If you’ve been around a few years, you may be old enough to remember when the milkman made his daily rounds. The milk was fresh, and the thick, rich cream would often float to the top.
It seems a far cry from the skim milk you get in some stores today — a thin, watery concoction, a mass-produced item that hardly seems satisfying compared with the thick, rib-sticking drink from the old days.
The high-quality diesel fuel from back in the ’70s and ’80s is a lot like that fresh milk. Loaded with polymers, paraffin and aromatics, it had everything a diesel engine loves.
Today’s fuel — thin, watery, low in paraffin, aromatics and polymers, yet costing three times as much as the real stuff — seems a lot like today’s skim milk. But while our bodies may run better on skim, the same isn’t true of engines. The clearance in barrels and plungers is 40 millionths, requiring the lubrication of yesterday’s fuel. However, all they get is the skim milk type of oils.
That’s where Forrest Lucas comes in — Lucas, and his formulas for some of the world’s slipperiest oils, gear lubes and grease.
So who is this Forrest Lucas, you might ask, and how did he address the lubrication dilemma?
The story starts with a 1948 Ford dump truck powered by a ’55 Thunderbird engine. That’s the first truck that Lucas, born and raised in Jackson and Bartholomew counties of Indiana, owned. He purchased the truck at the tender age of 18, and used it to haul dirt and gravel.
The old Ford was the first step in a long journey. Lucas drove it until he was 21 years old, when he purchased a new 1963 Chevrolet conventional C-60 series with a 327-cubic-inch gas engine. And that’s when the young son of Indiana, ready to see the country, hit the road.
Lucas signed on with Mayflower moving and storage, serving as the youngest owner-operator in the fleet. Later, he would claim the truck would run 70 mph downhill and could run coast to coast in five days — a feat that sounds like a truckdriver story to old-timers.
Trucking back in those days, he later said, “was a dog’s life, very few motels and hardly any truckstops, sleeping across the seats in a day cab Chevy.”
But dog’s life or no, Lucas apparently was hooked. In 1966, he changed trucks again, purchasing a new COE Ford with a 534 gas engine. The truck was a little bit of a disaster. In fact, it was so bad mechanically he had to carry a toolbox and learn how to wrench just to keep the vehicle on the road.
He soon made a move to another truck — his first diesel, a 1968 WT9000 Louisville Ford with an NH250 Cummins and a 10-speed overdrive transmission.
And that’s when he made the big move. Lucas was ready to put together his own fleet of trucks.
The vehicles were used to haul furniture in the summer and steel in the winter. From his first fleet truck, a 1965 Emeryville with an NH220 Cummins, Lucas grew his fleet to 14 trucks with a combination of Internationals and Fords.
But just as he was hitting the big time, the problems started. With 14 drivers pulling different trailers everyday, nobody would check the hub oil in the trailers. And Forrest Lucas had a maintenance nightmare.
Never one to wait for someone else to solve his problems, Lucas took matters into his own hands. That year, he started to look for something that would help his maintenance problems, something better than plain oil.
He tried many of the off-the-shelf additives and found most of them — as well as fuel additives and conditioners — didn’t measure up. And that’s when he decided to cook up his own.
Lucas started mixing oil and fuel additives, experimenting to see what mixture would best benefit the machines in his fleet.
During his search for new ways to improve the lubricants in his trucks, Lucas met chemist Dell Findley, who worked for Kendall Oil. The two quickly became close friends, and Lucas began to purchase additives from Kendall.
But Lucas continued to be disappointed by much of what he found in over-the-counter products and the thinking that guided their creation.
“All of the oil company chemists went to oil school, and they are brainwashed,” he said. “It just takes good common sense to build good oil.”
The real turning point for Forrest Lucas, however, wasn’t buying a new truck, meeting a new friend or discovering a new lubricant. It was a lady.
In 1979, he began dating Charlotte Atkins, his hair stylist in Columbus, IN. It wasn’t too many years later that the two were married.
Charlotte got involved pretty quickly in the family business, becoming the bookkeeper for the Lucas fleet.
Meanwhile, Forrest continued to mix together concoctions and add them to his engines, transmissions, differentials and hubs. His efforts met with his new bride’s approval.
“Whatever you’re doing, honey,” Charlotte told him, “keep doing it. The fuel mileage is improving.”
And that wasn’t all. Even in environments as harsh as California’s Mojave Desert, Lucas noticed his fleet suffered fewer equipment failures.
In 1986, Forrest and Charlotte went to California in search of a warehouse. The company tried several locations before ultimately landing in Corona, CA.
Lucas continued blending oil products, now from the back corner of the fleet’s new freight dock.
But Lucas still hadn’t reached his ultimate destiny. And in the late ’80s and early ’90s, several events combined to move him a step closer.
In 1989, Lucas decided to sell his blended oil products to the public. The same year, a large U.S. carrier cut the freight rate charged to Lucas’ main shipper; with that, Lucas sold his fleet.
Shortly after that, the government made it mandatory for the refineries to remove the aromatics (sulfur) from the diesel fuel.
That action was the best thing the government could have done for Lucas and his company; sales of Lucas Fuel Treatment took off.
The company’s expansion continued in 1995, when Lucas’ old friend Dell Findley joined the Lucas team as head chemist. Lucas Oil soon made more products available, including Transmission Fix and Power Steering Stop Leak, Dell’s two favorite products.
Years later, Forrest Lucas and his company continue to innovate, using his experience in the industry — and his experience in life — to guide him.
One example: Lucas is very involved in the National Hot Rod Association Championship Drag Racing and in short track racing, and even has a racetrack — the Lucas Oil I-10 Speedway in Blythe, CA — named for his company. It isn’t just the Lucas name on the track; sometimes, behind the wheel, it’s Forrest himself.
As a drag racer and a dirt track racer, he’s
learned about failures. And, he says, you have to know what causes an automatic transmission to fail before you can design an automatic-transmission fluid.
“If Detroit installed Lucas ATF in their transmissions,” he said, “the automatic-transmission rebuilders would go out of business.”
That type of attitude — “If we can’t make the absolute best product, then we won’t make it” — has brought Lucas Oil and Forrest and Charlotte Lucas to the top of the fuel and oil additive industry. The company doubles every couple of years, and Lucas has even jumped back into his first love — trucking — adding a fleet of trucks to haul his products to market.
Both the firm and its owner have moved toward national fame. ESPN and ESPN2, with their heavy schedule of drag racing, have become the Forrest Lucas channel, with Lucas Oil sponsoring numerous cars in the events.
But despite the success and growing fame, after 27 years, it’s the partnership between Forrest and Charlotte — the bond that made it all take off — that is the biggest factor in their success, with Charlotte minding Forrest’s daily affairs.
“That’s my walking secretary,” he said.
He sees his outfit becoming even bigger in the automotive industry and going on to become the best name in the world for oils. But Lucas isn’t sure where the company’s next success will be, or what the future holds.
“I don’t think we can guess,” he said. “There’ll be more changes in the next 20 years than in the past 100 when it comes to transportation.”
— by Bruce Mallinson, Land Line correspondent