Years ago, Steve Swedberg had a ‘57 Chevrolet and the accompanying owner’s manual. The manual contained all sorts of information on how to service, and in some cases repair, the parts and systems on the vehicle.
Swedberg, a former NOLN contributor and longtime expert in the oil industry, compares that old Chevy owner’s manual to the one that came with his 2020 Honda Pilot. The differences are stark.
“I'm looking at the 2020 manual here, and it’s difficult to find any (service) information,” Swedberg says. “There’s a brief section on what kind of fuel, what kind of engine oil to use and what kind of oil change interval.
”The owner’s manual has traditionally been the go-to resource to get service specifications on a specific make and model. Dig further back in time, and the documents contain detailed, step-by-step processes for repair and service.
By contrast, the modern manual provides little or no information on how to actually perform any service.
There are many reasons for the shift. The bottom line is that while the owner’s manual isn’t the same as it used to be, the average vehicle owner isn’t, either. They rely more on the “do-it-for-me” service environment in which quick lubes thrive.
What that means for operators is that they’re in a better position to be that key provider of vehicle information for customers. To do that, technicians need to brush up on their own resources with the help of vendors, industry publications and—yes—the owner’s manual.
“The owner’s manual remains a critical tool,” says Joanna Johnson, policy advisor for the Automotive Oil Change Association. “Fast lube operators, and really any aftermarket service provider, need access to multiple information sources. You need the owner's manual.”
How Manuals Changed
The 1919 edition of Ford’s manual, a single document “for cars and trucks,” had a wealth of information, diagrams, and step-by-step service and repair procedures. It helped owners troubleshoot problems with the vehicles. Ford considered the manual so complete that the opening foreword in the manual sought to reassure the average owner:
“It is a significant fact that nearly all Ford cars are driven by laymen—by owners, who in the great majority of cases have little or no practical experience with things mechanical. The simplicity of the Ford car and the ease with which it is operated renders an intimate knowledge of mechanical technicalities unnecessary for its operation.”
For many years, owner’s manuals retained a lot of preventative maintenance information, acknowledging that many vehicle owners out there might want to perform some service themselves. Recently, OEMs have revised the wording in manuals to reflect more of a “do-it-for-me” attitude among customers over the “do-it-yourself” option. This is reflected in trends of how consumers view their vehicle maintenance.
"When I first went to work for Pennzoil, DIY was 80 to 85 percent of oil sales,” Swedberg says. “And now it’s 45 percent of oil sales.”
That’s good news for lube shops, but it’s also the reason for less service information in manuals. Johnson has been tracking these changes for the AOCA. She says that across the industry, OEMs are reducing the amount of service information in owner’s manuals. It comes at a time when the variety of oil specifications needed in vehicles has grown. Where most vehicles used to take 10W-30, more specialized engine designs are calling for a greater variety of oil.
“What you see over time is more and more proprietary product recommendations,” she says.
She points to one vehicle model, the Hyundai Elantra, that had a drastic change in the owner’s manual from just one year to the next.
The manual for a 2006 Elantra addressed DIY oil changers and provided a step-by-step guide to that process, even specifying the drain plug torque specification. Just a year later, in 2007, the manual’s language about DIY work was drastically different, and the oil change process was absent. Instead, the manual advises owners to have the oil changed at a dealer.
Johnson says that this affects quick lube shops, because as OEMs become more aggressive in pushing customers toward dealerships for maintenance work, the lack of owner’s manual information for vehicle owners can sometimes mean a lack of information for aftermarket quick lube shops. In other words, depriving the general public about maintenance information also deprives the aftermarket of the same information.
"Unfortunately there's a great deal of pushback from OEMs and dealers about aftermarket parts and services,” she says. “They really do need to be aware of owners' manuals as an information tool. And also, they would be wise to encourage their customers to get familiar with their owner’s manual requirements.”
Opportunities for Quick Lubes
What does this mean for the quick lube industry? There’s a real opportunity for operators to step up their education games and fill the information gap for customers.
“That educational piece is in the manual, and it has changed,” says John “JB” Burkhauser, director of education for BOLT ON TECHNOLOGY. “I think the shops should refer customers to an owner’s manual. Doing that is going to build the trust between them and ths customer and show them what’s coming.”
Burkhauser is an ASE Certified Master Technician with decades of industry experience. He says that shops can still use the manual to help back up their manufacturer-recommended service sales. Most manuals still include the required SAE grade of oil and drain interval. If a customer is skeptical when your tech says a vehicle needs synthetic oil, the manual can help to back up the service.
The other piece is liability. Operators know that it’s up to them to ensure they are following OEM recommendations and filling vehicles with proper oils. Whether or not the necessary information is in the manual, on shop software, or elsewhere, drivers trust shops to ensure proper procedures are followed. This isn’t just for oil. It can be for fuses, lights, fluid levels, air pressure, and a number of other services.
“The big thing that these shops work on is convenience,” Burkhauser says. “And part of convenience is that they should take care of the basics of the vehicle. And if shops share it with the customer or not, the onus is on them.”
It requires additional diligence on behalf of shops because in today’s environment, the printed owner’s manual might not be the final word. Service requirements can be updated and changed by the OEM through technical service bulletins—often many of them.
“Since telematics became the major factor in vehicles, the service situation is fluid,” Johnson says. “This is what we’re trying to get through to everyone. It changes. Now you may have hundreds of manufacturer communications on a model. What’s in the owner’s manual may change.”
Johnson advises operators to make sure they’re not relying on just one source of information. Your shop software system is handy for most services, but be sure that you’re checking it against other resources for updates or incorrect information. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a database of technical service bulletins that can be checked for model updates.
And yes, the owner’s manual should be a part of that research.
How can the owner's manual be useful to your shop?
- Most owner’s manuals still include the necessary oil SAE grade and drain interval for that model. If your customer is frustrated that their only option for oil is a synthetic 0W-16, the manual should help to explain.
- Owner’s manuals will include fill capacities for all kinds of fluids—not just oil. Engine coolant, transmission fluids, and other capacities can be found in the document.
- In a shop setting, John Burkauser found online searches to be convoluted when looking for fuse positions on a certain model. The owner’s manual is a better place to start.
“One of the things that I found was really good with manuals is fuse positions,” he says.
This is handy for techs who are troubleshooting electrical issues with customers.
- Joanna Johnson with the AOCA suggests checking for unlawful product tie-ins. OEMs cannot require a certain brand of oil to be used in order to maintain a warranty. The AOCA relies upon operator input to spot and correct these errors.
“It’s because if the manufacturer has put a tie in the owner’s manual, you can be sure there’s going to be a pushback about aftermarket services in these vehicles.”
- Double-check your own resources. If you’re unsure about your shop’s software or other resources, there’s no harm in checking it against the owner’s manual. You can also check a manual online to see if any updates have happened. Most OEMs offer manuals on their websites.
“It’s going to take you to the revised versions, because they're going to be all published electronically,” Burkhauser says. “That’s a guarantee.”