Are High Motor Oil Prices Destroying The DIY Movement?

Oil Vey!

Oil Vey!

10 years ago I could do my own oil changes for $7 a pop.

Conventional motor oil back then could be had for 99 cents a quart. An AC Delco filter was around $3.

Every three months I would take my trusty old 1994 Camry onto my driveway, slide my oil container underneath the oil pan, remove the oil drain plug and oil filter, and let gravity take hold.

The brief pause between the first gush of dirty motor oil, and the last few drips, laid the seeds for my future automotive self-reliance.

All the remaining fluids would be checked in the next ten minutes or so. Coolant, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, and brake fluid. It usually didn’t take much time for me to figure out if there was any type of leak. A slow, studious examination around the engine bay and.. done. Once every few changes I would make a note to change an air filter or scrub off any excess build-up on the battery terminals.


It was all easy-peasy and highly cost effective. 10 minutes of attention afforded me a lot of time to catch small problems before they became big. This was all cheap to do, and by the time I was finished with it all, I often still had time to read a few passages from my old Haynes manual and get confidence for that next big job.

Would it be brakes? Or perhaps that mysterious piece of equipment called a water pump? No big deal once the comfort level was established. I would plan accordingly, buy the best parts I could find, and make them last by performing all the work correctly. Even if it took a while.


The same attitude towards doing it myself became true for virtually everything else that wasn’t electrical or required some type of lift or hoist. Bolts could be turned. The maintenance regimen could be followed, and even to this day, that piece of 1994 technology is still on the road with well over 300,000 miles and not a single warning light on the dashboard.

The car owner of today doesn’t have it so good.


Have you seen the price of motor oil at an auto parts store these days? Prices now regularly range from $4 to over $6 per quart for the conventional stuff. The price of a barrel of oil may has gone up from $31 in 2003 to $106 today, which is definitely a substantial part of the problem. I will give you that.

But that’s not where I would pin most of the blame. Not by a long shot.


I would consider the far bigger problem lies with the discount parts stores, and their Walmart brethren, who finally figured out the ‘elasticity of demand’ for motor oil. Along with a long, long list of other automotive products (click here for a bit more technical detail).

Long story short, folks are usually willing to pay a stiff premium for products that seem cheap, and prevent a high level of potential risks. It doesn’t matter if the cost of refining and marketing the motor oil comes to only about $1.25 a quart. What matters is whether you have a nice enough picture on an oil bottle that spells out a few well-chosen trigger words.

If it looks good, feels good, and seems good,  that quart of motor oil will sell for a lot more money.


Some say that it’s because the parts store that provides access and placement for all the brands is the one making the rules. They aren’t making the rules. All they have to do is study your behavior when you shop at their stores and their web sites.

Large auto parts stores such as Autozone and Advance Auto Parts have developed customer relationship management systems that figure out multiple prices for a specific product.  Different parts of our country have far different tolerances for the prices of even the most mundane of products, such as motor oil.

Oil change deals reflect this reality. The universal $9.99 oil deals of five years ago has become the $19.99 oil deals of Atlanta, and the $29.99 oil deal of Tenafly, New Jersey. Even though the price of unrefined oil has gone down by over 20% from five years ago, and the cost of refining that oil, has declined substantially as well, none of that matters.

What has increased to a far greater degree, is the need for profit.

So what happens when the aspiring DIY owner sees that it’s no more expensive to get the oil change done for $20 to $30 at the nearby quicky-lube? Well, a few of them who truly cherish their rides may decide to take the plunge. But my bet is that the overwhelming majority of those who aspire to maintain their own rides do a little quick math, and remain on the sidelines.


Profit isn’t maximized when everyone buys. It’s not the sales revenue that matters in the end. It’s the net profit.

Even a few of us who are in the car business can do the oil change math. As a dealer, I save no money by having an independent shop change the oil. If I do it myself, I save maybe $3 at most. So these days, I get the oil changes done in the same development where I get my emissions and car wash. The cost for all three is $40.

Many enthusiasts are doing the exact same thing. Some may go to the franchised car dealer. Others may be going to independent shops or even the Quicky Lube. The outcome is pretty much the same for some; but not for everyone.

There are still plenty of folks who are ‘keepers’ and would rather pay for the quality work that’s needed to make their car drive like near new. They are even willing to ignore the fact that the price advantage for a conventional oil change no longer exists.

God bless em’. As for that novice who wants to become a bit more self-reliant, I just hope he or she makes their decision to take that DIY plunge on a Black Friday. A $7 oil change has a way of bringing out the DIY in most any auto enthusiast.