Charles “Cheers” Wakefield, Castrol’s founder, was an entrepreneur in the grandest sense of the word.
In 1899, when he was 39, he left a job at Vacuum Oil to start a new business at Cheapside in London, selling lubricants for trains and heavy machinery. He was a persuasive man who could articulate a vision, clearly, and eight former colleagues followed him into the new company.
Early in the new century, Wakefield took a personal interest in two sporty new motorised contraptions – the automobile and the aeroplane. The company started developing lubricants especially for these new engines, which needed oils that were runny enough to work from cold at start-up and thick enough to keep working at very high temperatures.
Wakefield researchers found that adding a measure of castor oil, a vegetable oil made from castor beans, did the trick nicely. They called the new product “Castrol.”
Breaking the land speed record
Having helped pioneer a new kind of motor oil, now CC Wakefield pioneered a new method of getting customers to notice the product. Sponsorship. The Castrol name appeared on banners and flags at competitive avaiation events, auto races and at competitive drivers’ attempts to break the speed record.
When a Castrol-sponsored event won, advertisements heralded the victory, mentioning that the winner had done it with Castrol. The world land speed record was broken 23 times in the 1920s and 30s, 18 of them with Castrol in the engine.
Wakefield extended the company’s increasingly profitable product line to include oils developed especially for car manufacturer’s individual engines.
Whatever you call them, they make a famous motor oil
By 1960, the name of the motor oil had all but eclipsed that of the company’s larger-than-life founder. CC Wakefield and Company became, simply, Castrol Ltd. Meanwhile, the company’s researchers delved ever deeper into the complexities of engine lubrication. A state-of-the-art research facility opened in Bracknell, England.
Then in 1966, The Burmah Oil Company bought Castrol. Burmah Oil, one of Britain’s oldest companies, had once effectively owned the company that became BP, before selling its majority holding to the British government at the start of World War I.
By the time Castrol GTX launched in 1968, to acclaim from drivers professional and otherwise, Castrol products were on sale at service stations and garages in more than 140 countries. Like the racers it sponsored, Castrol sales had momentum. In the 1970 London to Mexico rally, 16 of the 23 finishers were lubricated by Castrol.
Burmah Oil as a whole fared less well. The global oil crisis of the 1970s sent the company into financial freefall. The Bank of England bailed it out, but only in exchange for the company’s remaining shares in BP.
New subsidiaries opening around the world in the 1980s signalled Burmah Oil’s recovery, and Castrol continued to introduce innovative, new products, including Castrol GTX Magnatec and Castrol SLX.
In 2000, Burmah Oil and Castrol became part of the BP group. Burmah Oil’s operations were folded into the group, while Castrol continued to lubricate engines under its own famous name.