Snake oils, wonder products and other wastes of money

fourwheeldriftIt is not surprising that people spend so much hard-earned money on automotive products that seem too good to be true.  After all, GNC and other supplement retailers have made billions of dollars selling junk without any valid statistical studies to support manufacturer claims…and buyers are putting this stuff in their bodies rather than their cars.  (Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s healthy, people.  Benzene, arsenic, cocaine, and E-coli are also one-hundred-percent natural!)   

I get asked all the time about specific automotive improvement products, which means there are many other people out there who need to know whether or not specific things are good, bad or indifferent.

The “Tornado”

Everyone knows this one by now.  You stick it in the air passageway and it creates a twister in your air intake, which supposedly improves the flow into your engine.  The claim is more power and better fuel efficiency.

Well, Auntie Em, the Tornado’s claims is as real as The Wizard of Oz.  As a general rule, adding something to an existing engine can either make more power or conserve fuel, but not both – reason being that to make more power, air and fuel must go into the cylinders at an appropriate ratio.  If Tornado makes air flow quicker (which it doesn’t,) then more fuel would be required, as well.

The other problem is that putting a finned piece of metal in the air intake couldn’t possibly have the same affect on carbureted engines as fuel injected engines, yet the company claims the same product works on both.  In a fuel injected engine, the tornado comes before the throttle body, which would negate any benefits due to the design.

And let’s face it – the Tornado is cheap to make, so don’t you think BMW, Porsche, Ferrari, Rolls Royce, or another cost-no object company would be installing them at the factory if it actually worked?  BMW utilizes air inlet passages that change length dynamically to improve power and efficiency, for god’s sake…if the Tornado achieved the same thing, I’d bet they’d have saved the millions of dollars in R+D costs.

I know, they show that a Chevy Impala has higher horsepower on the dyno.  Problem is that one can have a momentary higher peak horsepower, but lower hp and torque across the rest of the RPM band.

Slick 50 and Other Engine Oil Treatments 

Here’s the plain and simple truth: if you lose your oil while driving, it doesn’t matter what had been in there – your engine will seize.  So many of these products have been successfully sued by the FTC for bogus claims that it’s scary.

There are a couple engine oil treatments that are decent.  Restore actually helps minimize oil leaks and raise compression –slightly-.  As a mechanic friend of mine said many years ago “it’s all snake oil, but Restore is the best of them.”  Using Slick50 or any of the ultra-lubricants can actually make engines spring new leaks. 

Fuel Treatments

Here’s where it gets tricky.  There are many types of fuel treatments.  Some work well, others work if (and only if) your car is configured to benefit from them.  Others don’t work at all.  Fuel cleaners are great if you use grocery store gas with less chemical additives (that’s why the gas is cheaper, friend!)  Irrespective of regular, mid-grade or premium, if you use Chevron, Exxon, Mobil, or Texaco, chances are a fuel system cleaner is pretty worthless. 

Other treatments increase octane.  If you are running a 1969 Corvette with the L88 solid-lifter high compression engine, 92 octane simply isn’t enough, so an octane booster is needed.  If you think that your stock CRX will benefit from an octane booster, you’re fooling yourself.  The higher the octane, the less combustible the fuel, so the more it can be compressed before detonating.  If it detonates early, you’ll hear pinging.  If your car is made to run on regular or premium fuel, chances are that adding octane booster will do nothing, unless, of course, either you or the car’s computer can somehow adjust specifications like ignition timing to compensate for the extra octane.

Then there are the magic potion treatments that promise more power and better fuel economy.  Just say no…they don’t work, and chances are you’ll lose the desire to send the whole bottle and receipt back to the manufacturer to accept its money back guarantee.

Finally there are lead additives, which are designed to decrease valve seat wear in engines made before catalytic converters, which means prior to 1972.  For years the thought was that running an engine without hardened valve seats on unleaded fuel would kill it.  Now this seems not to be quite correct in most cases.

I have two close friends who are both SAE Certified Master Mechanics.  They also own plenty of pre-cat cars and trucks, such as first-generation Camaros, Cadillacs and even a 455 Rocket-powered Olds.  Both of these fellows have seen the inside of engines, and can’t find a reason to utilize lead additives.  Basically, valve recession is no longer a problem due to the increased quality of modern fuels.  In other words, the unleaded fuel of today is so much cleaner than the regular gas of 1970 that the additives don’t provide much, if any extra benefit.  Furthermore, very few people drive enough distance in these cars to do any damage, even if the fuel wasn’t up to par.

As for the pictures of recession in old engines that help the companies sell product – who is to say that the seats would have been any better using the additive?

I have a 1960 Triumph TR3 sitting in my garage that I drive all the time.  I’ve never once put lead additive in it, and it’s still going strong.

Magnetic oil plugs and oil filter magnets

It is true that if you install a magnetic oil sump drain plug that after 3000 miles you’ll probably find some small metal particles.  The same goes for a magnet wrapped around an oil filter.  The issue is not that they don’t attract particles; the problem is that any good oil filter would also trap them if the magnets weren’t there. 

Have a question about a product’s claims?  Ask about it by submitting a comment.  We’ll give you our opinions.

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4 Responses to Snake oils, wonder products and other wastes of money

  1. James Pittman says:

    What about “engine flush” products that you add to the crankcase before the oil change? Do they simply flush the leftover gunk or, like the oil “treatments,” cause more problems down the road?

  2. Engine “flush” products are somewhat of a different issue. Some of them work as advertised, others do not work as well. The question is more along the lines of: do you need them???

    If you are utilizing high quality oil and changing it per the manufacturer’s specs (usually 3000-5000 miles), then the crankcase flush products are a waste of money. On the other hand, if you are concerned about the amount of sludge in the engine or are planning on a radical shift in the type/viscosity of oil at the next change, you can try a flush product. Unfortunately, if you have a tremendous amount of sludge, but don’t use enough flush (like a small can from an auto parts store), you can also wind up dislodging sludge and getting it caught in the smaller oil passages (like a blood clot in the human body causing a stroke.)

    Oil change places (the quickie-lube types) always push these flushing services, but my humble opinion is that for most consumers, it’s not worth the money. If used correctly in an appropriate situation (dirty engine from thousands of short trips where operating temp was never achieved), however, the service can restore oil flow capabilities.

  3. Larry says:

    How about lucas products I always run Lucas synthetic and the lucas oil stabilizer synthetic also. I’ve always wondered if i’m wasting 15 bucks on the stabilizer additive especially since I need 5w20 and the additive is really thick stuff. but the site says the synthetic additive breaks down to match what ever oil it mixes to viscousity. That seems a little far fetched to though.

  4. Larry,
    I bought some Lucas oil stabilizer this summer to test it out. I specifically bought it, because after an oil change, my ’86 Dodge (with a 2.2L turbo engine) had a sticky valve lifter. I used a bit of the product, and the tick vanished.

    I also used the stabilizer when assembling the heads on a ’69 Dodge Polara. I figured that the consistency was perfect to ensure there was a lubricant on it for initial start up.

    I’m not sure if I would add it as a matter of routine. Maybe if you are drag racing or SCCA road racing, but for a street car, I cannot see much benefit if your oil is already working for you.

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