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You Won’t Believe How Whale Oil Was Once Used in Cars

You probably don’t realize just how many fluids are in your car. Sure, the average driver knows the basics like windshield washer fluid and motor oil that has to be changed and certain intervals. We pay more mind to what we know needs to be changed frequently, but forget about servicing other fluids like brake fluid or transmission fluid. But, once upon a time, changing your transmission fluid wasn’t as simple as going to the store, because the oil being used was actually whale oil.

General Motors takes up whale oil

Whale oil was once regularly used for many applications, including in the automotive field. While modern-day transmissions use a lot of synthetic oils, whale oil used to be the fluid that kept automatic transmissions running. It was popular in the vehicles produced by General Motors up until the considerably recent past in the 1970s. According to the engineers at GM, whale oil was a great option because it prevented rust.

An image of a Hydra-Matic transmission which was introduced by General Motors in 1939 and was the first fully automatic transmission made available in passenger cars, from a collection of automobile artifacts at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, Illinois | J. B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, Getty Images

The end of whale oil transmission fluid

In the early 1970s, however, sperm whales became endangered and General Motors was no longer permitted to continue the use of whale oil for their transmissions. Instead, a supplemental oil had to be tested and used in place of the whale oil. Unlike the anti-rust properties of the whale oil, the new oil caused several fittings within the system to rust. While this problem has since been resolved, it was quite frustrating for vehicle owners at the time, who wasn’t left with many other options.

Tanks for processing whale oil at the remains of the Norwegian whaling station in Grytviken on South Georgia Island, Sub-Antarctica. with church in background | Wolfgang Kaehler/Avalon/Universal Images Group, Getty Images

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Transmission failures resulted

No longer able to use whale oil in transmission fluid, manufacturers were left trying to find other alternatives. While the oil produced by the whales was a great lubricant that prevented rust and could continue to operate efficiently at high temperatures, manufacturers were in somewhat of a rush to find a replacement. Before transmission fluid took the form of how we now know it, there was a different oil used. It was discovered too late that the oil General Motors was using as a substitute for whale oil wasn’t up to par, and actually caused thousands of transmission failures as a result.

The gears and other internal components of an IndyCar transmission
AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 24: The gearbox removed from Will Power (12)’s Chevrolet powered Dallara IR-18 at a pit stop during the IndyCar Classic held March 24, 2019 at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, TX | Allan Hamilton/Icon Sportswire, Getty Images

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Whale oil is not only no longer used in cars, it is almost as if people completely forgot that it was ever used in the first place. While an odd additive to our transmission fluid, it was once the popular, and seemingly only, option for GM cars, though for the sake of the sperm whales, we aren’t sad to have seen it gone.