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Whale oil transmission fluid

‘A few months ago I learned that, as recently as 1972, General Motors was using sperm-whale oil in transmission fluid in its cars. I’m not sure why I was surprised to learn this. It took nearly another decade for much of the world to agree to ban commercial whaling, in 1982. (A handful of countries still ignore the ban.) But the detail about G.M. still struck me as anachronistic. The global pursuit of whales inescapably connotes the romance of nineteenth-century New Bedford and Nantucket: delicately embossed scrimshaw, Melville, oil paintings of stately twilit schooners setting out on the main. Not puke-green Chevy El Caminos.’

My transmission hasn’t worked right since.

My 1981 Olds had posi-traction and the additive to get it to stop clicking on turns was a bottle of whale oil. Pretty common then. That was the factory fix anyway with about a 10 oz squeeze bottle to add to the differential. Very common problem. Maybe it was a synthetic I dunno but they called it whale oil and it didn’t smell that good. Used it a number of times after 81 some whales stockpiled somewhere.

Here’s an interesting comment from the whale oil wiki at

In the US, whale oil was used in cars as an additive to automatic transmission fluid until it was banned by the Endangered Species Act.[25] Prior to 1972, over 30 million pounds of Sperm Whale oil was used annually in lubricants because of its exceptional lubricity and heat stability.[26] In 1972, the Sperm Whale was listed as an Endangered Species. The following year, the US Congress amended the Endangered Species Act, outlawing the killing of whales and the use of their oil.[26] The loss of whale oil had a profound impact in the automotive industry, where for example, transmission failures rose from under 1 million in 1972 to over 8 million by 1975.[26]

Did everyone’s transmissions stop working after the whale oil ran out?

If you’re ever in New Bedford MA - visit the whaling museum. One factoid I got from my visit…Yes - while whaling was a very lucrative business. Whaling WATCHING is well over 100 times more lucrative.

But you don’t get to kill anything.

You could always bring your mother-in-law and throw her overboard if that makes you feel better.


Don’t have one.

So you have been on a whale watch.

Quote Wiki: “In the late 20th century, Jojoba oil was discovered to be a better substitute for high-friction applications because it is even more stable at high temperatures. This caused sperm oil’s price to collapse to a tenth of its previous value.[28]

Now I’m wondering which is it and how accurate is the Wiki article? Whale oil was outlawed or the jojoba caused a price collapse???

At any rate, I’ve had auto transmissions since 1968 and never used any additive or did anyone ever put any additive in them, and never saw any different failure rate during those years. I’m thinking this article is not very accurate.

you can take mine with you…



I remember ads for how you could make big money to grow jojoba for oil and articles about it being a miracle lubricant. I thought they were scams. Good to hear they weren’t. I haven’t met any jojoba millionaires though.

Random, positraction differentials, or limited slip differentials, that allow both wheels to lock for better traction, used the whale oil additive to reduce chatter. It brought the breakaway friction down to the sliding friction in the diff to about the same to reduce chatter. Not all cars had posi so not all axle oils had the additive.

It was apparently used for the same properties, in much thinner transmission fluid. Apparently this was added to all early transmission oils since all required it. No additive was needed later.

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They couldn’t make this from petroleum?

They can now, couldn’t then.

Whales were a source of oil and lubricants for a long time before petroleum. When what you have works you tend to stick with it.

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Technically, a renewable resource…

Only if we renewed them.

Whales renew themselves. Not fast enough for the demand, though.

I had a 9 inch Ford “Detroit Locker” rear end. It clicked when making low speed 90 degree turns on residential streets. Positraction Additive made no difference.