In praise of petrol stations

December 26, 2010

The other day, over on my work weeknotes blog, I described the history of petrol station offers as ‘endlessly interesting’. I also wrote something else recently about the world being more fun than it strictly needs to be. The two posts have fallen out of my head, not coincidentally, in Christmas week, and it all converges on the humble petrol station.

I’m specifically talking about petrol stations, not service stations or gas stations. I believe that our petrol stations are a product of the unique, evolving structure of suburban Britain as it has developed in the last 30 years, and I think they are the hyper-British stitches that hold the country together. Smaller and probably closer to where you live than a supermarket, and holding all the petrol and bottled water required to weather an apocalypse, they are surely the locus of panic in any serious survival situation. And I mean any, from the days of mandatory shut-down and Bank Holidays that spread out around Christmas like wine in the tablecloth to an actual full-blown zombie attack.

Off the top of my head, my local ‘garage’ sells milk and PG Tips, Branston pickle, Heinz ketchup, Nescafe, loaves of Kingsmill… It’s a satire, a modern museum of packaging, a cliched expat’s wishlist. Where else would you find this revealing, condensed, representation of a community’s true needs? No one else needs milk and tea like a Brit. And what else would we ask for in an emergency? The petrol station anticipates our 24/7 cup of tea needs better than any tabac, gas station or diner.

Petrol tokens and rewards are a relatively recent thing. Competitions don’t usually strike joy into one’s heart, but the nice thing with fuel is, you genuinely are buying it anyway. It’s virtually impossible to buy more than you need, so you might as well sign up for the freebies, especially if you don’t yet know about the barely-legal trade in mailing lists and the many years of junk mail to come.

A glance at this website reveals two different breeds of petrol promos – collection-type ones and games with ‘instant wins’. Promotional games are a logistical nightmare for the creators, by the sounds of it, and have a tabloidy feel to them, but point collecting is almost honourable. It has all the satisfaction of getting something for free without the sleazy 80s get-rich-quick corner-cutting. Plus the prizes were often weirdly aspirational (wine glasses and matching crockery; you look like you host candlelit suppers Sir), perhaps because fuel is so synonymous with money. There’s a feudal, rather pantomime-ish charm to all this, isn’t there? For all our dependence upon their services, everyone still loves a story about a petrol vendor coming a cropper.

Petrol stations kicked into gear in the 70s and 80s – when we were kids – and we remember them fondly as colourful oases of sweets, magazines and toilet facilities punctuating dreary, bladder-burstingly infinite car journeys. We moved house continually in the 1980s, and probably spent more days than most driving up and down the UK’s motorways, praying for a whiff of benzine and a dusty travel sweet.

But it’s not just me, is it – look how evocative they are. There’s something really impressive about the inventiveness that went into these offers. Who could forget the furry tiger tail you could hang out of your petrol cap to look like there really was ‘a tiger in your tank’?! And if there was a burst in marketing creativity in the 80s and 90s, it was more noticeable because of the sheer ubiquity of petrol stations. Everyone remembers Tiger Tokens, and someone mentioned Green Shield stamps recently, which were both the currency and the reward: you would buy items for the free stamps inside, and get other free things when youhad enough stamps. The real winner, presumably, is the mercinary stamp itself. Unless memories of nostalgic internet-users deceive, it looks like stick-on bullet holes, furry tiger tails and TDK cassettes were all possible with dedication, and enough tokens of one sort or another.

Petrol stations are everywhere, and it’s interesting how something so local can also be so transient. Britain is dense; dual carriageways graze housing estates, and for many people nowadays, a petrol station is their local shop. No Roald Dahl-style ‘sweetshop’ for my school – we ran over the traffic lights on the ‘A’ road and queued in the garage for our sweets and lunches. With its separate ‘petrol counter’ and manned pumps, the garage was a key employer for its previous customers once they turned sixteen. The Marks and Spencer’s Food forecourt near me now has its own integral coffee bar and presumably, something of a legendary status among long-distance lorry drivers.

And yet, for anyone passing through a strange town, most petrol stations are just a place to fill up, a fast-food restaurant for transport. The flowers have improved and the firelighters have gone, but the basic offer remains unchanged from the 1970s. And to the extent they are local shops for many of us, they are still not quite a place to stop for a catch-up chat with the neighbours. In fact, in some ways people are gradually being done away with altogether, which is never something to mourn. Petrol stations are local shops for those who don’t want to know their neighbours, but who, somewhere in the back of their mind, like to know they’ll be ready when the zombies come.

Tell me about your favourite petrol station.

8 Responses to “In praise of petrol stations”

  1. Pete Says:

    I saw a great piece in the Gem Museum in Holland once, where an artist had made a replica of a motorway service station. You entered the space, and using trompe l’oeil models he had created a road that stretched off into the distance. Can’t find much about it on the internet – this was some time ago – but it’s the first piece mentioned on this page –

  2. I did enjoy the page you linked to about petrol station promotions, when I first saw it at Final Bullet, and wrote you a comment – but it got very long, so I expanded it and turned it into a longer blog post.

    I was going to post this link as a comment to Final Bullet, but I just remembered that I do have a favourite petrol station, or at least that I did at the time. It was a Mobil, relatively near to where I grew up, and I liked it at age 4-6 or so because it had digital displays for the price and volume readouts, rather than the garage across the street which had analogue dials that rotated, and I was at an age where even though I could read clock faces, I just preferred digital clocks.

    Now I can’t recall the technology precisely used – might have been LEDs, could have been LCDs, could have been those little flaps that flap in and out to make seven-segment displays, might even have been the wonderful Nixie tubes but I don’t think it was – though these days I would be charmed by a petrol station that didn’t have a digital display.

  3. enemyofchaos Says:

    That’s brilliant Chris, thanks – really interesting. Can I tempt you to adapt it for a piece on competition stats for the Hackers! newspaper…?

    • Um, not sure how well that would work as a stand-alone piece, but I’ll keep thinking and if there’s anything that springs to mind – or if you can point me in the right direction! – then I’ll let you know.

  4. enemyofchaos Says:

    Ha ok, will have a think

  5. In the late ’80s I developed a brief habit of sending micro value gifts through the postal service to a paramour. One of these I recall was a petrol station token which stated that it had a cash value of something like £0.0001. What ever was that all about?

  6. Leo Vegoda Says:

    This piece reminds me of how Peter Baynham described petrol stations as “where you buy food when the newsagents is closed” on one of the early Fist of Fun radio programmes. Ah, those were the days 🙂

  7. enemyofchaos Says:

    Haha thanks Leo, yeah – I love Baynham!

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