Not So Fast, Slick: Rethinking How Often to Change Your Oil


My first car was a ’68 Mustang, navy blue with a black vinyl top and a classic 289 engine. Everyone who saw it nodded knowingly, bestowing on me instant cool-car status (a critical antidote to teenage angst). It was in pretty good condition, too, previously owned by a little old lady (my grandma, who gave me the car when she stopped driving) and, as far as I was concerned, a whole lot hipper than the richer kids’ shiny new Trans Ams with those gaudy, behemoth eagles on the hood.

Yet despite my Detroit roots, that’s about all I could tell you about the thing. (When I open the hood of a vehicle I see what amounts to a small Jackson Pollack.) I did know how to change the oil, though. It was a simple, cheap and necessary operation, setting me back a few bucks for a couple cans of Penzoil.

But oil changes, like most car care, changed for me at some point after entering adulthood. Mainly this was because I stopped wanting to do anything resembling maintenance myself. Unfortunately, this leaves me at the mercy of The Man, who, for today’s purposes is my auto dealer/mechanic and, and a little further off in the background, the Oil Industry. (For the record, The Man can take many forms, such as my bank or my cell phone provider.)

With each new car I own, The Man (He/She/It) consistently tells me I should – nay, must – change my oil every 3,000-5,000 miles. (That’s more often than the old ‘Stang!) And that’s not all. At those intervals, which show up on my odometer every time I look at it, I also need all kinds of related fluid changes, new filters and other critical what not that sets me back a hundred-plus every time I even think about “regular” service. Jiffy Lubes et al aren’t much better, and in all cases I drive away with that gummy pseudo-sticker inside my windshield that makes sure that (literally in my face) I have a logo, a phone number and an admonition that evil things will happen to me if I don’t show up again at, say, 11,142 miles. (And not a mile later!) What it really says is “We’re really looking forward to seeing your checkbook again soon!”

Well, I get weird when I think I’m getting ripped off – especially by The Man – and I always suspected this oil game was a rip off. And Lo! And behold!: “Debunked: The 3000 Mile Oil Change Is a Myth.” This from CalRecycle, and noticed last week by the NYT, which cites Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor at car care site, as saying that a good average for oil changes these days would be somewhere between 7,500 and 10,000 miles – or more.

Turns out that it’s been years since any car has come off the line with an engine that requires an oil change every 3,000-5,000 miles. And it’s not that automakers are telling you go out and grease your skids so often. In fact, most manufacturers tell it like it is in your vehicle’s how-to book. However, your dealer and lube specialist are likely doing nothing to dispel you from coming in to their garages as often as possible. In fact, you know what? Let’s dispense with the diplo-talk and just say it: They tell you to come in more often than you need to so they can steal your money.

Take California for example, where, according to the CalRecycle site (, “research conducted by the California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) shows that nearly three-quarters of Californian drivers change their motor oil more often than automaker recommendations,” adding that “following the 3,000 mile myth generates millions of gallons of waste oil every year.”

Ah, The Man and his myths. Sad thing is, after a while we believe what we’re told. Says Reed (again from the NYT article): “3,000 miles strikes a deep chord with the consumer. It feels good to get an oil change. If you fill up the car with gas, wash it and change the oil, it runs better. Of course, it doesn’t. But it’s the perception.”

In traffic this morning, I gave this whole thing some thought. After revisiting my old Ford and its powerful but dirty old 1968 engine (man, for a moment there I was cool as could be), I looked around at all the shiny new post millennium cars screaming too fast down highway 101 heading into S.F. for the work day. Thousands of ’em. Thousands and thousands – and most all of them being bathed in, at best, twice the amount oil they need. Think about it in times-a-million-times-a-billion terms. Then follow the stream of used oil going into our waste systems. And then follow the money – right to The Man.

Image: therichbrooks

Scott Adelson

Scott Adelson is EcoSalon's Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at