Castrol's 75th Anniversary

The Editor looks at some of the Many Frames which have embellished the “Masterpiece in Oils”

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of C. C. Wakefield & Company, suppliers of the famous Castrol lubricating oils. I have been asked to write something appropriate to the occasion which I am very glad to do, because ever since I began to own and drive cars, which is longer ago than I care to specify, I have used Castrol oils almost exclusively, for a very good reason, and have derived complete satisfaction and reliable service from them. So to embark on this short discourse about a Company not only famous for its lubricants but for the substantial financial assistance its creator, the late Viscount Wakefield of Hythe, gave to record-breakers and competitors on land, on water and in the air, is a pleasurable task, on which I have embarked without waiting for the Press hand-outs which must be inevitable on an auspicious occasion such as this—which is by way of asking for forgiveness in advance for any errors I may perpetrate.

One reason why Castrol is both a great name in present-day motoring and one clearly remembered by the nostalgic is because of the splendid pungent smell of burnt Castrol “R” which has never been forgotten by those who attended motorcycle races at Brooklands and elsewhere many years ago. In fact, this brand of Castrol, the castor-base lubricant, was known universally as “R”, which was, indeed, a registered trade descriptive label. I think I am right in saying that it originated as the only lubricant on which it was possible to run First World War rotary aero-engines such as the Gnome and its derivatives, for any length of time. Charles Cheers Wakefield, as he then was, must have profited handsomely, for such engines slung out more oil than they consumed, it was said with beneficial results to costive pilots. Only castor oil could withstand the extremes of heat and friction to which early highspeed or high-powered i.e. engines were prone, which is why it was almost universal for racing for a considerable time; because it soon gummed up the moving parts it was suitable only for engines which were frequently stripped and therefore was not so wellliked by users of ordinary cars. As a matter of fact, Castrol were not alone in marketing castor-base oil. Even in the 1950s there were other racing oils. For instance, Pratt’s Castor, Essolube 60 Racer, Notvven Castor, BP Energol Racing and Vigzol Golden Race. But the fact is that when the old racing sounds and scents are recalled all castor oils are thought of as the famous Castro’ “R”.

Another thing which singles Castrol out as different from other oils is the fact that it is made by a Company which specialises only in lubricants and thus has no petroloutlets for the sales of its products—or was so until the recent tie-up with Bunnah. There were other top-class oils to which this also applied—Duckham’s, Filtrate, and Sternol come immediately to mind, together with the smaller concerns selling Notwen and Vigzol oils. In spite of what seemed a handicap from the retailing viewpoint, it was estimated at various times, and certainly by 1939, that more than half the motor vehicles in use were lubricated by Wakefield products, despite the commercial might and service station advantages of BP, Esso, Mobil and Shell/BP, etc.

The fashion in which this came about is one of the romances of Industry, the like of which is rare in the modern industrial climate, and unlikely ever to recur if further nationalisation engulfs us. The young Wakefield, who was born on December 12th, 1859, entered a firm of oil brokers, preferring this to becoming a Civil Servant. It was a small, three-partner concern. But it gave C. C. Wakefield a sound knowledge of the Trade and he was soon in charge of its affairs, Then, aged 32, Wakefield was offered the appointment of agent to a leading American oil company. He moved from Liverpool to London, commenced World travel in search of orders, and gained such confidence and friendships that, after a flaming row with his bosses in 1898, he felt ready to form a company of his own. Thus C. C. Wakefield & Co. came into being, with three small office rooms and a staff of nine, which included the travellers. Wakefield was principal, his brother-in-law, Walter Graham, and James Browne his assistants. It is nice to recall that the last-named became Managing Director and then Secretary when the Company had gained full stature. At first concentrating on oils for steam locomotives and industrial uses, in 1909 Wakefield’s introduced special lubricants for motor car and aeroplane engines—the immortal “R” serving the latter. The car oils he called “Castrol”.

I will not bore you with the personal rise to fame of Charles Cheers Wakefield, whose life story will, I imagine, figure in many other journals when they recognise this 75th Castrol Anniversary. Suffice it to say that he was a God-fearing man, another rarity today, that he was full of good works, making notable contributions to charity, that he was a great Imperialist, and that he held many important positions, such as being twice President of the Motor & Cycle Trades Benevolent Fund, and Chairman of the RAF Benevolent Fund. He was elected Lord Mayor of London in 1915, was created a Baronet in 1916, was raised to the Peerage in 1930, and was created a Viscount in 1934, receiving the Grand Cross of the Victorian Order. He was the first member of the Motor Industry to receive his baronetcy from the King. A true Oil Baron!

From its very humble origins, C. C. Wakefield and Co. Ltd. had become the largest British oil organisation. The two faithful assistants aforenamed retired in 1938 and the Joint Managing Directors then became Holland Y. Blades, only active survivor of the 1899 staff, and Walter H. Senneck, who had for years acted as His Lordship’s private secretary. The new Directors appointed were C. D. Sandison and Alonzo Limb, the latter the aviation and motor-racing adviser to Lord Wakefield from 1926. Alas, while his lubricants continued to oil the works of countless complicated machines, Wakefield had imposed such a strain on his own mechanism that it broke down irreparably in 1940, the day after his 81st birthday, and he died in January 1941. The Memorial Service was at St. Paul’s Cathedral. A new Board was formed to control the millionpound Company, of whom the Director best known to our readers will be Capt. G. E. T. Eyston, OBE, MC, of motor racing and prolific record-breaking fame.

As I have said, I use Castrol oil exclusively when I top up a sump or replenish a drained one. I have had happy associations with the Company since the days when Mr. A. A. Barr was its affable Publicity Manager, followed by the equally accommodating Laurie Sultan. I have seen the Company move from Grosvenor Street to the heights of Castro’ House in Marylebone and then, perhaps realising sooner than Lord Stokes that it seems folly for an office block to be worth more than the organisation it houses, to less lofty premises in Swindon. They have a publicity/dispatch dept. near Uxbridge. All the enormous success of C. C. Wakefield & Co. Ltd. has stemmed from supplying oils that have been the top products of their time. As requirements changed, so Castrol changed to meet each fresh challenge. One has seen how only a castor oil would purge the heat from early air-cooled aero engines, which may have rotated about their own crankshafts but did so in a way that did not adequately make use of the air thus disturbed to dissipate latent heat. We can recall “Archie” Frazer-Nash remarking, in the 1920s, that a ½-mile speed-trial was one thing but that a kilometre was something far more formidable! There were even racing folk of this era and earlier who denied themselves any benefits a good oil could endow, preferring to reduce drag to a minimum by draining engines and transmissions before embarking on a sprint record. One is reminded how comparatively slowly the technique of lubrication had progressed, ten years or so later, when it is remembered that the engine installation of the Fairey “Postal” Long Range monoplane of 1928 was so arranged that the two oilfilters were in parallel circuits, thus enabling one to be removed for cleaning while the other remained in use. At that time this aeroplane had to fly non-stop for only about 4,500 miles to break the World’s Duration Record. Cars operate in far dirtier conditions than aeroplanes, but I see from the instruction book of the air-cooled Fiat car that I was using immediately prior to writing this that the oil-filter does not have to be cleaned until it has been in use for 30,000 miles . . . Incidentally, in 1932, when the Mk. II version of this Fairey monoplane (with nonretractable under-carriage and single Napier Lion engine) gained the World’s Distance Record for Britain, by covering 5,309.24 non-stop miles, we not only had an Empire but we also held the World’s Altitude Record (Vickers 210-43,976 ft), the World’s Air Speed Record (Supermarine S6B-407.5 m.p.h.) and the World’s Land Speed Record (Campbell’s Napier-Campbell — 253.97 m.p.h.). Every time Sir Malcolm had broken the LSR, nine to this date, he had used Castrol oil. Because the documents I asked for before writing this article have not come to hand I cannot tell you whether the Fairey monoplane, the Vickers high-altitude aeroplane, and the S6B racing seaplane were also on Castrol. But it is highly probable . . .

Much of the magic of Castro’ stemmed for me from the fact that Lord Wakefield played such a prominent part in all these fascinating pre-war record-breaking and racing activities. He actually owned the racing boat “Miss England”, spending some [Oh (S)hell, I have since been told by Castrol that their oil was not used for these aviation records. However, Castro! was used for the next Italian speed record and for the Bristol Olympus turbo-jet engines which first took the Altitude Record to over 60,000 feet—see photograph on page 338], £40,000 on her. He also materially assisted the light-aeroplane movement of those days, by presenting DH Moths to struggling flying clubs.

All the time, Castrol oils were being developed to meet new technical challenges. It is true that lubrication problems of i.c. engines were eased by such innovations as the general adoption of aluminium in place of cast-iron and steel pistons, a move which alone is said to have reduced oil consumption by 45%, by the change from splash to force feed oiling via drilled crankshafts, and by the discarding of white-metal and lead-bronze bearings for the modern thin-shell type, so that complexities such as oil coolers and dry sumps could be disposed of, and mineral oil became acceptable even to those who had been diehards for castor oils, as much for the pleasant exhaust aroma as for the lubrication benefits, it sometimes seemed. Nevertheless, the lubricants themselves had to keep pace with ever higher power outputs, heavier bearing loadings, longer servicing periods, and the idiosyncrasies of things like sleeve valves, rotary valves, compressionignition engines, etc. Castrol were well aware of this and the fact that their products were always at the forefront of progress resulted in a Company that had been floated with a few thousand pounds eventually turning over millions a year for its Shareholders.

When additives were deemed desirable, Castrol added them to the oil you bought. For this reason I have never felt, when using Wakefield lubricants, any need to invest in extra protectives. Like the too-eager girls in the after-dinner story, I may one day have to painfully admit that I have been very foolish. But so far Castro’ oil alone has provided a complete safeguard, and given me a completely satisfactory lubricant . . .

You see, in 1935 Wakefield’s introduced Patent Castro’, which had the claimed exclusive minute ingredients of chromium and tin, both soluble in oil, the former additive to protect cylinder walls against chemical corrosion from the burning gases, the latter to put a brake on the oxydisation process that results in sludge, which blocks oil-ways, gums up piston rings, and can cause sticking valves. This was followed in 1938 by lighter oils to reduce drag, in 1949 by the addition of new inhibitors to give the lubricants more durability, and in 1952 by the introduction of anti-scuffing additives and rust and corrosion inhibitors applied to Castrol hypoid axle oils. So, if the oil supplier knows how to treat his products, why fuss with extra additives not of his manufacture?

All these technical advances resulted in today’s multi-grades of Castrol—the modern Castrolite—so that one grade usually suffices for winter and summer extremes of temperature. I have only one grouse against this— gone are the easily understood and traditional designations, such as XL and XXL, beloved of vintage car users. But unquestionably progress has been made. I have been shown over the Castrol laboratories near Bracknell and while I am afraid of being blinded by science at such places (preferring for instance to have my accidents to my own pattern, if such cannot be avoided, and not as the Road Research Laboratory says they should happen), there is proof, in our present-day immunity from “run” bearings and seized engines, of the value of research to the Castrol technical teams.

In the pioneer days of fast motoring on two, three and four wheels the failure of mechanical parts such as valves, pistons and bearings was often blamed on materials when, in fact, inferior lubricants were the cause. Because oil is required in correct quality and quantity to conduct away excessive heat, which otherwise destroys mechanical parts. The ingenious Granville Bradshaw used oil in lieu of water-wetting to cool his vce-twin Belsize-Bradshaw engine, literally sinking the cylinders in the crankcase, and he even applied the method to a multi-cylinder Belsize car and a motorcycle engine—his “oil-boilers” —but I admit that too lean a fuel mixture often did as much, if not more, harm than the use of inferior, or insufficient, oil.

In celebrating an anniversary such as Castrol’s one cannot help but cast back over the eventful years, seeking their greatest achievements. The trouble is that in Castrol’s case there have been so many that it is difficult to know where to draw the line that space limitations necessitate. Lord Wakefield gave very generous sums of pre-war money to the leading drivers and aviators. Sir Malcolm Campbell in particular benefited but I think his best-liked was Sir Henry Segrave. When Segrave was killed in the “Miss England” mishap, Lord Wakefield was the only person besides the family to attend the funeral. So obviously all the great records by these two drivers, from Campbell’s 150 to over 300 m.p.h. in his “Bluebirds” and Segrave’s 150+, 200 and 230 m.p.h. runs in the 4-litre V12 Sunbeam, the twin-engined Sunbeam and the untroublesome “Golden Arrow”, were done with Castrol oil—if you want to assess their bravery, look at the cars, most of which are in the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu. So were Campbell’s and Segrave’s boat records. Parry Thomas was another great driver who used Castro!, although not, I think, for all his record runs, for he seems to have shopped about for bonus money more than most. Eyston, it goes without saying, lubricated his racing cars, from 750 c.c. MG to 73,000 c.c. Thunderbolt, with Castro]. Bentley used it at Le Mans, Keech at Indianapolis, Divo (Bugatti) in the Targa Florio, Birkin in the blower Bentley at Brooklands, Dixon in his TT Riley, Brian Lewis for the Mannin Moar 3.3 Bugatti. In the air the heroic longdistance light aeroplane pilots, Amy Johnson, Jean Batten, Bert Hinkler, C. W. A. Scott, etc., used Castrol for the air-cooled motors of their Moths and Avians, in the days when it was all a tremendous adventure, and the attire was leather coats and leather flying helmets with goggles, with sun topec as a standby. Famous racing motorcyclists and crack steam locomotives such as the 125 m.p.h. Pacific Mallard found Castrol suited their mechanicals.

You may think, however, that it was the pre-First World War long duration stuff which truly proved the worth of Castrol oil. It was specified by M. Paulhan when he won the Daily Mail London-Manchester Air Race in 1910, Harry Hawker’s Sopwith-Wright monoplane flew for eight hours on it in 1912, Coatalen used Castrol for his victorious Coupe de l’Auto Sunbeams and his Brooklands Sunbeams, and perhaps the seal was set when both trans-Atlantic crossings by the R34 airship and the Alcock and Brown Vickers-Vimy were made with the aid of Castro]. Brilli-Peri had it in the engine of his P2 Alfa Romeo that won the 1925 Italian GP and Sir Alan Cobham was an enthusiastic Castro’ man, Cobham’s Puma-powered 1)1-1 50 in which he flew 17,000 miles from England to Rangoon and back in 1925 and which was towed through the Lord Mayor’s Show sans its wings and tyres, bore the inscription “Sir Charles Wakefield” on the sides of its fuselage.

From the Lympne motor-glider contests of 1923, when Castrol lubricated the winners of the speed, reliability and altitude prizes and the 87½ m.p.g. 697 c.c. ANEC, to the time in 1934 when the Macchi-Castoldi seaplane with its 24-cylinder contra-prop. 3,000 h.p. Fiat engine which took the Air Speed Record to 440 m.p.h., Wakefield’s lubricants were in the news.

During the 1914/18 war the essential “R” was taken to front-line aeroplanes in the same kind of five-gallon drums we use today, and when, at this time, Britain was farming for her life with Fordson tractors—not a had thing if we again grew our own food with this intensity—they were lubricated with Agricastrol, like so many farm tractors in 1974.

On the non-competitive front, there was the RAC-observed Oil Economy Trial of 1938, in which a Vauxhall Ten saloon, a car which achieved excellent fuel economy by reason of ignition settings adjusted to cope with lean mixtures, was lubricated with Castrol over a distance of 4,000 miles at varying average speeds of from 30 to 50 m.p.h. and returned the commendable oil consumption of 9,097 m.p.g. It would, of course, have been even more instructive had the test been repeated with other makes of oil.

I could come down to post-war racing and the present day, with Porsche, Ferrari, HWM, Austin-Healey, Norton and countless others on Castro]. But what is the point of endless listing—it’s all there in those “Achievements” booklets issued by Wakefield’s, the first of which was published in 1910, and which are now, I am assured, collectors’ pieces, whatever that may mean.

It is possible that you may be a cynic who thinks it is just a question of sponsorship, all oils being equal, with drivers and riders and pilots choosing those that paid best. I have no ammunition to dissuade you from that view, except to remark on the many record-breakers and racing drivers who preferred to use Castrol oil instead of the make of lubricant that tied in with the fuel they were burning. And there is one more good reason for using Castrol. As it pours smoothly, golden-green from the familiar tin, it conjures up a breath of the great age of motoring, when Lord Wakefield backed the boys and girls who drove, rode and flew the kind of competition machinery that some of us like to recall. That alone causes me to stick exclusively to Castrol.

So on this anniversary of a long and successful existence I offer my warm congratulations to Castrol, together with some condolences, the latter because, so efficient have the automobile engineers and the lubricant technicians become, that modern engines have lost almost all their thirst for oil and further profits for the oil barons can surely come only from the world’s growing numbers of machines that require oiling.—W.B.