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From leaded gas to supermarkets with gas pumps: Service stations I’ve known

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The first gas station I remember looked like this one outside of Ft. Worth, Texas. Dad filled up his ’37 Nash every Sunday morning, a 15-minute ritual. I liked the smell of leaded gasoline. Photos by the author, except where noted.

Remember the first time your young nose inhaled the smell of leaded gasoline?

To my detriment, I sucked in that pungent aroma with pleasure every Sunday morning when Dad drove to the Maplewood (New Jersey) Texaco station to fill up his 1937 Nash or, later, 1948 Chevy.

“Joe,” or “Sal,” or “Vinnie,” I can’t remember his name, lumbered over to Dad’s window and greeted us with a big smile and loud “Fill’er up?” His name was sewn in large letters on a well-worn denim shirt stained with motor oil, lube, antifreeze, coffee, and sweat.

The brim of his Texaco hat touched the windshield as he scrubbed off squashed bugs. I wondered if he was almost blind as he put his face close and peered through Coke bottle-thick lenses. He and Dad always had the same conversation.

“Want your oil and water checked?” he asked. Dad usually did those tasks himself, but I think he liked watching someone else do them. “You’re low a quart.”

Dad nodded approval and I watched the oil pouring ritual—a 25-cent can of Texaco’s premium 10W-30 punctured by a metal tube with a sharp end being emptied slowly into the crankcase’s downtube—with fascination.

Taking a greasy rag from his back pocket, the big man checked the oil level and then removed—carefully allowing water pressure to release—the radiator cap. He lifted with ease the heavy metal water can and poured in a small amount.

I bought my first car, a 1951 Mercury, in 1960 at a Texaco station that was as dilapidated as this one in St. Josephine, Texas. The car was a fixer-upper cobbled together by the garage mechanic.

Then he retrieved a silver pressure gauge from a plastic pocket-protector, which also contained pencils and a screwdriver. Squatting, he checked each tire’s pressure and tread wear. “You’re low a few pounds in the front left,” he said, “but you’ll be all right until next time.”

The routine took perhaps 15 minutes and I sure liked it a lot more than sitting in church. Dad handed over a five-dollar bill. Reaching into his other chest pocket, the attendant took out a wad of bills—secured by an elastic band—that could have choked a horse. There were no credit cards then. Wetting his thumb, he peeled off three singles. Tipping his hat, he urged us to return and the transaction was over.

$150/As is
“Go inside and ask for a map,” Dad requested. After a long drive north from New Jersey and through New York State, we stopped at a little Esso station in a quiet town on the Vermont border.

Excited, I couldn’t wait to go inside and smell oil and lube grease. There were colorful objects to see, too, from a rack displaying dozens of state and local maps, all free for the taking, to rows of shelves containing cans and bottles filled with fluids for crankcases, radiators, brake cylinders, batteries, and more.

Image via Hemmings archives.

Gasoline pumps, especially the 1930s models with glass containers, filled by turning a hand-crank, were objects of my frequent examinations. Stations had different pumps, some with rotating numbers, others with clock-like hands and all with bells that rang with each gallon. Maybe someday I could be a “gas jockey” and fill tanks, check under hoods, and clean windows, I often dreamed.

Daydreams aside, I watched Dad spread the map on the car hood and study highways and names of little towns. He was an expert map reader. He also was one of those guys who intuitively knew how to drive places and never get lost. He patiently taught me the finer points of map reading. (I have a stack of old maps in my car and refuse to use GPS.)

Years later, Dad was very unhappy when he drove my first car on its maiden run from the Texaco station to our home.

It was love at first sight. “Stop!” I yelled as Mom drove past the station. “I want that car.”

The car that got my attention was a 1951 Mercury two-door painted faded green with dual exhausts. The “for sale” sign in the back window read “$150/As is.”

Fortuitously, I had saved exactly $150 working as a $1/hour usher in the Maplewood Theater during the summer of 1960. “Mom, I have enough money,” I pleaded. “It’s the car of my dreams.”

Mothers can be wonderful and mine was no exception. She did stop. And I bought the car 30 minutes later from the garage mechanic. Dad wasn’t impressed, however, when he drove it home and told me the odometer had stopped at 98K miles.

“I smell oil,” he said, “and I see blue smoke.” He was right. The old Mercury had seen better days. But that didn’t matter to me. It looked like James Dean’s 1949 Mercury in Rebel Without a Cause. And James Dean was my idol at age 16.

Upside-down shocks and Green Stamps
The old Mercury was in the garage a lot after that for repairs by mechanics possessing dubious abilities. Most of the time, they knew what they were doing…such as when I stripped second gear—the result of worn shift linkage—and they replaced the transmission. But there were occasions when they failed miserably.

Such was the case years later when I drove a VW minibus that required new shocks. After the mechanic, a young guy who admitted he didn’t know much about “foreign cars,” gave me the keys and I pulled into the street, I knew something was terribly wrong. Returning immediately, I expressed great concern.

“There’s loud thumping under the car,” I explained, “and the ride is horrible.”

The station’s owner put the VW on a lift and we examined the shocks. He had a shocked expression when he told me they had been installed upside down. The problem was quickly remedied.

The service station mechanic only finger-tightened the oil plug on my prized ’86 LeBaron convertible. Fortunately, I discovered leaking oil in the driveway before the engine was ruined.

On another occasion, I took my prized ’86 Chrysler LeBaron convertible in for a routine oil change. Job completed, I drove home and, after pulling into the driveway, noticed a thin oil trail behind the car. Looking underneath, I discovered the oil plug was only finger tight. A few more miles and I might have lost all the oil and ruined the engine.

My wife, Grace, loved driving the LeBaron. At that point, we had shared many cars going back to our marriage in 1966. We didn’t have much during the early years and were grateful for service stations that awarded customers S&H Green Stamps.

It took 1,200 green stamps—which came in denominations of one, 10, and 50 points—to fill a book. Each stamp had to be moistened and pasted, and when the book was filled it could be redeemed for a gift at the S&H store. We were proud of the cheap housewares we earned—from appliances to lamps—that filled our small apartments.

Fighting for the last gallon
It was a bitter cold night, ice and deep snow covering highways, as I left work for my 72-mile commute home. Frustrated because late meetings delayed my departure, I viewed the gas gauge with trepidation. It reminded me the tank was nearly empty.

“Oh, shoot!” I said to myself. “Today is an ‘odd’ day and I have an ‘even’ number on my license plate.”

It was March 1974, and the nation was gripped by the Arab oil embargo. You were out of luck if you tried to buy gas on the wrong day, or if you arrived at the service station late at night. Most stations had a 10-gallon limit and closed when their supply was low.

Arriving home on a “wing and a prayer,” I met a very concerned Grace, who announced she was in labor. It was time to take her to the hospital for the birth of our second daughter, Tori, who came into the world early the next morning. After driving Grace and Tori home, I set off—my ’65 Valiant running on fumes—to the nearest station.

Despite it being early in the morning, lines of cars stretched from each pump into the street, drivers jockeying for position, tempers on edge. Some had been in line starting before the station opened. They often slept in their running cars or drank coffee while reading newspapers.

During the oil embargo of the early ’70s, motorists endured long lines and a 10-gallon limit. Fights sometimes broke out if someone cut in line. Friendly service was a thing of the past. Photo by David Falconer, via Documerica.

Arguments leading to screaming and fist fights sometimes broke out between drivers. Service station owners often had to break up the fights, or get out of the way of angry motorists who blamed them for low fuel supplies, much higher and ever-rising prices or closing early. Two hours later, my tank half-filled, I thanked God for the gasoline…and a new daughter.

96-pump behemoths
Today’s service stations are much better and different than what I remember as a young man. Things have changed in a big way. No long lines or gas shortages now. I still fill up at a local station, but sometimes drive to the nearest Buc-ee’s for gas, food, and entertainment.

One near me in Dallas occupies 56,000 square feet and has 96 canopy-covered gas pumps. There are almost as many spotless urinals and toilets inside. It’s the place where you “pump in” and “pump out.” Need to shop? There’s plenty of parking. Take your pick from among 650 extra-wide spaces.

Inside, you could drive a golf cart up and down wide aisles bisecting canyons of shelves holding everything from candies and cooking gear to 13 varieties of jerky and refrigerators stocked with crawfish, fettuccine, and chicken cordon bleu. Employees cook brisket and other meats for you and slice potatoes for chips they season and cook while you wait.

A Buc-ee’s Travel Center near me has 96 gas pumps, car wash, and retail center offering everything from cowboy boots to stuffed armadillos. Gasoline costs about what I paid in 1974.

Our travels have taken us from one end of Texas to the other. I’m happy to report that old service stations, many decorated with petrified wood on walls of stone and pine, still flourish in little towns where pickup trucks outnumber SUVs and there are more cattle than people.

Petrified wood decorates these old gas stations and other early 20th-century buildings near Glen Rose (left) and Nocona, Texas. Bonnie and Clyde may have stopped at one of these stations.

Unlike the enormous Buc-ees, RaceTracs, and other modern chains where the main focus is selling food and retail items, the old stations I visit still smell of oil and lube grease. Some even have original handmade highway “art” designed to catch your eye. These often take the form of enormous men holding mufflers and wheels or animals ranging from longhorns to roadrunners.