Truck Trend Legends: WD-40
Truck Trend Legends
Yes, we all know the “redneck toolkit” jokes, but there’s a serious side to WD-40. It was originally developed to prevent SM-65 Atlas rockets from corroding, the missiles that hold and deliver the nuclear warheads of the United States. Mankind’s ultimate weapon relies on the same stuff that was once used to pull a naked burglar out of an air conditioning vent.
It’s called WD-40 because this was the 40th attempt to formulate a successful water dispersant, which just goes to show that if at first you don’t succeed, try at least another 39 times. The people behind it were the Rocket Chemical Company of San Diego,. At the time (1953), this was a team of three scientists headed by Norman B. Larsen, a self-taught chemist. Missile technicians would take some of the stuff home for various household tasks, which must have been when someone at Rocket Chemical had the bright idea to sell WD-40 to the public. The next spark of genius was to put it in an aerosol can.
WD-40 first went on general sale in 1958. The sales graph has more or less looked like a continual rise ever since, with around 80 percent of American homes having a can lying around somewhere. John Barry was the marketing brains. He came on board in 1969 and changed the company’s name to WD-40. He was behind the packaging’s instantly recognizable blue-and-yellow design. Another of his initiatives was to send cans to the troops during the Vietnam conflict, to keep moisture from fouling up their firearms.
The company is still based in San Diego. Despite selling just the one product for years, there have been developments in how everyone’s go-to lubricant is applied. As recently as 2015, a flexible straw was introduced, providing better access to awkward places. Before that was the fixed straw, because how many of us haven’t lost that little red plastic straw taped to the side of the can? And there is a new product, launched in 2016: a non-drip “spray and stay” gel.
To be fair, WD-40 has become a brand, with all sorts of variations on the lubrication and degreasing theme. One common misconception is that WD-40 should not be used on bicycle chains. The company says it’s OK, just wipe off the excess before riding. But just to be on the safe side, it also has a range dedicated to bicycle maintenance. Another myth is that WD-40 is made with fish oil. It’s not. The main ingredient is a petroleum-based mineral oil, along with several hydrocarbons, although the precise formula is a trade secret.
Talking of secrets, Agent WD-40 was Leslie Nielsen’s character in the movie Spy Hard (miss that guy). These days, WD-40 is so popular that there’s even a fan club, with more than 115,000 members around the world. And this is a company that likes to give back to keep the cogs of society turning smoothly. For example, a ’53 Ford F100 pickup—restored and modified under the supervision of WD-40, custom legend Chip Foose, and SEMA—went under the hammer in 2013 for $170,000, with the proceeds going to children’s charities.
Nearly every adult from any walk of life will find some purpose for WD-40. On the company’s website is a list of more than 2,000 uses. Most of them begin with “cleans” or “lubricates” something or another, but it’s good to know that it will remove crayon from almost anything, that a light film over stagnant water will stop mosquito eggs from hatching, prevent the hydraulic unit of a Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm Bo 105 helicopter from malfunctioning (spray on at every morning inspection, apparently), and remove adhesive from the tails of show calves. Which begs the questions: who knew show calves were a thing and why/how do they get glue on their tails in the first place? The world is indeed strange and wonderful.