In the Beginning
Every company has a beginning. Before Torco, there was Bob Lancaster—the inventor of the first 20W-50 racing oil. He made this free flowing SAE 50 motor oil in 1948—long before the Society of Automotive Engineers identified this viscosity grade as SAE 20W-50.
This oil was custom made for use in an Ariel Square Four motorcycle owned by Lancaster’s brother-in-law, Gus Johnson, a competitive rider who raced motorcycles at El Mirage Dry Lake in the late 1940s. And like other racers of that time, he soon discovered that stock motor oils weren’t good enough for modified racing engines.The stress of high speed in a hot running engine, cooled only by hot desert air, caused ordinary motor oil to become sizzling hot and extremely thin. Johnson noticed excessive wear throughout the engine as he worked at replacing badly worn parts. He showed Lancaster the parts that had failed and that was the beginning.
Bob Lancaster learned how to make lubricants from his father, Bill Lancaster, and his father’s business partner, Jim Wolford. They had learned the tricks of the trade while employed by Texaco. Motor oils of that day were single grade mineral oils with a strong preference towards paraffin-based blending stocks. The best of these were 100% pure Pennsylvania oils that were supposed to be the world’s finest. Lancaster, however, had different thoughts after looking inside the engine of his brother-in-law’s motorcycle. He knew his father purchased tank-car loads of Pennsylvania oil from Freedom Oil Company (Valvoline) and Tidewater (Tydol) for blending premium motor oils. The sticky deposits on engine parts and the hard carbon build-up on pistons, valves, and heads told him there was something that needed to be changed. But even more serious, were the poor lubrication and excessive wear that took place under racing conditions.
Racers used SAE 50 motor oil because it maintained oil pressure at high temperature. The oil industry used bright stock to make SAE 50 motor oils. Lancaster wanted to eliminate the use of bright stock and take a different approach in making SAE 50 motor oil. He contacted Enjay Chemical for a sample of polymer they recommended for increasing the high temperature viscosity of low viscosity base oil. He chose a highly refined SAE 20 base oil that bordered the viscosity of SAE 30, and boosted its viscosity high into the SAE 50 range, with the Enjay polymer. The treated oil was clean and clear to look at, and slippery. Lancaster had been warned that highly refine-based oils were inferior lubricants because over refining removed the components that cause natural oiliness. He would, however, find a way to improve lubrication by adding anti-wear additives. Lancaster had contacted Monsanto Chemical for samples of their oil soluble zinc anti-wear additives. He received two types: alkyl and aryl dithiophosphate. Since the alkyl variety offered a higher degree of wear protection and the aryl variety offered more effective protection against oil oxidation (thermal breakdown), he decided to use both. The result in 1948 was 20W-50 racing oil. It was such a success in Gus Johnson’s Ariel Square Four motorcycle engine that other racers wanted it. Hot rod owners wanted it. So did the owners of midgets, sprint cars and racing boats. It was a winner without a brand name.
Torco is the Name
After two years of supplying his 20W-50 racing oil to owners of all kinds of race cars, Lancaster’s company ordered him to stop making it. At the suggestion of his father, Lancaster started his own company in 1950 to manufacture his racing oil under the Torco name. That was the beginning of a legend. During the 1950s, Torco gained a reputation for being a superior lubricant because it supplied what the racer wanted: better lubrication, better cooling, better sealing, less carbon and sludge deposits, better wear protection, and a boost in horsepower by reducing friction. Known then as Torco V-Bloc 50 (SAE 20W-50 was not yet a recognized viscosity grade) this unique SAE 50 looked thinner than other SAE 50 oils because of its clear, pale yellow color. However, it was actually a higher viscosity than the other SAE 50 oils and was closer to an SAE 60.
Racers discovered extra power when they compared Torco with other brands, and their engines ran cooler. World speed records at Bonneville were set using Torco oil. Boat racers found less alcohol dilution from fuel wash when they cranked their engines for warm up before a race.
One of the first racers to discover that his engine ran cooler with Torco was Bob Clawson, in his midget driven by Johnny Moorhouse, in the Torco V-Bloc Motor Oil Special.
When drag racing moved from the dry lakes and streets to the Santa Ana Airport, Torco was there. When drag racing began at the Pomona Fair Grounds, Torco was there. When nitro became a factor in drag racing fuel, Torco was there. But now Lancaster had to face a new challenge. His V-Bloc 50 racing oil formula failed to protect a nitro engine from “black death”. It was Gary Cagle who showed Lancaster the scored pistons and cylinders from his nitro motor.
Chief mechanic Howard Gilbert, who prepared cars for Indy winners Sam Hanks and Jimmy Bryan, showed Lancaster how “black death” appeared on pistons used during qualifying runs at the Indy 500. To prevent piston galling when alcohol was spiked with nitro during qualifying, Gilbert inserted Teflon buttons into the piston skirts. The buttons would only survive the warm up laps and four qualifying laps—otherwise “black death” would destroy the engine.
When Keith Black switched one of his drag boat engines to a dragster, he encountered piston galling for the first time. Again Lancaster had to face this reality—his V-Bloc 50 racing oil could not prevent “black death”. Racers who used nitro hadn’t found a solution for piston galling, but Keith Black wouldn’t accept that and asked Lancaster to find a cure. The first attempt was to put a nitro soluble lubricant in the fuel. It didn’t work and the engine belched a cloud of smoke.Next, Lancaster began a search for an oil soluble material that nitro could not wash off cylinders and pistons. He found an additive and treated his racing oil with it. Then he heated a thick piece of aluminum sheet metal, sprayed it with oil, and then attempted to wash off the hot oil with a high pressure spray gun filled with nitro. The oil film survived the washing, so he prepared a test formula with a viscosity of SAE 60 and delivered it to Keith Black. Rod Stuckey, a drag racer from Kansas City, had just arrived at Keith Black’s engine shop with a new dragster ready to install a KB engine. The car was towed to Lodi, CA for a drag race using Lancaster’s new nitro blend racing oil. The engine survived each race and Stuckey won the final round. No engine had ever run so consistently on a full charge of nitro. Only a few people saw the pistons that came out of Stuckey’s engine, but they looked like new. The morning after the Lodi race, Lancaster received a call from Florida. It was Art Malone and he wanted to get some of this new racing oil.
Malone was headed for California to run tire tests for M&H Racing Tires at San Gabriel drag strip. He knew his engine would not survive on the oil he was using and wanted to try Torco. Shortly after the Lodi experience, Tom Greer bought a new full-bodied dragster, powered with a KB engine, and put Don Prudhomme in the driver’s seat. This famous orange car—The Greer, Black and Prudhomme dragster—became a field testing laboratory for Bob Lancaster who continued to prove the reliability of his nitro blend racing oil.
By the mid-1960s, Torco had made its mark in drag racing—in both cars and boats. But now the giants wanted into the game. Pennzoil, Valvoline, Quaker State and the big oil companies wanted the exposure that drag racing offered. They also had the bank roll to buy any drag racing superstar they wanted to sponsor. One by one, drag racing’s big names found an oil sponsor who also paid them cash to buy engine parts. Don Garlits was the first to switch and Don Prudhomme, who was driving Roland Leong’s Hawaiian Dragster, was the last to switch. This left Torco with a lot of racers, but the top cars and drivers were gone.Lancaster was convinced that his original 20W-50 racing oil was the best motorcycle oil ever made. So he switched emphasis from cars and boats to motorcycles and went after Honda dealers who were opening new shops all across America. He selected the San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose areas as a test market and Torco was accepted very quickly. Torco’s SAE 60 racing oil found a new home in the Harley shops and Torco soon became the leading motorcycle oil brand, west of the Rockies.The motorcycle industry had reached its peak in 1972, and the 1973 oil crisis caused a downward trend in motorcycle sales. Hundreds of motorcycle dealers were going out of business every month, so Lancaster went overseas to Taiwan, Thailand, and Indonesia, to find new markets for his motorcycle oils.
The Uncertain 1970s
With energy saving on everyone’s mind, Lancaster explored the potential of energy saving lubricants. He discovered that liquid moly and phosphorus helped an engine put out more horsepower by reducing friction. In combination with zinc, these additives also gave outstanding protection against wear. The combination was called MPZ and it was used in Torco’s racing oils to reduce friction and prevent wear. MPZ set Torco apart from all other oils used in racing engines. When the second oil crisis began in 1978 and continued into the 1980s, Lancaster made plans to sell the Torco company. He found a buyer, sold out in 1981 and retired. In 1984, he returned to Torco as a consultant and continued the development of new racing oils for engines, transmissions, and differentials.
Torco Back under Lancaster Leadership
On March 15, 1990, Lancaster and his business partner Ned Tanson regained the ownership of Torco. For ten years Lancaster watched from the sideline, seeing acceptance for his smokeless 2-cycle oil grow in the overseas market. He saw Torco MPZ racing oils take on new life as racers discovered the benefits of his technology. Lancaster wanted to continue sharing his 42 years of lubrication experience with consumers who wanted the best oil and with dealers and distributors who wanted to sell the best oil. Lancaster carried the same passion and philosophy he had in the beginning. You don’t have to be big to be good at what you do. But you do have to be better than the rest—otherwise, who needs you!
Today, Torco is still what it is…a specialty company that makes special oils for racing engines, transmissions, and differentials. Our purpose is to replace lubricants that don’t perform well under racing conditions with lubricants that do perform well. Racers have discovered that mass produced stock motor oils, transmission oils, and gear oils often fail under the stress of racing conditions. Racing engines, transmissions, and axles are engineered and designed for racing. They are expensive to build and cost a bundle to rebuild. That’s why we got into the business of turning lubricant failure into success for racers who need extra protection for their equipment.
The end of a Legacy Bob Lancaster
1922 – 2002 “Mr Torco”
Bob Lancaster passed away peacefully on May 19, 2002 at 80 years of age. Bob Lancaster played an integral part in the progression of lubrication technologies and was considered by many to be one of the industry’s leading engineers. He was a member of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers (STLE), for more than 40 years. During his career, he invented countless lubrication technologies to solve oil related failures in a wide range of racing and industrial applications. A devoted Christian, avid outdoorsman, and family man, Lancaster was born on January 19, 1922. Married for 58 years, he is survived by his wife, Connie, sons Rob, Dan, Steve and Ned, 9 grandchildren and 7 great grandchildren.
Racing into the Future
All of Torco’s products are made using the same philosophies and passion that Bob Lancaster possessed throughout his 55 years of lubrication engineering. His eldest son, Rob Lancaster, is the lead engineer and head of the research and development department at Torco, today. Rob has more than 30 years experience and continues his father’s legacy in developing the world’s best products. And that is Torco’s promise to you, to continue offering the most advanced and best performing products, anywhere today.