Paul Hyett, 17 March 2020
All change at the service station?
As a child I had a wonderful model service station, writes Paul Hyett.
Its hardboard base supported a white building with a flat roof behind parapets, a ramp provided access to roof parking for my toy cars and a huge window revealed a spacious car showroom. Little did I know that this architecture, so modern in style, would represent just the briefest of moments in the evolution of the local filling station which is today making its latest transition, albeit to an earlier format, an example of which I found late one wet November evening just north of Cork.
Hopelessly lost en route to a meeting in Galway, I had stopped to get petrol in a small village. Payment was made in a lovely little grocery shop which, together with the mechanics’ workshop at the back, formed a tri-partite family business. This rambling collection of sheds, with rusty corrugated roofing over the workshop, were all attached to a stout old stone house; this was, of course, the antecedent of my post-1945 toy garage.
The first UK filling station (the term originated of course in the USA, along with gas station) was opened in Aldermaston, Berkshire, in 1919, six years after America’s first drive-in station which was in Pittsburgh at the junction of Baum Boulevard and St Clair Street.
Before that, petrol in Britain was purchased in two-gallon cans from chemists, hardware shops, hotels and occasionally garages. One of the very earliest surviving petrol-filling stations, with pumps still intact, is located at Turnastone, close to the Welsh border. Now a Grade II-listed building, the exotically named ‘West End Garage’, which became Herefordshire’s second filling station in 1922, still sells ‘over the wall’ from pumps located in the garden of an early 19th century cottage.
The evolution of venues for sale of petrol directly into vehicles began in 1919 with the occupants of village cottages and forges setting up business, with pumps located roadside. Tussles soon broke out as proprietors of grocery stores and garage workshops competed for the business of selling petrol. Against that scenario my toy garage, comprising merely car and petrol sales, was never economically viable. Perhaps it was a little closer in architectural appearance to Frank Lloyd Wright’s aborted 1927 gas station project in Buffalo (which featured de-luxe bathroom facilities, wood burning fireplaces and a lounge for travelers’ relaxation) it was programmatically much inferior. Astonishingly, this ‘ornament to the pavement’ as Wright called it, was built posthumously in 2014, complete with its overhead gravity fed tanks.
We had nothing so generous or attractive back in the UK: the Whitecross Road garage in Hereford, where my father purchased petrol for our small Austin, was a car dealer, a service and repair workshop, and a petrol station. Sales staff busied themselves selling rear-engine Renault Dauphine cars while mechanics worked ‘out back’, albeit regularly downing tools to serve at the pumps. Variations on that theme were the Enterprise Garage and Ravenhills which merely sold and serviced cars. There were simply no groceries or food sales in most petrol stations during that period, except of course in the villages where the older businesses, as near Cork, had survived.
The most significant change in architectural programming came with the introduction of self-service pumps as the authorities were persuaded that cars could be safely ‘filled’ by the purchaser. The first self-service petrol pump in the UK became operational in Southwark Bridge Road in 1961.
The initial breakthrough that made this possible was the ‘shut-off’ valve, invented in New York in 1939 by Richard Corson, who thought ‘self-canceling pumps’ would enable multiple gasoline barrels to be filled simultaneously and without spillage by a single worker. Corson adapted the butterfly float from flushing toilets and, after developing a prototype, filed for patent of his automatic shut-off mechanism.
Other developments included self-payment facilities at pumps, enabled by credit card banking and all its attendant technology. In parallel the ever-inventive Americans have introduced fuel pumps with TV entertainment, mainly used for news and advertising. In 2018, reports indicate that 87 per cent of customers in a sample of 18,000 gas stations equipped with screens remember the adverts twice as effectively as when watching traditional TV!
In the UK, where ‘progress’ is inevitably slower, the tussle between the simple petrol station (which had long parted company with its early host and partner the garage workshop) and the service station plus full-fledged grocery store, has re-emerged. Leaving aside the model of motorway services (which has consistently featured shops, toilets and franchised food operators) the model of the small grocery-convenience store co-existing alongside the gas station has now been resurrected, with frequent partnerships between companies such as M+S and Tesco with BP and Texaco. With this has come inevitable conflict on many cramped sites in our towns and cities as those who simply want to pay for petrol must queue behind others who choose the garage for their weekly shop.
This situation seemed to have stabilized, with preference for the 8,385 service stations currently operating in the UK (against the mid 1960s peak of some 40,000 outlets) settling in favour of the petrol/convenience store model.
All this may be turned on its head as we face the biggest change in a hundred years with the electric car threatening the death of the gas station. That raises a familiar question: with production of the internal combustion engine for cars anticipated to end by 2040, and 50 per cent of all cars on the road expected to be electric-powered by the same year, can the smaller town or village grocery shop survive without petrol sales? Or will its customers, freed of the drudgery of filling cars with liquid fuels, revert to the traditional and much larger supermarket?
Either way, my toy garage was an economic folly from the start.