Motor Oil Origins And Racing History

Ever heard of the names Alden Swan, Charles Finch, John Ellis, Charles Wakefield, Fritz Jenzer, Miguel Primo de Rivera y Orbaneja, or Leo Lake?

johann zarco motogp race action
Frenchman Johann Zarco has scored two MotoGP pole positions on his Motul-sponsored Monster Yamaha Tech3 machine in his rookie season.Courtesy of Monster Yamaha Tech3

Ever heard of the names Alden Swan, Charles Finch, John Ellis, Charles Wakefield, Fritz Jenzer, Miguel Primo de Rivera y Orbaneja, or Leo Lake? If you change your own oil or follow professional motorcycle racing, you’ll certainly recognize the companies they founded, respectively: Motul (1853), Valvoline (1873), Castrol (1899), Motorex (1917), Repsol (1927) and Yamalube (1967).


Based in Paris, France, Motul was established in New York in 1853, beginning with the whale-oil business, used for lanterns (remember your Moby Dick?). In 1919, the Swan Finch Company took over operations and expanded its lubricant business by exporting to Europe. In 1932, a French distributor bought out the Swan Finch Company, kept the Motul brand name, and moved the entire operation to France. In 1953 it introduced the world's first multi-grade oil; 13 years later it introduced semi-synthetic oil, and in 1971 launched the first 100-percent synthetic oil.

bruce anstey isle of man race action
Bruce Anstey powers the Valvoline-Padgett’s Yamaha YZR500 to 126.261 mph at the Isle of Man TT to break the two-stroke lap record in 2015.Courtesy of Valvoline-Padgett’s


The origins of motor oil can be traced back to 1866, when Dr. John Ellis failed to find medicinal value of the healing powers in crude oil (!) but discovered potential lubricating properties. Steam engines were driving the economy, lubricated by vegetable and animals fats combined with petroleum and gumming up the valves. Dr. Ellis made a breakthrough in his research and developed an oil suitable for high temperatures, a boon to steam engine owners and operators. Seven years later he renamed his company Valvoline.


In the early 1900s, automobiles, motorcycle, and airplanes were being developed in garages and workshops all around the world, and Charles Wakefield smelled a grand opportunity. The Industrial Revolution needed lubrication, he understood, and so will motorized contraptions! With this understanding, Wakefield’s researchers devised a mixture of a vegetable oil from castor beans, and, voilà!, Castrol was born.

Recently LCR Honda MotoGP racer Cal Crutchlow raced in throwback Castrol livery to celebrate the company's involvement with motorsport sponsorship.


Motorex began as a Swiss chemical production company under Fritz Jenzer in 1917, but didn't enter the lubricant business until 1947. Motorcycle lubricants were introduced in 1987. Today the company supports the new Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team of Pol Espargaró and Bradley Smith, in addition to the burgeoning Red Bull KTM Ajo Moto2 and Moto3 teams.


In 1927, the Compañía Arrendataria del Monopolio de Petróleos (Petrol Monopoly Leasing Company) was established, with the goal of intensifying the progress of the Spanish refinery industry. In 1968, REPESA—as the company was known—started to develop a GP sponsorship plan, eventually leading to the development of the powerful Repsol Honda team. In 1971 Spaniard Angel Nieto won the 125cc GP world championship flying the Repsol logo on his bike. Thirteen GP titles have been won for Repsol Honda by Mick Doohan, Àlex Crivillé, Valentino Rossi, Nicky Hayden, Casey Stoner, and Marc Marquez from 1995 to 2016.


Yamaha International Corporation's national service manager Leo Lake took notice of several service issues stemming from poor off-the-shelf lubricants in the early 1960s and was determined to find a reliable, durable, and dependable solution to assist powersports retailers and customers. For two years Lake tested hundreds of combinations and in 1967 introduced Yamalube, used by Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales of the Movistar Yamaha MotoGP team.