Oil companies have been cutting back on the use of Zn and P as anti-wear additives. This reduction of phosphorus content is a mandate issued by API, American Petroleum Institute, who is in charge of developing standing standards for motor oils. Zn and P have been found to be bad for catalytic converters. In 1996, API introduced the API SJ classification to reduce these levels to a maximum of 0.10% for viscosities of 10w30 and lighter. The 15w40 and 20w50 viscosities commonly used in Porsche engines did not have a maximum phosphorus limit. The API SL standard maintained this higher limit but with reduced limits for high temperature deposits. With the API SM, phosphorus content less than 0.08% was mandated to reduce sulfur, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbon emissions. The biggest difference between the API SM and SN standard is that with the subsequent SN standard now mandated a max phosphorus content of 0.08% for all motor oil viscosities, not just the 10w30 and lighter oils the previous API standard limited, and limits for high temperature deposits are reduced, requiring added detergency for increased engine cleanliness allowing for longer drain intervals. Most modern oils are not backwards compatible with older engines for these reasons.
It is worth noting that prior to this movement to reduce Zn and P levels, the oils recommended for use in an air-cooled boxer engine typically had 0.14% Zn and 0.14% P content with less detergency, than current street car formulations. In comparison, an API SE-rated virgin oil sample of Kendal GT-1 motor oil from the 70's, pre-dating today's limited Zn and P mandates, contained 0.14% Zn and 0.12% P and significantly reduced detergency with the relatively short drain intervals then recommended by auto manufacturers.
Oils with later API SH and SJ standards with no limit for phosphorus were developed, tested, and used in air-cooled engines through the end of production of the Porsche 993 with air-cooled Mezger engine. With this knowledge, it can be concluded that any given motor oil should have a minimum of 0.14% zinc and 0.12% phosphorus for aircooled engines.
To offset the reduction of zinc and phosphorus levels required by the EPA, boron as well as molybdenum disulfide, among other friction modifiers, has been added to modern oils. The addition of boron, when in the presence of ZDDP, does boost the anti-wear properties and although considered an anti-wear additive, the use of "moly" has been truly limited only to increasing fuel economy requirements of the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy, enacted by Congress in 1975). These additions do not completely address wear issues of older vehicles that require higher levels of Zn and P.
However, it is worth noting that updated API guidelines do not apply to "racing," "severe duty," or any motor oils that do not carry an API "starburst" seal or clearly state for off-road-use only, except those oils carrying an API SN rating, which should all be avoided. Motor oils meeting "Energy Conserving I or II" standards, that provide emission system protection, or extended drain intervals should be avoided.
Conventional 10w40 and 5w50 grades, because of their lack of shear-stability and relatively high amount of viscosity improvers, should also be avoided.
Compared to conventional oils, synthetics have superior shear stability leading to improved resistance to thinning and evaporation at high temperatures.
Synthetics also have superior cold flow characteristics, reducing start-up wear significantly. Although most modern synthetics incorporate seal swelling agents, for those concerned with formation of new leaks or worsening of existing leaks, an acceptable compromise is the use of conventional, semi-synthetic, or group III synthetic (as compared to group IV and V synthetics), which is formulated from very highly refined "hydro-cracked" petroleum base with synthetic additives. Regardless of your choice to use conventional or synthetic lubricants, the formulation is just as important as whether it is a non-synthetic or synthetic oil.
Lastly, other than cost, there is no reason not to use a synthetic oil in your Porsche or any other air-cooled engine.
Coupled with reduced oil viscosities, modern engine oils are designed to maximize fuel economy, extend catalytic converter life, and reduce tailpipe emissions. It is more important now than ever to select the right engine oil. Failure to use the right oil, use proper filtration, or observe proper changing intervals can affect the performance of even the best motor oil. With this knowledge in hand, using a quality motor oil with proper filtration and reduced drain intervals, as recommended by your Porsche mechanic, is the best thing to do for your engine and to protect your investment.
Charles L Navarro
LN Engineering LLC