A Trip To The Gas Station

My car needs another fill-up. Bummer. So I will do what I have done countless times before – I will drive to my local Costco, pull up to a pump, scan my card, and pump several (increasingly expensive) gallons of gas into my little magic carpet and then be on my way, with a full tank and all the possibilities that it brings. But it wasn’t always like this.

I remember when the gas station was my favorite place in the whole world. As a car-crazy young kid, there was nothing I loved more than when one of my parents stopped for gas when I was along.

I remember Mom’s stops, mostly. Her 1964 Oldsmobile Cutlass had a fairly hot engine for its day (any day, for that matter). She would pull into Vic’s Shell station and up to the pump island. One of the guys would come to the window and she was ready with her regular order “Fill er up with Super Shell”. That Oldsmobile required premium gas and it was fed a steady diet of Super Shell for several years.

One of them would lift the hood to check the oil, occasionally adding a quart of 10-W-30. They would sometimes check the air in the tires and would always wash the windshield with a sponge, follow up with the squeegee (one of the coolest names ever for a product of any kind, don’t you think?) and then give it all a good wipe-down with one of those light-blue thick paper/fiber towels.

I loved the smell that wafted in through the open window and listened for the mysterious sounds of the nozzle going into the fill pipe, the periodic dings from the pump as the numbers advanced and finally the “thunk” of the automatic shut-off when the tank was full. Mom would have her Shell credit card ready and would sign the little ticket right before the attendant would tear out the carbon copy receipt.

We knew all of the guys who worked there, and knew their names because of the little embroidered patches sewn to their light gray uniform shirts. One of them was John. John was a southerner with an accent and manners that stood out in our upper midwestern location. I recall a time when Mom was trying to stretch her money and when John preemptively asked “Fill er with Super Shell Ma’am?” she replied “Prices have gone up, and I think I’ll try regular this time.” John seemed to like my mother, and I remember the pained look on his face as he explained his dismay.”

“Now Ma’am, it’s your car, but puttin’ Reg’lar in this car would be a mistake. This car’s made for high test and I’m afraid you’ll be askin’ f’r trouble cuz she’s not gonna run right. Yes Ma’am, Reg’lar’d be a mistake. Won’t cha please do the Super Shell?” Mom was a little taken aback by the short lecture on the responsibility she had to her car, and agreed. She was a little peeved but came around.

After that, John was her guy. They handled basic repairs and tune-ups and things like wiper blades and tires. And then there were the glasses.

Some time, probably around 1970 or so, Shell began a promotion which resulted in Mom being presented with a drinking glass with each fill-up. These were really ugly glasses in hindsight, but they were cool and modern then. They were a sort of amber color with a bumpy outer surface. John would occasionally hand her two of them, with something like “You’re a payin’ extra f’r the Super Shell.” Along with a big smile. Our collection built up until the day came when we hit the apex of Shell’s glassware promotion: John walked out of the office and proudly handed Mom the pitcher!

Our glassware cabinet had been a mishmash of this and that, but the Shell “tumblers” began to displace the remnants of old sets (though some of the jelly jar glasses remained), but never before had we had a full set of 12 glasses (I think we got even more) AND a pitcher to match!

Vic was an older guy who was always at the station. He normally stayed inside and managed the repair work, but one day he came out to the car as it was being filled with some bad news. It seemed that Shell had refused to renew his franchise agreement because it was slowly taking over operation of the retail end of the business. Vic was clearly angry about it, but told us that he would be taking over a Marathon station at a different location.

There was no question that Mom’s auto needs would continue to be handled by Vic, but the days of Super Shell came to an end. All this was around the time when Mom got a new car, one that was satisfied with Regular grade fuel, unlike its diva-like predecessor. Vic’s Brentwood Marathon (named for the nearby neighborhood) became the go-to thereafter.

It is hard to imagine that kind of relationship today, in this era of gas stations where one is as good as any other and where the fill-up decision is all about the sweet spot of price and location. The last one of those stations I remember was not far from my neighborhood – Bill’s Sunoco. One by one the old-style stations had been replaced by stations designed for self-serve, with multiple islands of pumps and a little central cubicle for the attendant whom you didn’t know and who didn’t know you. Bill’s Sunoco remained as an old-school service station with two service bays and guys who could mount a tire, replace fan belts or handle other basic repairs.

Bill’s had switched to self-serve by then, so that after the fill I would walk into the office to pay. It was always interesting to look through the door into the service bay to see what was up on a lift, or to have some small talk with the guy at the counter, like when he would rib me about the 35 gallon tank in my big Ford van. But then one day Bill closed the Sunoco station, which was not long after a brand new Marathon station went up a half block away, right across from the big new Shell station, both of which boasted of well-stocked convenience items in their brightly lit stores.

I miss the days of guys who wore uniforms, which were never as clean as they looked in the brand’s advertising during their glory days. I miss the smells of grease and oil and new tires that mingled with the gasoline vapors in the air. I miss the “ding ding” of the driveway bells and the vending machine by the front door that tempted me with cold cans of pop for the cost of some change.

But most of all I miss the way that I, once upon a time, loved going to the gas station.

39 thoughts on “A Trip To The Gas Station

  1. Chatting with another “old guy” like myself the other day on my neighborhood walk, and for some reason during the discussion, the concept came up that as kids, we both loved the smell of old leaded gas; like perfume for men. I think the idea that in the olden days, a gas station was “full service” was a real neighborhood draw, especially for women. Knowing somebody who was a valid member of the neighborhood, who was probably not going to screw them for repairs, and that they saw weekly, was a real important thing. That was back when cars operational systems were so similar, a decent mechanic really could “service your car”. If it wasn’t for the neighborhood “full service” station of old, where would I have gotten my tires patched?

    Today, the local Shell Station a block from me, doesn’t do anything auto oriented but sell gas, and have a machine where you pay to get air. On the other hand, in my complex, that station is kind of like the neighborhood bodega, and the locals are in there buying frozen pizzas, snacks and sodas when they’re too tired at the end of the day to go to the store. This happens so often that most of my apartment compatriots know the staff by name, and the station is competitive with out nearest store with frozen pizza prices! When a door closes, a window opens…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you describe the difference between a neighborhood spot and a place patronized by random passerss-by. Neighborhoods spring up from those who live there, and yours seems to have adopted the Shell station, and vise versa. I like stories like this.

      And fuel vapors as perfume for men – I love that!

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  2. Thank you for this. You’ve reminded me about the sole gas station in the town of 450 where I grew up.

    It was owned by Bob Storm. Was it a Standard? I don’t even remember. Anyway, I remember going there when I was little and how Bob and my father would always strike up a conversation.

    Like you described, there was a service area for low-key repairs plus tires. What really stands out is one day my mother was tasked with taking the ’73 Torino to Bob’s to have some tires swapped around. Seeing my mother keeping an eye on a very young me and my even younger sister, Bob came up to my mom and said “Sharon, here’s the keys to my pickup. No point in hanging around here; just come back in an hour or so.” Reluctantly she took his pickup (a rather new square body Chevrolet) and we came back later.

    That is certainly a degree of customer service you won’t find now. And likely not much back then, either.

    Jim, thanks for excavating that memory.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, we never got a loaner vehicle, but otherwise the experience was similar. A friend of mine worked at one of those places when he was in high school. He did most of the pump-jockey work while “Buzz” the owner did the mechanical stuff.

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  3. I’m just a bit younger, so I don’t recall the days of pump guys in uniforms. I think North America used to have lots of people who could make a living at jobs like that, I think of Harold the butcher down the road from our house, “Leo Latex” from church who worked as a house painter and rolled his own cigarettes.

    Of course George Romney made $200k at his little business in 1959, and paid something like 42% income tax rate so things were different for everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • All true – and even more, they weren’t only people that the educational establishment labeled as too dumb to go to college. Several of those guys in my experience were plenty sharp but came from a tradition where formal education stopped after high school, or lacked the funds to go beyond that.

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  4. I remember that aromatic gasoline smell back in the ’70s when filling up. I don’t notice it that much anymore. Maybe gasoline has been reformulated?

    Regarding gasoline brand choice, I only buy “Top Tier” gas: On the internet there’s a list of the brands that qualify as Top Tier–they supposedly have detergents and other beneficial chemicals mixed in.

    Here in New Jersey, the pinnacle of cultural refinement and high civilization, ATTENDANTS pump gas into our cars–Self-Serve is illegal. I like that. I hate the idea of me (and other motorists, especially women) having to pump our own gas. Even so, I haven’t driven over one of those “DING-DING” cords in over 20 years now.

    The fact that most service stations charge for air (which used to be free) annoys me.

    Many stations still have buckets and squeegees for cleaning windshields–even though most modern cars have windshield washers built in. And the customer generally cleans the windows himself.

    Idealized view of the gas station experience from 1958:

    https://i0.wp.com/www.curbsideclassic.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/20190124_171148-1_resized.jpg?w=720&ssl=1

    Liked by 1 person

    • The New Jersey and Oregon thing of mandatory full-serve is fascinating to me. Indiana started going self-serve in the 70s, the first time gas was going up. I remember being worried, wondering if I could work the pump the first time, and then ended up teaching many others in my family.

      I think Costco sells Top Tier gas. At the other end of the spectrum is those unbranded stations. A friend has run a couple of gas stations and has told me that those places often sell something he called “push gas”, which he described as gasoline that gets used as a buffer between big bunches of product that get pushed through pipelines, whether kerosene, fuel oil, aviation fuel or whatever. He tells me that the “push gas” is a real crap shoot because it picks up some of whatever it is buffering on either side so you never know exactly what you’re getting. I have avoided those places ever since I heard this.

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      • In Pennsylvania, the self vs. full-service question was left to localities – and I remember when our township first permitted self-serve gas in the early 1980s.

        It was a big controversy, and the debate dragged on for months, maybe years. I remember the fire marshal insisting that self-serve was unsafe (despite the fact that most surrounding townships allowed it, without mass casualties). Older people complained about the lack of assistance with self-serve. But most of all, many of the gas station owners were against it because they felt that self-serve benefited mostly big, corporate-owned stations, to the detriment of locally-owned stations.

        Eventually, our township passed the self-serve ordinance, and since then it seemed completely odd to have someone else fill up your car. The last time I was in a full-serve only place was last year in Pierre, South Dakota — which took me completely by surprise.

        Liked by 1 person

      • To show you how things change, I was in Oregon not that long ago and I was highly suspicious of people coming out to “gas up” my car. Not only does it now seem like a needless step (how many people have secretaries ‘taking a letter’ anymore vs. just typing it on a computer yourself), but it seems like an opportunity for unscrupulous vendors to mess with your car/tires/whatever. As an upper mid-westerner, we certainly heard horror stories for years of criminal service station operators in the south (read Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, etc.), messing with cars and tires on vehicles owned by people driving to Florida. Many true, BTW. As with our conversation previously about fast food restaurants, as far as I’m concerned, the type of person that’s working for probably very little money to “gas up” cars in Oregon or New Jersey, is probably not the person I want near or messing with my car. Self-serve just eliminates another opportunity for frustration in dealing with someone probably not the “best and brightest.”

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  5. Wow JP, that post brings back a lot of memories. We had the same set of gold glasses with the bumpy surface and I often wondered where they came from, no pitcher though that I can remember. My mother also got one china setting a week at the grocery store in some kind of store promotion, so she eventually had a service of 10 and those gold glasses were only used when the good china came out at Christmas and Thanksgiving – it had a gold rim on white plates, so the gold glasses matched, as I remember gold as being an “in” color back then. My mother still has six of them left.

    We frequented the Shell station mostly, as there is a Shell chemical plant here, but there was also an Esso station which gave out glasses with turquoise dots ( a 60’s color) on them, one per fill-up. I saw a complete set in a vintage store a few years ago. I still frequent either Shell or Esso as they will pump for you, as I can’t stand the smell of gas vapours. – it must be a guy thing. I hated it on the farm when my dad had a gas tank for filling up the tractors and the big truck used to come and refill it once in awhile. The Shell station guys will also wipe the front window, and there are still a few bays for minor repairs, but it’s the only one in the city that still has that. I also remember when you had to specify leaded or unleaded.

    Every time I go to the Honda dealer the staff are different, even when I switched to an independent mechanic, his staff rotates. There’s no such thing as company loyalty anymore, from either end, so there’s no point in embroidering your name on a shirt!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ooooh, we never got dishes through a promotion. We did get several items through Green Stamps, though.

      Yes, my local Honda dealer is a revolving door of service advisors too, but my independent mechanic knows me by name.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Sometime in the ’60s my folks got a care package from the local “Welcome Wagon” group that included a potholder that advertised the local Sinclair station which was owned by a family named Parsons. I seem to recall my Dad getting gas at a variety of places, but oil changes & any repair that didn’t seem to require the dealership got done at Parson’s. Over the years, they switched from Sinclair to Standard I think, and eventually stopped selling gas and pulled out the pumps. I do my own repairs, so haven’t stopped in a while, but I think they are on to the 3rd or 4th generation of the family, and the pot holder finally wore out 10 or 15 years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I was a kid I always wished we would go to the Sinclair station because I was into the dinosaur they used in their branding. I think it is still my sentimental favorite among old gas station brands.

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  7. Lots of great memories here, J.P. The architecture of the Shell station in the first photo suggests ANY gas station back in the day – they all looked like that, didn’t they? I also remember the full-service attendants in their coveralls with the cloth nametags, their hands looking like they’d never be clean again. And I forgot about how the credit cards were processed – the hand-held machine with the back-and-forth slide over the raised numbers to create the carbon copy. You mention the Shell gas card. I think everyone had gas station cards back then but without loyalty programs. Pretty sure the gas stations didn’t take the major credit cards yet. I’m sure our West Lost Angeles stations also had giveaways, but none come to mind. Just those orange/blue styrofoam Union 76 ping-pong balls for the antenna, creating free advertising all over the streets.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, before gas stations started taking Visa/MC, I remember having to read the backs of my gas cards to know what stations accepted them. A trip a couple of states away usually seemed to result in a totally different selection of brands than I got at home.

      I remember the orange balls for antennas. On a trip to visit relatives in Minnesota, my mother’s aunt told us that they were great for winter visibility so that you could see if another car was on the other side of a snowbank. It had never occurred to me that Union Oil gave them away to everyone everywhere. The execs in California probably never considered the snowbank thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I used to love the giveaway promotions at gas stations. Hockey schedules, maybe a tiger tail or a glass. Once there was a giveaway where you got a different screwdriver each month until you got the whole set – Robertson in all sizes, Phillips, Slot, etc. I still have the screwdrivers today, and maybe a hockey schedule from the ’70s.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would have loved the screwdriver thing. I have a few Sunoco items – a friend’s uncle was a salesman for Sun Oil in the Detroit area, and I eventually got a booklet of Sunoco oil change stickers to put on the door when I changed oil. I still think they’re cool.

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  9. My dad had a service station he went to for years as I was growing up. There was a father and son that ran it and they would give me STP or Pennzoil stickers (not that I had a clue what that was, of course) and I could take a map from the rack of free maps. There was a soda machine that you put a dime in and you dragged the glass (returnable) bottle along until it reached a latch that opened if you had paid. One of the most memorable events of my life was when I got to stay in the car with my soda and my map while it got put up in air on the hoist!

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    • I remember those STP stickers as being everywhere in the 60s. Some interesting trivia is that STP was a division of the Studebaker Corporation from 1961 until they spun it off in 1969 (a few years after they killed their namesake automobile manufacturing operation). They were the ones who put Andy Granatelli in charge of it, who promoted the heck out of it at multiple Indy 500 races back then.

      C’mon Herb, you grew up in Wisconsin, didn’t you? Wasn’t it really a “pop machine”? šŸ™‚ That’s what we called them in northeast Indiana.

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  10. I remember our local gas station was a Mobil, and was owned by a very nice gentleman named Bill. Bill was friendly, knowledgeable and always ready to help. Frequently, people would pull into the gas station to fill up, and then walk into the station’s office to ask Bill a question — like “My car’s sputtering – can you take a look at it?” And Bill would come out, open the hood, spend a few minutes fiddling with things, and then the car would be better.

    What I remember most about Bill’s Mobil is its cleanliness. His service bays were cleaner than my mom’s kitchen, and Bill would run his riding vacuum cleaner through the station lot and the adjoining sidewalk several times a day, vacuuming up leaves, trash, debris, etc.

    Bill retired around 1990, and for some reason, Mobil wouldn’t transfer ownership of the franchise to his daughter, who had worked for many years as his office manager and wanted to continue the business. The station was sold, and became some other brand, and immediately became a decrepit-looking place with a staff of constantly-changing mechanics.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What a great place Bill’s Mobil must have been! And what a tragedy that it could not be passed down. Sometimes you wonder what people are thinking, like the corporate people who would not do the transfer. There was probably a reason, but it is a shame nevertheless.

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  11. My favorite little promo film (4 min.) about “your friendly neighborhood service station.” Did gas station owners really drive up to random people’s houses, in uniform, (driving a 1955 AMC Hudson no less), interrupt you while you’re mowing the lawn, and offer you a free can of lubricating oil? The past really was a different place!

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    • I have to believe that there was a lot of the advertiser’s art being practiced there. The professionally produced approximations of real life that survive were surely more pleasant than the real thing.

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  12. I remember those days too JP, especially running over that black cord that alerted the attendant who hurried out in his uniform and did a little ____ -point checkup of your car (I can’t remember how many items he checked, but the dip stick would come out for sure and tire pressure was checked). You never got out of the car and came away with clean windows to boot. We had glassware that I recall was handed out with a fill-up. The good old days for sure and filling up my ’73 VW Super Beetle was $3.00!

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    • A $3 fill up – I’m jealous. I don’t think I ever had one of those. When prices were low I had a car with a 25 gallon tank, and my current small car did really great if I got out for under $20.

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      • The year I graduated from highschool, a group of us went camping in northern Wisconsin in my 66 Olds Jetstar. 16 gallon tank, and gas at 24.9 a gallon, that’s a 4 dollar fill up and I remember it like it was yesterday…

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  13. There’s a gas station in the town right of Mackinac Island (not on the island itself, but the town where you catch the ferry to get there) that still has people come fill the tank and check the oil for you. I had never experienced that before so when they came running out I was a bit confused at first haha! šŸ™‚ šŸ™‚

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  14. I remember those days. My step father-in-law had an old time gas station that eventually morphed into a Mini Mart. On Sunday, I pumped gas for $5.59 and almost thought this was a good deal because the station across the street was selling for $5.79.

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    • It was once my fondest hope that I would eventually own a nice little neighborhood gas station. Then I got involved in an insurance coverage lawsuit over a little country station with a big tank that started leaking, spiked the aquifer with gasoline and resulted in someone a mile or so away suffering a washing machine that exploded. I decided I’m OK where I am.

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      • After a gas station near me in Brooklyn closed a few years ago there was a huge double basement depth hole with white tanks, a lot of white pipes and other equipment in it there for several years before they could fill it in and build something new.

        Liked by 1 person

      • With some hindsight, it’s kind of amazing that nobody seemed to wonder about the next step after putting a steel tank in wet dirt and filling it with gasoline.

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