14th July 2021

The rise and fall of petrol stations

We take this for granted today. A tank of unleaded, a pint of milk, and perhaps a cheeky chocolate bar picked up on the way to the cashier; the process of refuelling our cars has become the very definition of convenience.

But back in the pioneering days of the motor car, there were no petrol stations. Keeping your horseless carriage fed would have required a trip to the local chemist where, between the soap and the hair tonic, you’d have pointed at a two-gallon tin of the stuff.

With the end of the First World War, things began to change. Russian-made petrol had been widely available, but in an effort to promote British-made ‘motor spirit’ or benzole – a by-product of burning coal – the AA opened the first filling station in Aldermaston, beside what is now the A4.

There’s little more than a bus stop there now, but in 1919 motorists would have been served by a patrolman in full AA garb, who’d dispatch his happy customers with a cheery salute. This established the modern idea of pulling off the road rather than refilling at the kerbside, and by 1923 there were 7,000 such pumps across the country.

Others were little more than a pump or two at the foot of someone’s garden, such as the Grade II-listed West End Garage in Turnastone, Herefordshire, thought to be the country’s oldest surviving filling station having acquired its licence in 1922 – only the second to be granted.

Attendants were commonplace, leaping like a coiled spring from a small hut to fulfil their duty, which often went as far as addressing any mechanical issues, perhaps even routine servicing.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that self-service stations began to appear in appreciable numbers, one of the earliest being at Southwark Bridge, London, opening in November 1961. This ushered in the era of the covered forecourt, with many stations nestling their pumps under outlandishly-designed canopies that looked more like an impending alien invasion.

Rising, too, was the number of branded filling stations. Efforts by the oil companies to tie-in retailers to selling only their particular brand of gas began to ramp up, and during the ‘60s and ‘70s, Big Oil began buying out independents to establish their own chains.

This led to a degree of consolidation, and by 1980 fewer than 25,000 filling stations remained, down from a peak of nearly 40,000. Stations started getting bigger, too, with more pumps on the forecourt and a well-stocked shop that hoped to entice customers into an impromptu purchase, helping to offset the low margins from fuel sales.

But a new challenge was on the horizon – the supermarket. Out-of-town superstores swept away the village locations and the personal service, and by 2017 they’d captured roughly 45% of the market despite owning only around 18% of all service stations.

Today, only 8,300 petrol stations remain. Did you know the history of petrol stations? Let us know in the comments below.

I live in West Wales near Machynlleth as a kid in the 70's I remember when every few miles you would get a fuel station now seems every 15 miles sometimes more, off the top of my head can think of at least 15 petrol stations that have closed since the late '70s within 20 miles of where I live, guess with the onset of electric that number will increase not sure how I'm going to run my classic cars then!

buick42, 24/07/2021

My parent's owned a garage with pumps in Mansfield when I was born in 1961 the month and year the first self-service pumps appeared. They were not expected to catch on. Now living in a village near Leicester we do still have a village petrol station and another on the edge despite the proximity of 2 supermarket forecourts. Long may local petrol stations continue.

Brian C, 19/07/2021

I have a forecourt sign ICI imperial chemical industries, think it’s rare does anyone know how many petal stations they had? Great article......

Pump top , 16/07/2021