What Gasoline Brought

Dome Gas, Takoma Park, Maryland. By the 1920s, almost all motorists bought gasoline cars, which they could refuel wherever gasoline retailers installed tanks and hand-operated pumps. An oil refining and gasoline delivery system paralleled electric power lines and served areas where electricity was unavailable.

Courtesy of Granger Historical Picture Archive

Wayne Gasoline Pump, 1932

View object record

Electric pumps moved gasoline faster than hand-operated pumps, speeding refueling. This 1932 Wayne gasoline pump sported art deco styling, adding a touch of modernity to filling stations and gasoline marketing.

Esso credit card

Buying gasoline on credit helped make refueling fast and convenient.

Gilbarco Gasoline Pump Globe

Economic Growth

Kendall Motor Oils Sign

Using oil and gasoline for transportation greatly stimulated the petroleum industry.

Firestone Tire Tube Box

Goodyear Spark Plug Cable Set

STP Oil Filter

Manufacturing cars created demand for raw materials, including glass, rubber, and steel, auto parts for assembly plants, and retail parts for consumers. One industry spawned many industries.

Long-distance Travel

National Highway Pennant.

Highway travel became very popular in the 1920s. Motorists who enjoyed tax-supported roads felt a strong sense of personal access, adventure, and freedom from railroads.

By the 1960s, clean, modern campgrounds like KOA (Kampgrounds of America) combined family atmosphere with the predictability of chain motels, encouraging more Americans to travel in recreation vehicles.

Toxic Engine Exhaust

PCV valve for 1961-1963 Ford cars. Engines do not burn gasoline completely, and until the 1960s automobiles vented unburned gasoline into the atmosphere. The Positive Crankcase Ventilation (PCV) valve directed those emissions back to the engine, where they were burned.

Until the 1960s, gasoline cars had two exhaust pipes. The tailpipe emitted toxic gases from engine combustion, and the blow-by pipe (see arrow), located under the car, emitted unburned gasoline.

Smog: A Growing Problem

A woman holds a kerchief to her face walking down a smog-filled LA street.

Downtown Los Angeles enveloped in smog, 1953. Courtesy of Los Angeles Times

“City Hunting for Source of ‘Gas Attack’” read a Los Angeles Times headline on July 27, 1943. The city was suffering through its fourth day of an acrid layer of hazy, smelly air that irritated noses, eyes, and throats. Alarmed by the noxious fumes citizens and city officials demanded that the City Health Department find the cause and end the “gas attack.” A plant that supplied butadiene for synthetic rubber became a prime suspect, but temporarily closing the plant did not reduce the offensive air.

From the earliest smog event, motor vehicles were cited as likely contributors. As the manufacturing industry cleaned up its output, the smog-producing effects of vehicles, especially personal automobiles, became increasingly apparent. In 1950, the Los Angeles County Pollution Control District contracted with Dr. Arie Haagen-Smit at Caltech to conduct smog research. His efforts identified a specific culprit: hydrocarbon vapors escaping from oil and gasoline and reacting with sunlight. Refineries vented hundreds of tons of hydrocarbon vapors each day. The report also stated that unburned gasoline in automobile exhaust contributed significantly to hydrocarbon pollution.

Ford Catalytic Converter, 1976

California applied legislative pressure, requiring maximum exhaust standards for motor vehicles by 1960. The auto industry announced plans to install a Positive Crankcase Ventilation [PCV] valve on all 1961 cars sold in California. This device would eliminate the 25% to 35% of hydrocarbon pollution that resulted from venting unburned gasoline escaping from cylinders and the crankcase directly into the atmosphere. The PCV valve directed unburned hydrocarbons back to the carburetor, where they were burned in the engine. Smog occurred in many other cities, and in 1961 the U. S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Abraham Ribicoff gave the auto industry an ultimatum: make the PCV standard on all 1964 and subsequent models nationwide or face legislation to require it. The auto industry capitulated and advanced the timetable to a 1963 model year roll out.

The catalytic converter, introduced in 1975, significantly reduced tailpipe emissions from gasoline cars. Precious metals in a converter, including platinum, palladium, and rhodium, react with toxic chemicals in engine exhaust to produce carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water. Like the electric starter in the 1910s, the catalytic converter removed a disadvantage of gasoline cars and negated an advantage of electric cars. Smaller, more efficient gasoline engines, fuel injection, and computer control provided better combustion and fuel economy. Content with incremental tweaks to gasoline cars, consumers, government, and industry became largely indifferent toward alternative energy vehicles by the 1980s.

Gasoline Shortages

Sign from Closter Exxon, Closter, New Jersey

View object record

Retailers rationed gasoline during the 1973-1974 shortage in areas where supplies were limited.

Gasoline rationing stamps.

In 1974, the United States government printed ration coupons in anticipation of gasoline rationing, but they were not distributed

By the early 1970s, another problem with gasoline cars had developed. Oil-rich nations in the Middle East controlled half of the world’s supply of crude oil. Domestic production in the United States had begun to level off while demand continued to rise, forcing greater dependence on imported oil. The fragility and uncertainties of this economic relationship became starkly clear in October 1973, when the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raised crude oil prices by 70 percent and cut production in retaliation for American support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War. Several days later, OPEC nations stopped shipping oil to the United States.

Within weeks, gasoline shortages caused major disruptions in some areas, particularly the hard-hit east coast. Gas station operators rationed gasoline by reducing hours or limiting sales to a specific number of gallons or dollars per sale. Waiting motorists formed lines up and down city blocks and on shoulders of roads. Anxious motorists added to the congestion by topping off their gas tanks as often as possible. Rationing brought some order to gas lines, but supplies at individual gasoline stations sometimes ran out before the next monthly delivery. OPEC lifted its export ban in March 1974, returning the fill-up scene to normal, but steep price increases remained in effect.

Gas station price tile
Gas station price tile
Gas station price tile
Gas station price tile

Price sign from Closter Exxon, Closter, New Jersey

View object record

Despite another gasoline shortage in 1979 precipitated by the Iranian Revolution, gasoline prices over $1.00 per gallon, and federal and corporate electric vehicle development programs, electric cars were not mass-produced in the 1980s. Gasoline was plentiful, and memories of the shortages faded quickly.