Petrol used to be dispensed by smartly-uniformed station attendants, who would not only fill your tank but also check your oil and give you directions. After wartime petrol pooling arrangements ended in 1950, however, single-brand petrol stations sprang up in Britain, and they looked for ways to make their operations more efficient. In the mid-1960s, Shell and Mobil experimented with the first “self-fill” petrol stations. Another key player in the development of the self-service station was the property developer Gerald Ronson, who developed a chain of petrol stations under the brand name Heron. Then, in 1967, National Oil introduced the latched-nozzle petrol pump with automatic cut-off, which made the unpaid labour of “filling up” much easier.
However, it was only after the OPEC oil crisis of 1973 that self-service began to dominate as a cost-cutting exercise. Self-service changed the architecture of the petrol station. Cantilevered canopies were built to protect motorists from the elements, and they were usually combined with branded totems like the famous Shell “pectin”. (One of the great marketing mysteries is why the petrol station needs to be so aggressively branded, for petrol is essentially a distress purchase.) In 1970 the economist John Kenneth Galbraith called the petrol station ‘the most repellent piece of architecture of the past two thousand years’. The architectural critic Martin Pawley disagreed, calling it ‘the last truly Modern design project of the Modern age’. Unlike, say, McDonald’s and Tesco’s, whose buildings had bland, neo-vernacular designs, Shell still believed in ‘Modernism and the International Way’.
Petrol stations also acquired adjoining shops, known originally as TBAs (tobacco, belts and accessories) and developing into general stores. In many British villages, the all-purpose petrol station shop has replaced the post office as the social hub, the equivalent of the parish pump.
Now we live latched nozzle lives, exchanging not a word with the shop assistant behind the glass as we go through the chip and pin routine and pay for our petrol and maybe a Sunday newspaper and a packet of hobnobs. Next customer, please.
Mundane quote for the day: ‘To travel swiftly in a closed car, as so many of us do nowadays, is of course to cut oneself off from the same reality of the regions one passes through, perhaps from any sane reality at all. Whole leagues of countryside are only a roar and muddle outside the windows, and villages are only like brick-coloured bubbles that we burst as we pass.’ J.B. Priestley, English Journey