What Does SAE Stand for on Motor Oil Bottles?

There is more to engine oil than it simply all being the same. One aspect which is important are the initials SAE which you will likely see on the bottles. In this article we are going to take a look at what SAE means and why it is an important factor for you to understand.

What Does SAE Mean in Oil?

Following the initials SAE you will note certain characters that are important but we will get to those a little later in the article because first we want to clarify what SAE itself means. The initials SAE on a bottle of engine oil stand for “Society of Automotive Engineers.”

Why is this on the bottle of engine oil? Firstly let's get some background on SAE. This is a group founded by Henry Ford himself and Andrew Ricker way back in 1905. Initially it was intended to be an organization of automotive engineers working throughout the United States. It was not long until it grew bigger though.

By 1916 the SAE had also added tractor and aeronautical engineers to the group and remains the same today. During the first world war the group started to become an educational group who began to set universal industry standards.

SAE therefore means that the information that follows the initials hold a value decided upon by the organization. This allows standards to be the same around the country so that there is no confusion.

In the case of engine oils the SAE and the associated digits refer to the viscosity of the motor oil contained in the bottle. This means that a bottle purchased on the west coast will have the same viscosity as one brought on the east coast.

The SAE then is responsible for maintaining standards for over 1600 automotive related practices nationwide. They do not have law enforcement powers but their standards are listed in a number of automotive practices which keeps the work consistent.

What Does Oil Viscosity Mean?

So to the second aspect of the SAE on your motor oil bottle. The SAE itself just denotes that the organization has agreed that the oil contained within meets some specific standards. In the case of engine oil it is the viscosity.

Viscosity in this instance indicates how long it takes the oil to flow through a certain container at specific temperatures. A more viscous oil will take longer to flow through a container because it is thicker. Low viscosity oil will move more quickly as it is thinner.

The characters that follow the SAE are a code of sorts that tells you what the viscosity of the oil is. Typically this will involve two numbers separated by a W. Here we hit a misconception. Many believe that the W stands for Weight. This is not correct as it actually stands for Winter.

You have a number before the Winter (W) which alludes to how the oil flows at 0 degrees Fahrenheit. The lower the number the less likely the oil is to freeze in cold weather. So as an example 0W or 5W would be good oils for a consistently cold climate.

Following the W you will see two more numeric digits. These refer to the viscosity of the oil when the temperature is 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Essentially how viscous the oil is when the engine is up to working temperature. The lower the second number the more quickly the oil will thin out as the temperature rises.

If we compare 10W-30 motor oil to 10W-40 we see that they are the same at low temperatures but the 10W-30 will thin more quickly as the engine temperature increases. This may be an important consideration when you choose the right motor oil for your car.

What Are the Different Types of Motor Oil?

Now that we understand about viscosity let's consider the different types of motor oil available. Depending on your car you may need one of these types specifically so you should always consult your owner's manual so you know which you need.

Conventional Motor Oil

This is the most basic type of motor oil; it has nothing added and has been the standard for almost as long as engines have existed. It is the purest form of oil and also the least expensive. It does follow SAE standards and will require more frequent oil changes than most of the other options.

Premium Conventional Motor Oil

The name may indicate a more premium product but in truth this is not that different from conventional oil. There are still no additives but car manufacturers will always suggest it over the cheaper option. Realistically there is barely a difference so the choice is ultimately yours. You don’t really get anything out of premium that you don’t get from conventional oil.

High-Mileage Motor Oil

This is motor oil designed for cars that have been driven for over 75,000 miles. It has been fortified with additives that are intended to help maintain seals and other engine parts that may be starting to wear out.

It is more expensive but we do have to realize that as our cars age they need a little more TLC to make sure they keep going. As preventative maintenance this type of high-mileage oil is a great choice and well worth the cost.

Synthetic Motor Oil

A lot of newer cars require synthetic motor oils which are designed to provide better performance and general engine protection. Additives that can clean out rust and lubricate drying seals help ensure the life of your vehicle.

Even though these are not standard motor oils they still adhere to SAE ratings. They may have varied formulas but the viscosity is listed on the bottle. It will cost more but it will allow you to longer between oil changes so the cost can even out.

Synthetic Blend

This is a very common automotive oil today with many cars requiring a blend of standard oil and synthetic. It allows you the protective benefits of synthetics but also a slight saving by cutting it with cheaper motor oil.

Again each formulation has its own additives and potential selling points. Refer to your owner's manual to see what oil will best suit your engine and try to find the right match for your needs.


The SAE is an organization that regulates over 1600 industry standards in the automotive field. Co-founded by Henry Ford himself, it has become a nationwide yardstick for certain standards that help control practices for uniformity.

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