This South African Lubricant Slides WD-40 to the Curb
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because life is too short for dirty guns, sticker goo and squeaky gates.
By Nick Dall
The year was 1950. The place, Durban, South Africa, where a frustrated William Robertson could not get the distributor cap on his daughter’s VW Beetle to agree with the area’s humid Indian Ocean climate. An electrician by trade, Robertson blended a “contact cleaner” with oil, petroleum jelly and “11 herbs and spices,” according to Simon Smith, managing director of the company that produces Q20, and applied the tincture to the troubled points.
A few moisture-free months later, a neighbor asked Robertson what he would call his wonder product. “I don’t know,” he replied. “But I do know it has 20 answers to 20 questions.”
Apartheid-era sanctions meant that while the rest of the world developed a taste for WD-40, which was invented in 1953 and produced in aerosol form five years later, South Africans became hooked on Q20. They quickly discovered far more than 20 uses for the contents of the sky-blue can that can be sprayed upright, upside down and at any angle in between. They used it to oil squeaky gates, clean guns, remove chewing gum from hair, keep aquarium lights shining and even to kill cockroaches. “I’ve sold a hell of a lot of Q20 over the years,” says veteran Cape Town hardware store owner Richard Morse, who remembers when it was the only lubricant available in an aerosol can.
I’ve taken it one step further via the less scientific but far more sensitive Creaking Door Next to Sleeping Baby test.
Despite a few tweaks to Robertson’s original recipe, Q20 has always set itself apart from its competitors by being heavier, not lighter, than water. (Watch this video — one of several made by a “much younger” Smith — if you don’t believe me.) That’s why it’s so darned good at displacing moisture from distributor caps, spark plugs and power tools. It’s also why, Morse tells me, he once saw a guy at a trade show plunge a burning lightbulb into a bucket of water and live to tell the tale. “That was almost certainly me,” says Smith with a laugh, before showing me a video of the deed.
While this stunt — or this one in which a Q20-treated power drill is operated underwater — is definitely not to be tried at home, the same principle can be used to extend the life of outdoor lightbulbs. But, as any South African will tell you, Q20 is about much more than moisture displacement. It’s pretty good at getting rid of rust (although not as good as WD-40, in my experience) and an exceptional cleaner of the substances conventional cleaning products are unable to remove, like tarmac on the undercarriage of your car, or sticker residue on your teenage son’s bedroom window. Contrary to popular conception it can also be used on fabrics — provided you machine-wash them afterward.
It is as a lubricant, though, that Q20 wipes out the competition. Smith has proved this via the Timken bearing test (the gold standard of lube tests), and I’ve taken it one step farther via the less scientific but far more sensitive Creaking Door Next to Sleeping Baby test.
Hardly surprising, then, that Q20 has sold at least 100 million units over the years and developed something of a cult following in South Africa. (In the U.S., cans of Q20 and WD40 retail on Amazon for around $18.) You can buy a designer Q20 T-shirt, use the brand name as a verb and — according to some enthusiasts — cure arthritis and shave your beard with the stuff. While Smith has no objection to the first two applications, he is quick to call “bullshit” on the last two. “It’s a multipurpose lubricant,” he says. “There are some things it can’t do.”
Not many, though.
- Nick Dall, OZY Author Contact Nick Dall