Spannerhead Dot

Zen and the Art of the Oil Change

May 28, 2013 by Matt

BMW Oil Change

Did my first oil change of the new BMW 540i yesterday morning. It’s swimming in 8 fresh quarts of 15W-40 Shell Rotella T heavy-duty oil (love the stuff), pumped through a clean Mann filter element.

An oil change is always the first, or nearly the first service I perform on any new-to-me car. It amounts to a mechanical handshake of sorts, a chance for a new engine bay and its unique quirks and particularities to introduce itself. With the 540i, I can report than the process went very smoothly, the drain plug was a little tight in the initial going but loosened up, and the oil pour was quick considering how much of the liquid the engine drinks.

I love the activity. I love the rote mechanical nature of it and the fact that it’s a clearly delineated process of involvement with the lifeblood of the source of the car’s mobility. I even love its regularity. Changing oil isn’t infrequent enough to be relegated to the realm of the occasional repair, nor does it happen every week or even every month (depending on driving habits, of course), where it would become so regular as to be tedious and mundane. Fundamentally, it’s a ritual, and just like any ritual, it assumes a quasi-ceremonial significance, as if it were some kind of regular “sacrifice” to the car gods, or a kind of communion, a routine reconnection with the mechanical side of what can so easily fade into the background in the midst of our daily commute. I maintain that even if regular repairs are being performed, and grease has taken up permanent residence under my fingernails—even then, the oil change performs a necessary function: It re-centers me with respect to my relationship with the reciprocating bits under the hood; it serves as a kind of reset button for my mechanical inclinations.

With that in mind, I was slightly disappointed that an oil change on the 540i is marginally less complex than on the 525i. They both feature cartridge-style filters (instead of the standard spin-on type), which I love if only for the assortment of o-rings and crush-washers that come in the box with the filter element. The 540i’s canister lid, though, screws onto the filter housing body as a single piece, whereas the 525i’s employed a long through-bolt with extra sealing hardware to replace. I miss the extra complexity; the additional steps kept me involved in the activity that much longer—but never to the point of tedium.

In any event, whatever the car, no matter how inaccessible the filter or messy the process, an oil change remains an often-overlooked opportunity to find value in a simple, regular interaction with one’s car. I relish that.

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Filed under: Miscellaneous


  1. Ryan says:

    I think this is a great and accurate description of a “bonding” moment between owner and automobile. And one which non “car-people” would certainly read and think you/we have been brain washed by some crazy religious car cult, lol.

    For me, another very similar experience I always love with a new-to-me car is the first wash/detail. I suppose it’s more of a get-to-know-me process with the aesthetics of the vehicle as opposed to the mechanical bits. But I feel like that first detail getting all the “old” off, feeling and seeing every imperfection, and then hopefully cleaning/fixing most of them is where you establish a relationship with your new car. I’ve always enjoyed detailing a vehicle and still to this day try and keep my wife and I’s cars bright and shiny on a weekly basis. It gives joy to keep their outsides looking as good as I know I keep the insides (mechanical systems).

    • Matt says:

      Haha, very true about the cult comment. Have you read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? There’s some semi-fruity philosophy in there, but there are also some real gems about finding value in appreciating “little” mechanical activities.

      Good point about washing the car, too. I actually did that first thing Saturday morning; the car had 1,600 miles of road grime on it from its trip here from Denver. I’m familiar with the E34 bodystyle, so it wasn’t a matter of getting to know new lines and contours so much as familiarizing myself with all its particular dings, dents and scratches (and there aren’t many at all!). I wish I had more time for detailing. In my experience, it really takes a whole Saturday to do it right.

  2. Ryan says:

    I have not read that book but have heard good things about it and really should pick a copy of it up.

    And I should clarify, I probably only fully “detail” a car once a year (or when first purchased). But what I typically do is get a car in a state of near spotlessness (if that is a word, lol) and then do my best to keep it in a similar state via weekly or bi-monthly washing/cleaning so that it doesn’t get to a point where it needs “detailing” all that often. My Jeep takes a little longer than my wife’s TL-S but I can usually knock them both out in under two hours unless there are “special” circumstances.

    In full disclosure though, we do not have children yet so I can typically work a cleaning of both cars into my week at some point. But I promise you, despite what others who don’t know me very well claim, even after kid(s) there will still always be time for washing cars! :) Maybe not as frequently but it will happen. My dad did it with two boys and my brother finds time with his two youngens so I have no doubt I will too. Detailing cars, or my cars anyway, has always been a time of relaxation for me… I really do enjoy it.

    • Matt says:

      That’s a good way to do it. I should work that into the regular weekly house cleaning rotation: Clean/detail cars.

      I’ve no problem washing and vacuuming, but waxing, to me, is pure tedium. It doesn’t help that I have a penchant for ’80s and ’90s cars with huge black rub strips that glaze when the wax hits them, and I have no patience for masking everything off with tape, so typically I just hit the major body panels. What do you do about the black plastic and other non-painted bits?

      • Ryan says:

        Most of the time I even enjoy waxing, mainly b/c I probably only do it once a year so it’s not that bad. Both our cars stay in the garage when they are home and my wife’s car even gets to stay in a covered garage at work too. So they don’t “need” to be waxed all that often but I tend to try and do so at least once a year anyway.

        But I know exactly what you mean about all the plastic/trim. When I wax I typically am just careful around all those pieces but inevitably you will get some on them anyway. They make a “wax remover” specifically for trim items though. I can’t remember what it is called off the top of my head. Or they also make black-colored wax, which then if you get on black trim it typically doesn’t show up or not nearly as much. This is a great product for black cars in general as well. Any left over residue doesn’t stand out that way.

        The only time I usually mask everything off with tape is if I am buffing. I also hate doing this but have learned that there is no way around it. You will certainly touch something with the buffing pad that you shouldn’t or if you don’t you won’t have buffed portions of the car that will definitely show a difference. Not to mention many of the products used with professional buffers will stain for months, if not longer, if they are left on plastic for any period of time.

        • Matt says:

          Good tips. Yeah, I guess there’s no way around it. Turtle Wax and other make this “ice” wax product that doesn’t stain the trim, but I don’t think it protects nearly as well as a good regular wax. Do you use an orbital polisher?

          • Ryan says:

            If I am just waxing the car I’ll do it by hand. If I am buffing water marks, swirl marks, or other imperfections out, polishing and then waxing I use my Makita high speed buffer.

            • Matt says:

              Gotcha. I really think I need a detailing primer. I’ve got to get some sort of system down where I know exactly what I’m doing and that what I’m doing won’t screw up the paint any worse…

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