America’s No.1 expert on gas stations and their contribution to folklore is Michael Karl Witzel, who has written three books on the subject – The American Gas Station, Gas Station Memories and Gas Stations Coast to Coast.
Abe - Why were you inspired to write about gas stations?
MKW: “During the late 1970s, on the heels of the OPEC oil embargo, I began to see that the gas station of yesteryear, the once friendly ‘can I fill 'er up mister?’ was disappearing from the roadside landscape. Large, corporate-run superstations that were combined with convenience stores began to appear along the roads and highways and self-service became the standard. The era of ‘wipe the windows and check the oil’ was over. Service had gone extinct and at the pumps, it was every man and woman for themselves. In an effort to document some of the people and places of gasoline's golden age, I set out to record some of the remaining classic gas stations on film and interview their owners, resulting in the book ‘The American Gas Station: History and Folklore of the Gas Station in American Car Culture,’ published in 1992 (awarded the Antique Automobile Club of America's Thomas McKean Memorial Cup and the Society of Automotive Historians Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot Award of Distinction for 1993).”
Abe - Would it be true to say gas stations are an unheralded aspect of modern America?
MKW: “ Yes, just like so many of the other roadside icons and institutions that we take for granted, such as the drive-in and drive-thru restaurant, the drive-thru bank, drive-thru dry cleaners, drive-in theater, and other businesses geared towards serving people directly in their cars. As gas prices go higher and the cries over global warming reach a fever pitch, there is no doubt laws will be put in place to limit businesses that promote this ‘serve-them-in-their-car-lifestyle’. Slowly but surely, our freedoms along the highway will be whittled away.”
Abe - Why do people think so fondly of those old-style full service stations?
MKW: “The golden age of the gas station lasted from the 1930s all the way up to the 1970s, with a brief lull during World War II when automobile traffic was curtailed. Each decade had its own unique style of architecture. People remember the way stations used to be from this time period, because in part, the attendants actually looked like they cared. Sporting a crisp uniform - complete with a bow tie and five-point hat - the typical attendant rushed out to your car after the ‘ding-ding’ of the driveway air hose signaled your arrival. After that, it was full service all the way .Attendants ‘wiped the windows and checked the oil,’ inflated your tires, and made doubly sure that your car was road-worthy and safe to drive. Indeed, the memorable Texaco ad slogans like, you can ‘Trust Your Car to the Man Who Wears the Star’ was more than advertising hype.”
Abe - How are high gas prices affecting America's perception of gas stations?
MKW: “They are causing people to view the gas station in a negative way, not as a quick and convenient utility that helps fuel their mobility and freedom, but as a monopoly-based business that is gouging them for every penny that they can.”
Abe - Would you agree that the modern gas stations are soulless affairs?
MKW: “Yes, time has all but erased the memories of how enjoyable it once was to fill up at the service station of old. The station attendant has evolved into a cash register attendant and friendly mascots have been stylized out of a job. Station architecture has been revamped to conform with the banality of the mini-mart ideal. Gasoline is just another impersonal - and expensive - commodity. Supersized for high-volume sales and maximized for profit, it isn’t likely that today’s gas stations will ever revive the lost art of the classic American service station. The ultra-modern convenience store - with its Big Gulps, triple lattés, and lottery tickets - will continue to define the market.”
Abe - Do you have a favorite gas station?
MKW: “My favorite style of service station architecture was the 1937 Walter Dorwin Teague design commissioned by Texaco. An industrial designer, Teague developed a modern service station design that didn't try to hide the fact that is housed a gas station. His design was defined by a functional white building with green trim, featuring one or more service bays for ‘Washing’, ‘Marfak Lubrication’, etc., an office area with large plate glass window for display of tires, batteries and accessories along with ‘Men’ and ‘Ladies’ restrooms featuring Texaco-green tile walls and floors. White, porcelain-enameled steel panels covered the exterior, but regional variations included painted brick, concrete brick and stucco. Red lettering spelled out ‘TEXACO’ above the office area and stations were identified by the street from Texaco's ‘banjo’ sign.”