WD-40 issues 1950s style collector's can

THEN AND NOW: WD-40, once known as the Rocket Chemical Co., is offering twin pack that pairs a 1950s collector's can with a current model.
THEN AND NOW: WD-40, once known as the Rocket Chemical Co., is offering twin pack that pairs a 1950s collector's can with a current model. (Courtesy Wd-40 Company)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 17, 2010

Before there was control-alt-delete, there was WD-40, the liquid space-age remedy for machine-age problems. It was the Task Manager of last resort, the final hope for the mechanically inept dealing with a world that was always freezing up, rusting out and breaking down. Its oily goodness would fix balky locks, get bolts spinning on their axes once again and generally remove the crud from just about anything that was meant to be crud-free.

If you didn't own or couldn't identify the right tool for the job, there was always WD-40 and a hammer.

The WD-40 Co., once known as the Rocket Chemical Co., has reissued "a 1950s style WD-40 Collector's Can" to promote, in the age of catastrophic oil spills and a national petroleum addiction, a new love for its more-than-half-century-old hydrocarbon wonder. This month they invite you to buy their nostalgia-themed twin pack, which pairs a reproduction of the old container with a new one. They also want you to contribute pictures and anecdotes to their new Web-based marketing campaign.

Is it possible to bring retro-cool social-marketing savvy to a product so old-fashioned even a caveman can abuse it? Can a toxic liquid that feels like some frothy byproduct of making jet fuel or plastic really attract online fans?

There must be a joke in here somewhere, a joke that derives its malicious punch line from an anachronistic solution to a contemporary problem, or vice versa. Like this one: How do you know a blonde has been using your computer? There's Wite-Out on the screen. If that joke offends you, spray some WD-40 on the newspaper.

The folks at WD-40 are perfectly serious. They claim 120,000 members in the WD-40 fan club. And they talk about the deep feeling that "end users" have for the product.

"They think about how the product has been passed on through generations in their family," says Shannon Edwards, associate brand manager for the San Diego-based WD-40. "People get emotional about it: 'My grandfather taught me how to spray the hinges on the car.' "

Serious mechanics have kept it handy since the early 1960s, when it grew from a locally marketed San Diego product to nationwide availability. And serious mechanics still use it. But for generations it has also been the reliable helpmeet of the home klutz. WD-40 is to bad handymen what cream of mushroom soup is to bad cooks. You start with a little, applied close to the problem. Then you apply more. You swear like a stevedore and bash the offending mechanical object with something heavy. By the time you give up and take it to someone who actually knows how to fix it, whatever you've been working on is covered in a light glaze of oily ooze.

A glaze that smells sweet, sickly sweet, like the nectar that robotic bees would suck from mechanical flowers. If lawnmowers wore cologne, it would smell like WD-40, the Old Spice of the two-stroke engine.

The product's original purpose was to be part of "a line of rust-prevention solvents and degreasers for use in the aerospace industry," according to company lore. The formula, originally used on the Atlas missile and supposedly discovered on the 40th attempt, is still proprietary.

"The secret sauce is secret," Edwards says. But she confirms it's definitely petroleum-based, which makes some of its kitchen applications, included on the company's "List of 2000+ Uses" Web page, a bit dubious: "Lubricates meat slicer knob . . . lubricates tomato slicer handle . . . lubricates antique waffle iron . . . frees frozen parts on electric coffee grinder . . ."

The old can, in grim black and yellow that screams better living through chemistry, was based on material found in the company's "original can archives." The new can, with the more familiar red, blue and yellow colors, comes with an innovation the company introduced in 2005, a permanently attached straw meant to prevent the annoying loss of the old thin red straw. Before this, the straw was forever errant, lost in the back of the pickup or the recesses of the tool box.

The return of the old, detachable straw, side by side with the new perma-straw, only emphasizes the obvious: that this is a product for people who don't know how to manage real things in the real world. It is, literally, a panacea for losers. Like duct tape and baling wire and Liquid-Plumbr.

It bridged two eras, the age of terrestrial machines that ran on gasoline or diesel, and the fantasy world of rocket science. In the palm of your hand was something made for missiles, but oh so helpful in the garage, too. In her new book, "Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957-1962," Megan Prelinger looks at the iconography of American commerce during this heady age. One recurring image -- the hand reaching out to the moon and beyond -- gets to the heart of the American dream of big science and easy fixes. It links the idea of being "handy" with the ambition to slip the old bonds of Earth.

Robert Browning, in a great ode to ambition and failure, once wrote: "A man's reach should exceed his grasp." It's a fine sentiment for a painter, or a poet. The "exceeding his grasp" has proved much more problematic in the world of machines, missiles and miles-deep oil wells. WD-40, that wonder of rocket science, was the fantasy of reach marketed to the loser world of no grasp. Its return, this month, in the nostalgic colors of the 1950s, reminds us of that most basic definition of our species: man, the mediocre mechanic.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company