Oil types and weights

Capt. Mike

Reposted from archives

Responding to a question on whether synthetics were worth the extra money . . .

10/3/98 (9:44 PM)

OK, my best source on oils, a now-retired Texaco Lubricants Division trouble-shooting specialist, says synthetics aren't worth the extra money in normal auto use, regular climates. I'm sure there are some improvements, and I no longer condemn "fake oil" as being mostly marketing hype. It has its uses, but again, limited in everyday car applications. As he said, "Hell, we don’t recommend it and we make it!"

First, oil's limiting factor is the additive package. That includes the viscosity improvers to get thinner oil to protect like thicker base oil, and cling characteristics to prevent it from draining off parts completely (start-up protection). The additive packages for both oils are pretty much the same, so their limits (miles between changes) are about the same. Notice VW has not given a green light for extending oil changes because of synthetics. And if you look on the label, you'll still see the same API specifications on synthetics as regular.

Three combustion by-products unrelated to oil type are acidity, moisture/condensation and particulates. Acidity is the big limiting factor. The additives can only neutralize so much. Particulates are dependent on filtering and the detergent additive's ability to keep it suspended until it reaches the filter. Although most engines operate much hotter now, not all run hot enough to get the oil past 212F. Not usually a problem with VW's, but my Cummins diesel rarely breaks 180F. Same is true in short run driving. Moisture won't boil off, so again I need the additive help.

This is why, especially in the "heavy duty" area 98% of all Westies fall into, that the 3,000 mile oil changes are necessary. Push that, and additives may diminish or fail. The engine won't stop on you, but you're adding varnishing (particularly in Pennsylvania and mid-east crudes that have a high paraffin content); possibility of acid etching; increasing filter load (maybe to the point of tripping the bypass); and other engine wear factors. Synthetics’ advantages are, as a premium priced oil, they will have the best of additive packages, though I’m sure all premium petroleum oils do, too. Quality theoretically should be slightly more consistent as the manufactured base isn't subject to the variations of crudes. Synthetics seems to have an inherent "cling" advantage. They can definitely provide better protection at overheated temperatures (the usual infomercial style ad). Because most synthetics are thinner (base viscosity) oils that get their extended viscosity protection, the upper & lower ends, by their better cling and overheat protection, they are superior in real cold weather.

Synthetics have been around for years. They were used in the airplane and Arctic equipment before the Big One, but never marketed for cars because the costs versus gains weren't (aren't) there. Until the yuppies started throwing extra money at their Bimmers as a status symbol, nobody bought it. Now, how much they spend on a service seems to be a status symbol!

Notice, very few manufacturer's use synthetics for factory fill. Bear in mind that the worst 300 miles of an engine's life are its first 300. If synthetics reduced warranty repairs, you bet they would use them; the cost at factory quantity prices is negligible in the overall warranty cycle of a new car. Porsche is the only manufacturer I know that uses synthetics in new cars, and Mobil 1 pumps millions into their race budget. When Shell was sponsor, there were "Shell Factory Fill" stickers on new cars (my '69 has one); later you saw Sunoco (Penske Racing), Gulf Oil (Gulf-Weyer 917s) or whoever would drop the big sponsor bucks getting promoted as Porsche's oil. $30 difference on a $60K car isn't a factor if it gets sponsorship. Conversely, factory-fill status on a Porsche will sell a lot more quarts than factory fill on a Pinto. Browse the decals on your favorite NASCAR or Indy racer. Where money is absolutely no object for oil, what do they use? I bet there aren't half-dozen synthetics in the field. The factory race team I worked with for a year (four 24-hr. Daytona class wins in a row) did not use synthetic in either regular or rotary engines. Engine man (team owner retired) still doesn't, and his engines dominate several boat racing classes and hold a host of world records.

I think the big reason synthetics are now getting play and manufacturers' blessings is the tendency to go to thinner oils for fuel economy. Hundredths of a mpg, not important to us, are BIG numbers to manufacturers trying to get CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) numbers up. With big vans & SUVs sucking the fuel down, they face $millions in fines. A 5W-30 will get better mpg than 10W40!

One area where I would tentatively recommend synthetics is in turbocharged engines. The turbo operates at exhaust temperature. My Cummins exhaust reaches 5-600F, but I hear 1,000F is common on big rigs and high performance gas engines. When you stop the engine, the lube supply stops too. The oil left in the turbo can cook-off. There, synthetics have a distinct advantage. My Cummins manual says to allow the engine to idle 3-5 minutes before shutting down. I have a pyrometer gauge, so I idle until it drops to 300F before I shut off. Most turbo cars don't have gauges, and most drivers don't have the patience to let them idle down, so a synthetic might be a good idea for the impatient. I use Shell Rotella-T and do idle down, so won't switch. At three gallons every 3,000 miles that would add up!

I do intend to use synthetic manual transmission oil in my '96 Dodge 4x4 truck. The manual specifies it and I've got a 100,000 mile warranty. Although they don't require any changes, I've never believed in "lifetime" fluids, and will change every 36K. At the first change I bought factory fluid (Dodge list, $19.95 per quart!!!). Guess what it is? 75W/85 GL-4! Not even GL-5, which superseded Gl-4 over 20 years ago by adding an impact additive. The reason for synthetic is cling characteristics. There's apparently a bearing back in the case that doesn't get lube right away at start. One dealer chain I know uses Mobil 1 anyway, though Mobile engineers say their transmission oil doesn't meet the specs (European Castrol Syn-Torq LT is the OEM supplier) because of a patent protected additive package, not because of any inherent superiority. No OE fluid = no warranty. So I'll use it through 100K, then change to something a little more reasonable, cost-wise. I expect to stay with synthetic because of that bearing, just not Dodge brand.

Dana, the big axle manufacturers, makes the axles for the big Dodge trucks and most 18 wheelers. They use standard 90W GL-5, but recommend 12K changes if towing. Dodge suggests "considering synthetics" for HD towing use. Still, no factory fill, and they're only a quart each. The Dana limited slips do require an additional additive, Kendall P/N 505-7478. Most limited slips, VW included, don't require the additive, but GL-5 does contain the necessary impact additive for most users.

One disadvantage of synthetics, that VWs are particularly prone to, is leaks. VWs, with metal-to-metal case seams, will leak to one degree or another. Mostly the other; "Sieve"; comes to mind after a while. Being generally thinner, synthetics will find every little leak and turn them into big ones. Even gasketed seals seem to leak more. I've a number of friends that use my shop or I help, and I've seen them change to synthetics only to incur leaks at an alarming rate. Not scientific research, to be sure, but in a couple of instances, the leaks returned to normal after switching back.

One thing I would not do is mix oils. Oil additive packages can do erratic things if mixed. With a mix, you may not get enough of one additive or another to give minimum protection. Additive packages are not necessarily cumulative, and could interact. There are semi-synthetic factory blends, but I strongly advise against home brews. The two oils you mix may have very different bases, using different additives to achieve similar protection. Again, the additives in one may react on the other's different base detrimentally. Although VW says mixing viscosity is OK, I don't even recommend mixing brands of the same type & weight oil, for the same reasons. I'm sure half a quart of Castrol in a Shell filled engine won't do harm, but my lube engineer cautions minor "topping off" is about the only allowable mixing.

Note that every manufacturer, VW included, recommend "more frequent oil changes in heavy service." When you investigate heavy service, you find it includes everything we do with a Westy. Around town driving, high speed, mountain, cold weather, heavy loads, towing, dirty or dusty conditions. Come to think of it, that's ALL my driving! And I'll wager most of yours. So the 7,500 mile changes in the Westy maintenance book never happen. Stick to the 3,000 miles, with filter!

To the original questioner from Chicago: I really think 10W-30 or 10W-40 will serve well in Chicago. It's rated down below 0F and brief dips below that shouldn't hurt, especially with a gentle start up. A steady diet of 5W-30 worries me in that its upper recommended limit is only about 20F. And VW cautions against high speed runs or extended use too far out of range on 5W-30. 10W-30 has an upper limit of about 60F, so I don't think I'd like that in the summer where average temps are in the 70s or 80s. Likewise, 20W-50 is great for NC or further south summers and even the worst couple months of Chicago summers. I've used it myself in the past but I now have a mixed fleet so use Shell Rotella-T 15W-40 in everything. I'd probably want a 20W-50 in the desert, extreme south and southwest. It basically boils down to READ your owner's manual and use an oil within the operating ranges of your area.

While on the subject of oils, I will mention additives only briefly: Don't! VW does not recommend additives and for good reason. Any additive is liable to upset the very delicate balance of base weight and additives in the regular oil. STP is nothing more than a thick, viscosity improver. Thicker oil means less consumption; also less protection at start up, and putting your oil completely outside intended range. Use the right weight oil instead of trying to thicken it up.

A real Madison Ave. job was Slick-50 with Teflon. "Coats the metal." Yep, and also every pipe, passage and pump part, too. I don't care what they say, you can't permanently coat the inside of a thousand plus degree engine cylinder, with razor sharp scraping piston rings. So when you repeat the treatment, (which they recommend even though it's permanent!?!), you add another coat to the oil passages and non-wear parts. Pretty soon it builds up enough to reduce or block passage. Heavier build-ups could break free and clog filters or add particulates to the oil.

Another super-additive on the late-night infomercial channels lately is Prolong. Consumer reports recently ran a test of this product (Oct 98). Both treated and untreated engines failed within 13 minutes and 5 miles, both at the same time. The FTC has recently cracked down on other additive makers' false claims, and have been advised about Prolong.

Most oils contain excellent detergents. Additives to "clean" your engine, remove sludge, etc., aren't necessary. Even a gummed up engine will respond some to several frequent changes of a premium oil. And, unlike additives, oil holds the dirt in suspension until it reaches the filter. Additives would only break it loose, perhaps in chunks bigger than you want.

The net result is that oil and car companies, with billion dollar research budgets, are producing products that do all you want out of your oil at reasonable prices. Quit wasting your money on magic cures in a bottle and start spending it on quality oil, filters and regular changes.

Capt. Mike

10/15/98 (10:08 PM)

I've been taken to task that my Oil tip is wrong because one or another reader 'knows' of some report or study that "proves" synthetics are superior.

First I apologize if my tip looks like an anti-synthetic tirade. It was not meant to. I was trying to clear up dozens of weight and API classification questions I have received outside the site.

I also wanted to be sure Westy owners understand "Heavy Duty" is really everyday use for the vast majority of Westy owners. Thus the extended change intervals marketing types espouse don't exist for typical Westy owners, who are usually found flogging their underpowered, overloaded box over some uncharted mountain pass to the embarrassment of Jeeps and billy goats.

In this case I unfortunately edited and touched up a past answer to someone on whether synthetics were worth the extra money, and it came out like I'm anti-synthetic. I'm not!

I concur modern premium synthetics from the major producers like Shell, Mobil 1 or Castrol, are indeed superior in some respects to petroleum oils. But I also contend that, since not yet approved for extended service intervals by VW, and not offering major performance improvements under NORMAL conditions, they are not worth their much higher cost. Is a Rolls Royce REALLY a $200,000 better car than a Lincoln? I don't think so. Likewise, is synthetic oil really 3-400% better than standard?

I support those who use synthetics in unusual or harsh conditions. I too go for quality, damn the cost, on many things automotive. So I understand and accept some will choose synthetics, regardless of cost, as worthwhile for the incremental improvement. Worth is in the eye of the buyer. But thanks for keeping me on my toes, guys.
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Capt. Mike

5/12/00 (9:26 PM)

Posted elsewhere on this site is a warning not to use GL-5 in a GL-4 tranny. It references a Pennzoil post indicating incompatibility of their GL-5 with GL-4. I've also posted my sources where it is compatible. I'll therefore revise my recommendation of transmission fluid to read GL-4 or GL-5 as recommended, or using a GL-5 that is specifically marked as compatible in GL-4 service. It appears there are those GL-5 products that supercede GL-3 & GL-4, while some make products that are GL-5 only and NOT recommended for GL-4 service. So read your labels &/or tech specs.

Thanks to k1cajun for his research.
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Capt. Mike

Synthetic update:

A good friend is a true convert to synthetic oil so we have some lively debates over the subject. He recently brought me a copy of Patrick Bedard's article, Synthetic motor oil gets all new semantics.

It's long so I'll see if I can condense to a sound byte or two. He starts by saying the meaning of "is" has gotten so slippery (from Slick Willy's use) that we have to keep an eye on longer words, too. One is 'synthetic' as in synthetic motor oil.

Most of us knew 2 things -- the price is 3-4x regular oil; and they're not real oil, not made from crude. Scratch the second part. The National Advertising Division of the BBB has OK'd using 'synthetic' on crude based oils. Naturally at the request of the synthetic industry.

The concept behind crude is simple. Crude is refined, massaged and modified to create a cocktail of hydrocarbons for a base stock. Then the additive packages are brewed in. Since crude varies considerably, it takes a major rebuilding for every batch.

By using a made-from-scrath-in-the-lab polyaphaolefin (PAO) base, one could consistently create the desired cocktail.

So here's the news flash. They ad folks have approved using a "hyrdroisomerized" crude, which has "properties SIMILAR to PAOs but cost only half as much." Did you hear the crash as the synthetic oil prices dropped at your local parts store? Me, neither!

Bedard, who is a highly respected automotive journalist, goes on to point out the manufacturers still spec only two things in your motor oil. Viscosity (weight) and service grade, API SM being the current for gasoline cars. $2-a-quart regulars meets these standards, as do the synthetics. And no manufacturer authorizes extended service intervals yet.

He does point out synthetics do get one unambigous endorsement: Corvettes, Porsches & Vipers all come with Mobile 1 as factory fill. Wait a minute. Don't Corvette, Porsche & Vipers get mega buck race sponsorship from Mobil 1? IS that an endorsement? Or marketing? We'll check with Clinton's lawyers and get back to you.

Before you start another round of "Oh, he's synthetic-bashing again," it's fine oil, has it's place, I use some and even recommend it in some circumstances. But ever since Slick Willy remanufactured the word "is" I have trouble with people who use words like "synthetic" that aren't and businesses that 'cut our cost in half, but not your price.' Heck, I'm still trying to figure out why $20 a quart synthetic with a MoPar label -- with exactly the same spec numbers on the bottle -- meets warranty requirements but Mobil 1 doesn't.
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Oil comments - if you don't drive your Westy much then regular oil is just fine. If you put a lot of miles on your Westy then synthetics do have an added benefit. The "Viscosity" rating of synthetics is an "Equivalent" to normal oil - the actual viscosity is much lighter. Take a can of 10-30 regular and 10-30 synthetic and put it in your freezer for a day. Then try to pour both. The synthetic behaves as if it is still warm, the regular oil oozes out like slime. The synthetics provide better cold start lubrication in winter climates and also give you about 1-2 MPG better gas mileage as the workload on the oil pump is less. If you live in CA or such then regular oil is fine. If you live in places where you see extreme heat or cold then synthetics are better. What's an extra $35 per year in added prevention? Change it just as frequently as regular oil, and change the filter each time too.
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Capt. Mike

Responding to a question, "Which weight oil."

The answer is posted above. Use the oil appropriate to the vehicle type & temperatures you are operating in. You have a chart in both your owners manual (better chart) & the Bentley, page 17.8 for Vanagons, with oil weights compared to temperatures ranges. There is no perfect weight for all vehicles in all climates. There are also cautions to consider if using a weight far outside its intended range.

Per the owners manual, ". . . brief variations in outside temperatures are no cause for alarm." However, in bold, they also point out:

When using SAE 10W or SAE5W-20 or SAE 5W-30 engine oil, avoid high speed long distance driving if outside temperature rises above the indicated limits.

Obviously, straight weights have less range than multi-weights.

There is a copy of the Vanagon recommended oil weight vs. temperature chart posted on the pics link, tech drawings folder. The chart with for '68-'79 Type II in the Bentley (Section 9-2, Table a) appears similar.

Warning: The chart for the Eurovans (Bentley Section A-36) is considerably different. It includes oils not in the Vanagon chart AND specifies operating ranges considerably different than the Type II & Vanagon engines. Spot checks of two other manufacturer's also show variations. Consult your owners manual and use only an oil specified there!


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Capt. Mike

Transferred to consolidate same topic.

Oil Additive

Doug Champagne Junior Member # 3730 posted 04-10-2002 04:28 AM

I want to add IXL, an oil additive, after my next change. I have an '87 Westy with 65,000 miles. Has anyone any experience with this product? Cheers!

Capt. Mike

See above; most additives are a waste of money and many do more harm than good. Spend your money on a premium oil, frequent changes and OEM filters.

IXL is a chlorinated product that contains heavy concentrates of zinc. Chlorinated products, mixed with oil or moisture and heat, create hydrochloric acid, deadly to aluminum. Zinc, used in very small amounts in most motor oils is an anti-friction material but excessive amounts attach to ferrous metals and could then break loose as clumps or clog passages/screens.
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Capt. Mike

API service classifications

To expand on API service classifications: API (American Petroleum Institute) service classifications are on each bottle in a circular logo. They'll usually say "API Service (letters)" across the top arc and the service weight (i.e. 15W-40) in the center. There will also be some statment on the label as to "Meets requirements of API (letters)." There have been fake and fascimiles found on 'store brand' and unknows. I've seen recycled oil without proper API certification.

Viscosity improvers didn't become popular and suitablly for air-cooled engines until the early '70s with API-SD. Manuals for older VW's will specify a straight weight. It is acceptable (preferable?) to use new, current API multiweight in an older engine. The weight rating, such as 15W/40 gives two important figures. The first weight is the winter (W) viscosity for cold oil at 0°C, 15 winter weight in our example is good for about -15°C. Since oil thins with temperature, the second weight is the rating 40 weight for 100°C, a typical operating temperature. The oil "protects like" that weight at 100°C which is suitable for air temps to 30°C. These new multiweights may not have the thickness to the eye or pour as old 40 straight weight, but will offer that protection. We want an oil thin enough to circulate and protect at freezing temperatures of a cold engine, but still protect at full operating temperatures. All can operate a bit out of range without concern, though manuals often caution not to operative low weight oils at high temps for long periods. The oil is in the engine so that temperature is the controlling factor more than air temperature. An old splittie manual will call for straight weight oils appropriate to temperature and even warn against multiweights. That is because the multiweights back then were not really suitable for the VW air-cooled operating temps (The viscosity improvers could get 'fooled' because VW engines had different hot spots.) and were much more expensive back then. Both of those deficiencies are no longer applicable.

The advent of turbos in diesels called for improved oil. API-CD was the first to satisfy those requirements. Turbos place extreme demands on oil, so one should always use the best available. Turbos are cooled by the oil flow; when the engine stops, so does the oil flow. Thus if the temperature in the turbo is 500°F when you stop the engine, the oil in the turbo bearings can heat to that and cook (sludge/varnish). That's why turbos always say to let the engine idle and cool some before shutting down. API CG-4 was the first to address low sulpher fuels.

I haven't heard the arguements for HD (Heavy Duty) or non-detergent oils for some time and just as well. Almost all oils of premium brands are what was back then called HD. They had better additive packages and now those packages are standard. Detergent oils mean they have additives to hold particulates in suspension until hitting the filter. I try to think of any scenario where we would want the oil to leave particulates, sludge or varnish in the engine, but it escapes me. If you find a can of non-detergent oil in the barn, use it to . . . well now that you aren't suppose to spray a dirt road to hold down dust, I can't think of any uses. Maybe an oil-bath air cleaner and squeeky barn door hinges.

The current top API ratings for gasoline engine oils is SM. Anything before SJ is obsolete. Use of older spec oils in a new vehicle may cause damage, so finding a stash of old oil may not be a bargain. See the comments in the below API link.

The current top rating for diesel engines is CJ-4 but here we run into an anomoly. CG was the first to address the low sulpher fuels in current use. Thus at this API rating & above, it replaces all before and handles the current highway fuel at the pumps. CF was designated for high-sulpher fuel but that is restricted to off-road use only so doesn't apply to any Westies. CJ-4 is designated for the Ultra Low Sulpher Fuels and though exceeds previous classifications, may require different service intervals for older engines. [I would suspect it wouldn't allow the extended oil change intervals coming into use on new engines since it doesn't have to handle the higher sulpher acidity in those engines.]


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Mike Robinson

New member
I have used Rotella 15/40 for years and I am looking to change to a synthetic Rotella (Rotella Synthetic Blend 0/40 or Rotella Synthetic 5/40) as I have installed a 1.9 Turbo Diesel and I am planning to use it this winter (in Canada)

Any comments?


Capt. Mike

I'd probably be hesitant on the synthetic blend version, if only because Shell's own recommendation is MOST diesel and MANY gas. Sounds like they have exceptions. What & Why? They also highlight it is for severe over-the-road diesels operating at high engine temps, yet in exceptional low outside temps. My last reservation -- and Shell's web site doesn't list the viscosities available -- is that the lower the base, in your case 0W -- means a thinner oil. That's probably fine in all the new, tighter engines, but the older VW probably would lose some oil pressure as a result.

I don't have any problem with the all synthetic Rotella-T 5W-40 in cooler climates in the Westy 1.9 liter diesel. See the 5 Feb 2001 post above. However, also bear in mind the VW warning posted above 10 Jan 2002, though to a lesser degree with a true synthetic. Shell now has an improved version to address 2007> low-sulfur engines called "Rotella-T with Triple Protection®". I'm sure it's suitable for older engines. Have you seen the neat new gallon jugs it comes in?

Shell's web site FAQ sections says their 5W-40 Synthetic does NOT meet VW's #505.01 spec for 2004> engines, but is expected to by late this year. However, I'm sure you're aware, Quaker State & Pennzoil are Shell brands now and Quaker State has a synthetic that does.

Update 9/1/07: I finally found a Shell Lubricant report on Shell's Synthetic Blend. It comes in 4 viscosities, 0W-30, 5W-30; 0W-40 & 10W-40. Depending on viscosity, each meets different API standards, but none meet the latest diesel CJ-4. The 0W-40 only meets CG-4, about 3 levels behind. Some meet SJ for gas engines, which is about 2 levels below the current SM. All of these exceed the requirements for the original Westy diesel engine, but are not the current 'state of the art'. That doesn't mean they are not good oils, just that higher API ratings are available. I'll withdraw my hesitancy for Westy diesels if you need the lower 0W or 5W, but remind you of VW's caution that these viscosities of 5W and below are not for extended use or higher temperatures.

Update 12/29/08: From Shell Technical -- Dear Sir,
We do not currently have a Rotella product which meets the VW 505.01 specification. I believe we have a product in Quaker State that meets that specification. They can be contacted at 1-800-237-8645.
Best Regards,
Shell Technical
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New member
Oil and ZDDP (Zinc Dithiophosphate)

89 Vanagon Westfailia, 2.1 L engine, 1100 Miles on rebuild

I have a question regarding engine oil and and the additive ZDDP (Zinc Dithiophosphate). I was told recently by a VW mechanic that the ZDDP additive has been removed from engine oil due to EPA concerns over catalytic converter life. He explained that the reported downside has been damage to camshift and lifters in older engine designs due to improper lubrication. He suggested that I check with my mechanic to see if used an oil type that still contaains ZDDP (e.g. racing oils) or if he used a ZDDP additive at the intial post re-build oil change.

Can you shed any light on this issue? There also seems to be a lot of information on the web supporting this concern.

As always, thanks in advance for the help you provide. It is much appreciated.

Capt. Mike

:( Answered above page 1, 4/10/02, post #8.

There is absolutely NO reason to use any additive to add zinc in a modern oil. First, your Westy isn't an "older engine." It's modern technology with hardened valves & seats, cams & hydraulic lifters and most other modern technology. Second, a rebuilder worth anything would have updated to this modern technology during any competent rebuild.

Break-in oil used to be used to help an engine bed and flush. It was often a little thinner and might contain a moisture absorbant along with increased particulate suspension. That is no longer required! Break-in oil was not due to any need to coat or otherwise 'treat' the engine. You notice there is no such recommendation in the factory shop manual. A VW factory mechanic should know that. Modern oils do fine. We recommend you change oil & filter at 3-600 miles to trap any debris or contaminates that might have got into the engine during the rebuild. This was a VW recommendation many, many years ago but not for gas engines of the Vanagon era and newer. Many new cars do not even call for a break-in oil change. Modern oils contain all the additives you need and exceed any Westy requirements. Use a name-brand, multi-wieght oil of API service grade SM appropriate to your climate.

Having worked with a factory race team at one time, I can assure you they DID NOT use any zinc additive, but just a premium brand oil. It was not a "race" oil -- if there is such a thing -- but a premium name brand off-the-shelf. And they built to specs far tighter than VW factory. Must have known what they were doing -- four 24 Hours of Daytona class wins in a row. That engine builder is still in business and has a number of world, track & class records on his engines. There is no magic-in-a-bottle in his shop.
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