I stopped for petrol the other day at Sainsburys in King’s Lynn, I was faced with the option that is becoming increasingly common “Pay at pump or pay at kiosk”. I’ve no doubt it is more efficient for the supplier but it did set me remembering the days in the 1950s when, as the competition between garages for custom began to take off, you could go into some of the larger garages where one of a number of pretty girls in short skirts and probably white kinky boots would come to serve you with petrol. Not at all efficient, but much more pleasant than helping yourself and choosing where to pay.
Back in King’s Lynn I did make my choice and filled up my car but when I drove off my mind continued to dwell on times past. Before the war I remember there was competition between brands; Shell with its sea shell symbol, National Benzole with its winged Mercury head and BP with it’s square containing the letters BP. Pratt’s was a name for petrol too but they seemed to fade out as the big companies got established. Regent and Mobil were also present as second division players that were still around after the war. There was also ROP, I remember, a Russian petrol that appeared late in the 30s, it was slightly cheaper at 11.5d/gallon I believe. It was viewed with suspicion. All petrol was very inferior to today’s fuel, poor starting in cold weather, pinking, more carbon deposits, eroded exhaust valves were all symptoms of poor quality fuel (and possibly exhaust valves). Then came the war, private motoring more or less ended, there was no rationing for private use, only those regarded as needing a car for work regarded as essential were given ration coupons, the coupons were given such that the user could fulfil his essential duties, and that was all. Taxis were allowed a ration as they were regarded as essential to the war effort, but their ration was limited with the result that there was always a shortage of taxis in central London. All of our petrol had to be imported, delivered by ships, much of it from the USA, running the gauntlet with the U-Boats. The petrol during the war was ‘Pool’ petrol (presumably because the oil companies literally put their petrol into a common pool). This was of even worse quality, it was, of course, very different to the aviation fuel used by the RAF. It was delivered in drab grey tankers with Pool written along the side, all, I think, had rigid chassis and were a lot smaller than today’s articulated monsters.
In the 30s purpose built petrol stations with small forecourts and two or three electric pumps with meters were popping up on many major roads and in some towns, often architecturally attractive. But much petrol was still served from single pumps alongside the road, where the operator wound a handle raising a visible rack. When the rack reached the top of its travel 1gallon had been delivered, to deliver a further gallon it was necessary to wind the rack down to the bottom and start again. A slow laborious business, I never knew how they worked, I assume that they were reliably accurate and checked by ‘weights and measures’?
By 1951 rationing had ended and the famous brands were back. In those days there was Retail Price Maintenance, whereby the companies agree the retail price and retailers were required to conform or risk losing their supply. There was competition between the brands, however, and between garages, hence the pretty girls. TV advertising of different petrol brands was a novelty, many will remember the Esso slogan ‘Put a tiger in your tank’, National Benzole used to claim ‘Motor how you will National Benzole will give you more miles per gallon’. Truth is that there was very little difference between the brands, but as car engines improved and went to higher compression ratios these cars required petrol with a higher-octane number (achieved mainly by additives including tetra-ethyl-lead). Different grades were offered by the larger petrol stations, 2, 3 and 4 star petrol were available, later, octane numbers were sometimes specified. Problem was many people believed that the dearer petrol must be better and bought it although their cars did not need it and could not benefit from it. (Today we have ‘unleaded’ and ‘super unleaded’ but unless the car’s handbook specifies ‘super’ there is little justification for using it.)
In 1956 there was partial prohibition of retail price maintenance and in the early 70s retail price maintenance was outlawed completely and there then developed a price war. This situation benefitted the larger garages with larger forecourts. Smaller outlets found it difficult to compete and started to close, the major suppliers compounded this situation by giving a discount to the garages selling more petrol making it even harder for the small outlet. The war between the Arabs and Israel in 1973 caused a hiccup when petrol became in short supply and motorists were queueing at garages and ‘sold out’ notices were appearing, needless to say prices rocketed. This was just a brief hiccup in the battle for sales.
The competition between brands intensified, collectables were introduced, I think it was BP that introduced ‘Smurfs’, little plastic characters with names, and children urged their parents to buy BP so that they could add another smurf to their collection, there were plastic coins or medals introduced by Esso, usually associated with individual sportsmen or other celebrities. The next stage in the game of upstaging one another was the really awful import from the USA of green shield stamps, there was a rival ‘pink stamp’. Many customers were attracted to the idea of collecting the stamps and trading them in for desirable goods, not realising that, in the end they would be paying for them. It was like a virus, once one garage (or shop) started to issue these trading stamps others had to follow, then it became a question of giving double stamps or treble stamps. Green shield stamps went on for a good many years before retailers finally resisted and stopped these parasitic tokens, I think I read somewhere that Argos grew out of the Green Stamp business. Jet petrol appeared making an attempt to break the hold of the major brands, soon to be followed by other brands.
The big change came when the supermarkets started selling petrol in the late 70s/early 80s, they had quite a lot of financial muscle and were determined to attract customers to their sites pursuing their policy of one-stop shopping. They challenged the big suppliers by offering cheaper petrol and garages in the vicinity of a big supermarket were forced to set their prices near or equal to the supermarket. This was the final nail for the small garages, in some instances small garages could buy petrol from a supermarket for less than they were asked to pay their suppliers. Of course there is some toing-and-froing between the supermarkets as they compete with each other but they appear to be the controlling factor in the petrol market today.
What of the future? Will supermarkets be competing with each other to sell cheaper electricity for electric cars?