepower,” and “longer engine life.” Who wouldn’t be interested in these benefits?

Claims vary from product to product, but all purport to be some sort of elixir for your engine’s good health. Some of these potions, which contain solvents such as kerosene, promote cleanliness by removing tarnish and buildup. Others, which seem to have the consistency of honey, promise quieter valves and restored engine compression.

If you look at the root of the issue, however, most “solutions” are merely fixes for engine neglect and wear. Change your oil at regular, recommended intervals, and you probably won’t need to worry about flushing out years worth of sludge and deposits. Likewise, only an engine rebuild will properly fix low compression and worn-out and loose valves.

But there’s a whole class of additives, which we’ll look into in a minute, that make the promise most enthusiasts are after: more power. These claims and boasts caught our interest, so we did a little research in an effort to figure out what’s behind the flashy advertisements and huge promises.

Exactly What’s in Them?

That’s a good question, and unfortunately one we can’t seem to answer. Unlike the folks who make frozen burritos or Chips Ahoy!, oil additive companies are not required to list their ingredients. Nor are they willing to share their prized formulas with the general public. For all you know, it could be metal shavings and sand suspended in dirty water. Or it could be something worse. On the other hand, that little bottle could hold the key to all of your automotive dreams.

Unlike most brand-name motor oils, the oil additive industry is unregulated and their products are not certified by the API. Just who is this almighty API we speak of? Founded in 1919, the American Petroleum Institute serves as the national trade association for the entire petroleum industry, covering all aspects of production, refining, exploration and transportation. Pick up a quart of any reputable motor oil, and you’ll see the API stamp of approval on it.

According to the API, an engine oil product which meets their standards has been “manufactured in accordance with stringent industry specifications established by the API, the Society of Automotive Engineers, the American Society for Testing and Materials, and the International Lubricant Standardization and Approval Committee. Oils meeting these specifications are recommended by automotive manufacturers.”

The additive companies say they don’t need an API stamp because any engine using an additive would already have an API-certified oil in the crankcase. Maybe so, but that’s a flimsy argument for noncompliance.

More Power

Among the various claims, we found that many additives boast that their active ingredients will make your oil slipperier, which will reduce internal friction and in turn yield better performance, more horsepower and longer engine life. Simple physics, right? As a bonus, many of these companies have promised that their additives will bond themselves to your internal engine components, providing increased protection during start-up.

Active ingredients vary—and are usually secret—but for the most part they fall into one of two categories: chlorinated materials and PTFE. Why these two materials? Under high pressures, chlorinated materials form smooth coatings, which in theory reduces friction. (Remember that reduced friction inside your engine generally yields increased power.) PTFE, which is the generic name for DuPont’s Teflon, is recognized as one of the most slippery materials ever found.

Both compounds are slippery, but we have learned that they may have drawbacks. The big problem with additives is that over time and under high temperatures, they can decompose into hydrochloric acids. If you remember high school physics, hydrochloric acid is very corrosive to most common metals. This is generally perceived as not such a good thing for your engine.

PTFE is certainly a slippery substance, but whether or not you want something in your engine that’s based on a solid is a personal decision. The companies that use PTFE say they use particles that are small enough to pass through oil passageways and oil filters without causing trouble. What if they’re wrong? A spun bearing or clogged oil filter could really ruin your day. Again, you’re having to trust a product that is not tested, certified or approved by any sort of regulating body. Call us over-cautious, but when our engine is on the line, how can we not be?

Some of these products that boast of their PTFE content also carry a notice to shake before using. Now, if only they could tell us how to shake our engines before turning the key, we’d be all set.

Further hurting the argument for PTFE-based additives are several recent rulings by the Federal Trade Commission regarding these products’ performance. On July 16, 1996, the FTC made the following statement: “The Federal Trade Commission has charged Quaker State—Slick 50, Inc., the manufacturer of Slick 50, the best-selling oil engine treatment in the U.S., with making false and unsubstantiated advertising claims. According to the FTC, ads for Slick 50 that tout tests showing improved engine performance are false and its claims of reduced engine wear are unsubstantiated.”

Slick 50’s ads claim that compared to motor oil alone, it reduces engine wear, lengthens engine life, and provides a host of other benefits. The claims sound good, but the evidence doesn’t back them up,” the release quotes Jodie Bernstein, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “We believe the ads exaggerate the lack of protection motor oils provide modern engines at start-up, as well as the risk of premature engine failure. The premature engine failure Slick 50 claims to guard against is uncommon, and the company lacks reliable evidence it would be prevented by using Slick 50, in any case,” she said. “In fact, all the evidence we’ve seen so far suggests that the best thing you can do for your car’s engine is to get an oil change performed at manufacturer-recommended intervals,” says Bernstein. “People who want to maximize their automobile performance and enhance its long life should read the owner’s manual and follow the directions.”

When asked their feelings on putting Teflon in an engine, the DuPont people were cagey at best on the subject. “If you want to try it, go ahead,” was all they would say. Also, their Web page didn’t endorse the use of Teflon as an oil additive the same way they promote their product for use in non-stick cookware or stain-proof carpeting.

While it is also a solid in nature, in 10 years of use we have experienced no problems ever with Molybdenum Disulphide-based additives like Mr. MOLY. We haven’t tested it on the dyno so we can’t boast of any power gains, but we’re pretty sure it saved our motor once at the Chimney Rock Hillclimb.

Some oil additives contain oil thickeners designed to “cling” to internal engine parts in an effort to “reduce any damage done at start-up.” Once again, these charges have caught the attention of the FTC. They released the following statement on December 1, 1995:

STP Corporation, and its parent corporation, First Brands Corporation, have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they violated a 1976 FTC order under which they are prohibited from making false and unsubstantiated claims for motor oil additives. According to the FTC, the defendants made numerous false claims in advertisements regarding the engine protective qualities of their oil additive, ‘STP Engine Treatment with XEP2.’ Under the proposed settlement, the defendants would pay an $888,000 civil penalty for the order violation. (This is the third largest sum ever obtained by the FTC for a consumer protection order violation).”

The claims at the center of the dispute arise from STP’s claims of cold-engine protection. The release further states the following: “According to the FTC filing detailing the charges in today’s case, the defendants falsely represented that motor oil does not adequately protect most engines from wear at start-up; and that STP Engine Treatment with XEP2 is required to protect against wear at start-up in most engines.”

Major oil companies also don’t seem too thrilled about additives. The people at Mobil 1 issued us the following statement: “Mobil’s general response is that any API-certified motor oil should already contain a balanced, optimized additive system which will allow that product to perform adequately in an automobile engine (based on the API category for which the product is rated) at the manufacturer’s recommended oil change intervals. Mobil 1, for example, goes well beyond ‘adequate’ and performs exceptionally well under all types of driving conditions.

In our opinion, not only is an engine oil supplement unnecessary, but it can, and usually does, disrupt the already balanced chemistry of the engine oil to which it is added. This can lead to problems in an engine, particularly if the additive is used continually (versus once over many oil changes). If the additive is used only once, chances are the engine will survive until the next oil change, at which point, the additive would be drained out along with the oil.”

Kendall issued a similar response, pointing out that since the aftermarket oil additive companies do not have to hold an API license, they often lack the proof required by the oil and auto industries for product performance.

So What to Do?

What you pour down in your crankcase is your own business, but this is obviously an area of the marketplace in which the consumer needs to exercise caution. If you believe the claims of increased performance and better all-around goodness, go for it. We haven’t tested all of the products, and some of them may very well perform as promised. In fact, we have found one additive that, so far at least, performs as claimed.

All of this oil additive research came about because Oil Extreme contacted us regarding dyno testing of their new oil additive. We were skeptical thanks to the information we gathered and which we’ve shared here, but the Oil Extreme people promised their product would give us an increase in horsepower—with no excuses—and we could test it in any car of our choosing. Being naturally curious creatures, we couldn’t pass it up.

We first read up on their literature. According to what we received, Oil Extreme promises that their product “contains no chlorine, flourine, halogenated hydrocarbons, free sulfur, heavy metals or other chemicals that may be considered hazardous to the environment.” They also boast that their product is PTFE-free.

Jet Set Live Technologies, makers of the new Oil Extreme oil additive package, says their product “is based on a blend of phosphatic derivatives and calcium carbonate complex that reacts with metals to form tribochemical phosphate/phosphate and metal/calcium-carbonate-complex thin films under high pressures and temperatures during boundary lubrication conditions.” Okay. They also claim their product does not corrode ferrous and non-ferrous metals.

We had their word it was safe, but does it actually make additional horsepower? For a real-world test, we enlisted the services of Regular Contributor Rennie Bryant and his 1987 BMW L6.

First we ran the car on Performance Dynanometer’s Dynojet chassis dyno to get a baseline number. The first run yielded a maximum of 147.6 horsepower, while a second initial run delivered 149.2 hp. While the numbers show a 1.5 hp difference, looking at the graphs shows the lines were basically on top of each other except for a few minor peaks and valleys. Basically the second run had a few more towering peaks. Chalk that up to the 130,000-mile motor.

We then poured a six-ounce bottle of Oil Extreme into the crankcase and, as per their instructions, drove around for a bit. According to Oil Extreme’s George French, the additive needs some time to become active and form the films that decrease friction. About half an hour after some around-town driving, the car was back on the dyno.

Well, the run with the Oil Extreme impressed us: As you can see from the graph, it showed an average gain of four to five horsepower throughout the rpm range; the graph was also a little smoother.

Seems to be a little smoother; it always seemed to idle a little rough,” Rennie said a week after the test.

From what we have seen, Rennie’s BMW isn’t the only car that liked the oil additive. Performance Dyno’s Bill Davis has tested the Oil Extreme in about 20 cars, usually with similar results: a 305-cubic-inch 3/4-ton Chevy pickup went from 117.3 hp to 123.2; a 350-cubic-inch Chevy Nova saw horsepower increase from 266.2 to 270.8; and a small-block Chevy-powered 1932 Ford hotrod had its max power rise from 190.4 to 191.4. While the ‘32 Ford did not pick up tons of max power, the dyno graph shows a horsepower increase all the way through the rpm range.

Our dyno test did not take into account any long-term effects or permanent power gains, but it did show us that Oil Extreme is at least good for a quick burst of energy.

Bill Davis has done his own long-term tests on Oil Extreme, however, with promising results. Last November, he added Oil Extreme to several cars, and all of them immediately produced extra horsepower. Six months later he retested those cars, and all were within one horsepower of their baseline readings. (Among Oil Extreme’s claims are a significantly higher Total Base Number, which thus allows a longer interval between oil changes.)

We still don’t know how additives like Oil Extreme and Mr. MOLY magically make more power, and there is very little long-term test data available. However, from what we have seen, Oil Extreme could be your ace up your sleeve for that big race or autocross.

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View comments on the GRM forums
quinntony75 None
11/1/09 8:58 a.m.

Yeah, I have added oil supplements. One of them I actually liked was from Switzterland. Its called Metalyz. I purchased it from BAC in Daytona Beach and have not been able to get another bottle (new owner and has not ordered any). It's not horsepower in a bottle, its more like engine restore. And for an added bonus, the company put its ingredients on the bottle. Yaaay! I am not by the way an oil additive savvy person. I use whats recommended and use the engine restore once a year. Only because my car has 250k+ miles on it.

Mark_S New Reader
2/4/11 6:21 p.m.

I used Slick 50 in its earlier days on my motorcycle. Guzzi had a reputation at the time of eating its rocker pivot pins to the extent that it was SOP to rotate the pins every other valve adjustment to spread the wear out on both sides. Somewhere about 20 thousand miles I replaced the pins, add Slick 50 and started using Lubrication Engineers oil in the bike. At about 60 thousand miles I tore the heads down for a rebuild (mostly valve seats) and the pins still have the hone marks and no noticeable wear (can't feel with finger nail) Now that Quaker State owns them I no longer use it That was then, this is now.

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