Recently, I stopped to fill my gas tank up with gasoline during my commute to work. In keeping with how things are today, it was, of course, self-service. I thought it was interesting that the use of the term ‘self-service’ wasn’t necessary back in the day because then the merchant was more than happy to pump the fuel for you. It is a rare station today that offers ‘full service.’ Come to think of it, the term ‘filling stations’ is rarely used these days. Most places called service stations are really junk food centers that maintain public restrooms, sell bags of chips and other impulse items like beer, warmed pizza, and lottery tickets. Oh, and by-the-way, there are some gas pumps outside, help yourself.
None would even consider checking the water level in your battery, cleaning your windshield, or suggest a new fan belt was needed, never mind telling a customer of a special on a new set of tires. A very few remain that can change a tire, charge a battery, plug a leaky radiator, , or adjust your temperamental carburetor. If you need an oil change you’ll either have to go to the dealer, or find a business that just does oil changes. In most communities there are simply no businesses offering full service. Therefore, they are called ‘service stations.’ Go figure!
Yes, the old filling stations we used during our youth have been replaced by (non) service stations. The old kind employed two or three mechanics who stayed busy with a lot of vehicles that had been dropped off, or towed in, to get some minor trouble-shooting and repair. Many older stations had their own wreckers so they were prepared to pick up your malfunctioning vehicle. They were called filling stations, but they provided important, if not urgent, auxiliary services. Some of us can picture in our memories that when a customer wheeled in and stopped next to the pumps one or more uniformed and smiling attendants rushed out to provide customer care. They inspected fluid levels, and checked to see if your tires were worn or low. They offered a quick vacuum and windshield wash while gas was added to your tank. For a few moments the driver was free to go inside and grab a cold bottle of pop while settling the bill. In those days it was cash only, so ‘fill ups’ were less common. I remember buying fifty-cents worth, or maybe a whole dollar! You wouldn’t get far now considering current gas prices.
It was a sad, sad day when many stations converted to self-serve. There were a few that continued in a brave attempt to keep customer loyalties. They pampered their customers and took care of every perceived need. Like the doctor’s office, some kept a file and asked about this or that suspected malady in your car. Finally, even when those remaining stations were forced to stop pumping gas and cleaning windshields, some stations kept one set of pumps for self-serve while others had slightly higher prices for full-service. Even the most stubborn customers got out of their cars and learned to pump their own gas. They became accustomed to cleaning their own windshields. It didn’t take long before the other repair services were phased out of the business. Mechanics had to find another job or new line of work.
Many stations in my day had art décor or colonial styled buildings that followed the ‘gilded age.’ They were replaced by newer, more modern designs that no longer sold tires, batteries, or made repairs. In fact, the garage doors were missing and a grease pit or lift was not to be found. No longer were there sounds of air compressors or an air hammer being used on a car suspended high upon a lift. In fact, the service sections are replaced by rows of potato chips, and a sandwich counter that may even carry hot fried chicken. Free maps, a selection of bandanas, a rabbit’s foot charm, and a place to hang out was gone forever.
I also remember the urgent sound of an electric ring that broke out when a customer pulled in front of the pumps. The bell alerted those inside the station that were busy working in the shop that another customer had arrived. It was a good practice to rush out and greet a friend, for friends they were. They quickly washed our windshields and checked our oil and water while asking about the family. For most of my life, air for the tires (including bicycle tires) was free. They even kept fittings so basketballs and footballs could be refilled for the neighborhood boys. Today it will cost you $1 – $2 to pump your own air from a coin operated air dispenser. No longer will you find free maps that will guide you to wherever you may wish to go, but then with GPS right there on your smart phone, why would you need them? The reason that we didn’t have telephones in our car was we didn’t have a long enough cord.
When I was a kid I wheeled my bike to Simpson’s Gulf Station to get my tires repaired. I stood by and watched them remove the wheel, pull out the tube, locate the leak and grab a repair kit. After sanding the area around the hole, a rubbery patch of just the right size was added. Then they smeared on a compound over the hole and struck a match to burn a weld a rubber patch over the hole. Next, they put air in the tube and tested it for leaks in a big tub of water. Then they would then let the air out and stuff the tube back into the tire, only to fill it up again. You can see I paid enough attention that I was able to make the repairs on my own. I bought a ‘hot patch’ kit from Western Auto and saved time and money.
As mentioned, filling stations in the forties and fifties were ‘cash and carry.’ I don’t recall any that ran accounts, but for some major repairs it is likely they did. I know they kept a few cars on a back lot until the parts came in, or the car’s owner got up the money. Back then few people were blessed with much pocket money. This was especially true when it was just before paydays, so dollars had to be watched. Rather than filling up on gasoline when a trip out of town wasn’t planned people bought fifty cents worth, or maybe a dollar’s worth. If they filled up it was a sign that they were going out of town, or maybe even across country. Of course there were those who were well-healed or liked to ‘show off’ and fill up their tanks.
Several of us kids sometimes dropped by a filling station just to hang out for a while. It was interesting to see who bought gas and how much. Sometimes, the passenger was a classmate or friend. If it was a slow day the owner or mechanic talked and told us stories while we guzzled pop. If it got too busy and we were under foot, they ran us off. They said that kids under foot could cause stress for their hard workers. On a good day we picked up all kinds of news about which businesses were doing well and which weren’t. Sometimes I heard who was selling out, or what the new car models coming out were like.
All too often the wall phone in the station rang with another prank like the old ‘Prince Albert’ joke. (For later generations it goes like this: ‘Do you have Prince Albert in a can? (A brand of tobacco) When answered with a ‘yes,’ the caller shouted, “Then let him out!”) That got really old and angered them a little bit. Consider, they had to drop whatever they were doing to answer the phone. Effectively it stole precious time from an important job. Still, the phone was a business necessity. Folks called for wrecker service or for urgent help with a breakdown. I’ve seen mechanics grab a tool box and jump in a pickup and head out to rescue someone broken down on the side of the road.
The generation that worked in filling stations back in the day knew and valued the real concept of customer service. Sometimes loyalty to a station wasn’t just the price of gasoline but the treatment they gave their customers when they pulled in. Some treated you as if you were the most important customer they’d had all day, and you believed it. You always threw your business to those firms and recommended them to others.
It was a few years after I had gone into the military service when I had become a ‘regular’ customer of a particular station close to where I lived. These folks were of the old school and washed, cleaned, vacuumed, tested all fluid levels and even checked brake lights when I came in. It was during the ‘fuel crisis back in the early seventies that gasoline rationing rules allowed the purchase of fuel on alternating days. I remember when my station owner, Mr. Arnold, who was known to everyone as Pop, came by my workplace. During a casual conversation I must have mentioned that I was nearly out of gas but it was not my day to buy. Later, when I went to my car after work, I noticed the tank was more than half-full. It turned out that Pop had brought gasoline on his day off and added it to my gas tank while I was at work. When I caught up with him he insisted there was no charge. I ask you, how could I ever take my business to anyone else? I was hurt and nearly despondent when he decided to retire and sold his business.
I started testing my memory about the various brands I remember back then. The list of these important businesses grew as I probed through the cobwebs. Not all of these were represented in our town, but I saw them in my regional travels. I’ve already mentioned Gulf, but I have to add some more names. There were Esso, Pure, Ashland, Texaco, Sinclair, Mansfield, Standard Oil, Marathon, Phillips66, Shell, Sun, DX Oil, and Flying A. It’s likely that readers will remember even more. Of course, names have changed for some, and mergers have also happened. There are many new names out there, but most got their start as one of those already mentioned.
The very first filling stations, now called gas stations, started out just after the automobiles became common. That stands to reason, I suppose, but the very first pumps were installed just outside of country general stores and groceries. Sometimes, just one hand-drawn pump was there. I remember seeing one that was a visible model. It let the gasoline fill a glassed-in section at the top of the pump before it was allowed to flow through the hose and into the gas tank. That was a pretty early pump. Most stations had electric pumps in my time, but I saw some that had to be pumped like one would a well. I suspect some pumps were converted from kerosene pumps that nearly everyone had to have for household lamps and heaters. All of this progress coincided with the arrival of electricity and the paving of major highways. For years little ‘Tin Lizzies’ ran all over the mountains and valleys guzzling up gasoline at twenty-five cents a gallon, or even less. Those days are long past!
When I was growing up my hometown had seven filling stations according to my late friend, Bernard Nelson. If I tried to name those I’m sure I’d overlook one or two. The people who owned and worked in these ‘service’ stations knew both the trouble and the rewards of providing good customer service. In fact, these were a whole generation of people that put value on showing deference to others and demonstrating care for their customers. It was more a personality trait with some mountain logic mixed in and not meant as a sales gimmick. Caring was their business and it showed. Those men were like family to us, and we to them, I’m sure. I tip my hat to those who served us in that day, as well as others that still go that extra mile. They made life better for all of us. email@example.com