The Service Station

by Rick Kopec (2/20/09)

The other day I spent some time at the Department of Motor Vehicles, which is like wandering into a parallel universe. I’m sure all states are about the same when it comes to the complexity of their motor vehicle registration laws. They are generally created to insure that no two cars have the same vehicle identification number, and that they all have unique registration plates. And to make sure that the registration fees are paid up. They also make sure that people have insurance before their cars are registered. Oh, and that they have a valid drivers license. It’s a mind-numbing bureaucracy.

And as much as you grumble and complain from your side of the counter, having to work on the OTHER side for 8 hours a day has got to be one of the lower circles of Hell. You have to wonder what these poor wretches could possibly have done in a previous life to end up here.

Another observation I made is that no matter how low someone’s IQ is, they somehow manage to overcome all of the bureaucratic obstacles and maneuver their way through the maze of tricky forms-in-triplicate and eventually get their cars registered. When they walk out with their new plates they have a look of satisfaction on their face that is hard to describe. It reminded me of the way I felt when I walked out of the final chemistry exam in high school, having read an old issue of Hot Rod magazine the night before instead of studying, and I somehow scored an B plus.

One of the interesting things about getting older—and I don’t mean just celebrating a birthday once a year; I’m talking about when you start thinking seriously about things like social security—is that you will invariably bump into someone who doesn’t have memories that go back as far as yours do.

The number on the electric sign hanging from the ceiling was 126 and the ticket in my hand said 151. I kept looking at it and then at the sign and back at my ticket, hoping one of them would change. I found myself wondering how long it would take anyone in the waiting area to realize it if the sign malfunctioned, and stopped advancing.

So, I’m sitting next to Number 148 and we strike up a conversation. He looks to be about 25 or so. He’s there to get his new (to him) ‘94 Mustang registered. Another car guy. We are immediately on the same wave length. I can’t recall how the conversation meandered onto the subject of gas stations, but it was amazing at how little he knew about what they were like back in the 1960s—only 20 years before he was born.

My first real job was at a Sunoco station, and it still amazes me that if I have a choice of three or four stations, I’ll pick Sunoco. I guess the concept of brand loyalty isn’t just advertising and marketing smoke and mirrors. Most of the people I knew back in the early 1960s were loyal to a particular brand of gas. For some it was just because the Shell station was the closest one to their home. It was the one they stopped at on their way to work in the morning or after work at night. Other reasons for picking a “favorite” were as varied as there were brands. Maybe it was because Esso sponsored a car in the Indy 500. Or maybe you had a friend or neighbor who worked at a Texaco station. It really didn’t matter. Most people had their favorite brand and never felt the need to explain why.

I actually started working at the Sunoco station when I was 15. One of the older kids down the street worked there and it was a neat place to hang out. I was offered the opportunity to clean out the rest rooms for a couple of bucks a week. Before long I had graduated to actually pumping gas and checking oil. One of the proudest days of my life (up to that point) was when the boss gave me my own light blue Sunoco shirt with my name embroidered over one pocket.

Back then they were called service stations, with the accent on “service.” It was expected that you clean the windshield of every car that came in and if you could gain entry under the hood, check the oil. Sunoco had eight “Custom Blended” grades of gas, mixing percentages of regular with high test via a large dial on the side of the pump. Regular (“190”) was 29.9¢ a gallon. Every other grade was a penny more, “200” through “260.” That was the highest octane gas you could buy (at least in our area). It was 36.9¢ a gallon—outrageously expensive at the time. But it attracted all of the high performance cars: the fuel injected Corvettes, Pontiac GTOs, Hemi Dodges and Plymouths, big block Chevelles, 427 Fords, Hi-Po Mustangs when they came out, and every hot rod and customized ’55 Chevy with a Corvette engine. One time I even pumped a thankful of 260 into a 427 Cobra. Maybe that’s what attracted me to a Sunoco station.

I remember there was an enameled metal chart, about 18” x 24”, clamped to a pole on the island that listed every car along with the suggested fuel grade. At that time Sunoco had three grades of oil: Sun Oil was 45¢ a quart, Dynalube was 55¢ and Custom was 65¢. I’ve never forgotten stuff like that. Working with gasoline on my hands provided a distinct odor, which I find pleasant even to this day. The candy machine in the office had my favorite, Almond Joy, and if I want to force myself into a flashback to 1964 all I have to do is get a little gas on my fingers so I can smell it as I am eating an Almond Joy and I am back there in less than the blink of an eye. It’s amazing the tricks your senses can play on you.

Tips were not something I would define as common, but on rainy days, when we wore heavy, black slickers, we would often end fill-ups ten cents short of an even dollar. If it came to $3.90 you hoped the customer would tell you to keep the change instead of making you come all the way back out to give him his dime. We kept a mayonnaise jar lid on the top edge of the cash register filled with battery acid, and it had a few pennies, a nickel and a dime in it. If some big shot waited for his 7¢ change, he got it, all right. And the next morning he had a nice hole in the pocket of his suit pants.

I distinctly recall when gasoline brand loyalty disappeared. It was during the first “gas crisis” in 1973. Supplies of gas started to dry up as prices rose towards $1 a gallon. It was unheard of. When stations had a supply of gasoline the lines grew magically and snaked down the street. Some stations tried to be fair, limiting each customer to some predetermined amount: 5 gallons or $5. They often limited their hours to make their supply last. Some stations had large magnetic signs that said “LAST CAR” which they stuck on the rear bumper of the last car they would sell gas to that day. You could never be certain you would find a station that had gas when you needed it, so when you did see one you dove in and “topped off.” The object was to always have a full tank in case you couldn’t get gas when you got low.

That gas crisis is when brand loyalty became an anachronism. Suddenly, “your” station treated you just like everyone else. When you couldn’t be guaranteed gas from them when you needed it, you went somewhere else. Anywhere else. I remember reading a magazine article about this phenomenon and gas customers who once had brand loyalty were referred to as “orphans of the marketplace.” When the crisis ended, so did the concept of brand loyalty where gasoline was concerned.

The next major change came when gas stations slowly evolved into convenience stores. That didn’t happen overnight, either. The first ones were the stations on the heavily traveled interstates, and that made sense. There was a time when you were lucky if a service station had a soda machine and a candy machine. Most of them did have a cigarette machine because, after all, young kids had to have someplace to get their smokes. Then all of a sudden there was a cold case in the office and a shelf with bags of chips and cookies. Slim Jims on the counter. And as cars got more technically sophisticated and more difficult to repair, the bays with the lifts saw less and less use. Oil changes evolved into the one-stop “Jiffy Lube” type of businesses. As stations converted to self-serve pumps that accepted credit cards without an attendant, the inventory inside expanded: soda by the six-pack or case, bread, snacks of all descriptions, ice cream and dairy products.

At one time, all gas stations had air compressors in the back room, feeding the air pump outside where you could inflate your tires. But as the inside work decreased and the space was given over to soda and groceries, there was no longer a need for an expensive compressor. It was replaced by a small electric compressor that you fed quarters into when you needed air. Often it shared space with a vacuum cleaner that also took quarters.

And just when did the cup holder become a necessary piece of equipment in each car? I’m betting it had something to do with the rise of the mini-mart.

As I was reminiscing, I realized that Number 148 was hearing about this stuff for the very first time. Like a lot of twenty-somethings, he had no idea that the way things are now is not the way they always were. I might have just as well had been describing how it was before everyone drove a car, when the horse and wagon was the primary means of transportation. Then my number finally came up and I was on my way to tilt at the bureaucratic windmill like some 21st century Don Quixote. Behind me, everyone else in this large room with cheap plastic chairs quietly awaited their fate.

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