The rollout of increasingly fuel-efficient engines, sleeker designs and enhanced technology gets car lovers’ hearts racing. But one aspect of this rush of innovation is often overlooked because it exists in the background. It’s the gas station—the very backbone of the industry that ensures we keep on motoring down our country’s roads and highways. It’s fair to say, in fact, that as much as today’s automobiles have evolved from the days of the Model-T, so too have roadside gas stations. Here’s a look at the past, present and future of this roadside staple.
A man fills up his Model A with a hand pump in Washington, DC in 1920. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
1905 – Gas pumps begin to replace the bucket and funnel method for refueling
Based on an earlier hand-operated contraption used to dispense kerosene and lamp oil, early gas pumps were deployed curbside in front of general stores, pharmacies, hardware shops and yes, even blacksmiths. The pumps didn’t have any dials because one pump of the handle equaled one gallon. The bottom of the pump was designed to hold one barrel of oil — 42 gallons. The pump could be locked when the attendant wasn’t present. In later years, motorists wanted to see the gasoline going into their cars, so the “visible gas” pump was invented.
1913 – World’s first drive-in gas station opens in Pittsburgh
The forerunner of the modern station, familiar with its distinctive canopy and rows of dedicated pumps, operated on Pittsburgh’s historic “Auto Row.” With automobile ownership on the rise, it was designed to serve many cars at once.
One of the first Mobil stations to use the architecture pioneered in Pittsburgh, shown here in the 1920s. Photo courtesy of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.
1947 – First self-service gas station opens in Los Angeles
Independent gas station operator Frank Ulrich adopted the slogan, “Save five cents, serve yourself. Why pay more?” to advertise the first self-serve gas station. Although many were skeptical about people’s willingness to pump their own gas, Frank proved them all wrong. In its first week of operation, the station sold half a million gallons of gas. To put this number in context, a typical California gas station now sells about 30,000 gallons a week.
1950s and 1960s
Through the 1950s and 1960s, Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (later Exxon) sold gasoline under affiliate brand names depending on the state. Humble, Esso and Enco (short for “ENergy COmpany”) were among the best known but there was also Carter, Pate, Oklahoma and Enjay (short for “New Jersey”). The stations also provided free maps, which including an “upside down” map from New York to Florida where south was at the top of the map for easier use by southbound drivers.
In the 1950s many different formulations of gasoline were being sold, and stations often specialized in one variety. This Humble station sold Esso Extra, designed specifically for cars with automatic transmissions. Photo courtesy of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.
1964 – First remote-access gas pump goes live in Westminster, CO
Earlier pumps, even self-service ones, weren’t fully automated; they required attendants to collect money from the customer and then manually set the amount of gas to be dispensed. Independent inventor Herb Timms changed that by designing a system to activate the pump from behind the gas station counter.
1986 – E-Z Serve and its subsidiary Auto-gas introduce the first pay-at-the-pump credit card solution, paving the way for 24-hour self-service
It’s hard to imagine a time when service stations closed for the night, but evening travelers used to have nightmares about finding only closed gas stations when low on fuel. Such was the reality until the late 1980s, when credit card-swiping technology allowed customers to fill their tanks and pay for fill-ups entirely on their own. The payment innovation ended motorists’ fears of getting stranded in the dark with an empty tank.
The 1980s brought along the revolutionary pay-at-the-pump technology.
1997 – SpeedpassTM technology makes paying at the pump even faster
Mobil made a major change to gas retailing with the Speedpass key tag, which allowed customers to pay simply by waving the tag across a sensor at the pump. A few years later, Mobil and Exxon had merged and more than six million U.S. customers enrolled to use a Speedpass key tag at Exxon and Mobil stations.
2016 – The Speedpass+™ app allows customers to pay with smartphones
With more customers relying on their smartphones to expedite daily activities, ExxonMobil released the Speedpass+ app for Android and for iOS with Apple Pay— which allows customers to pay for gas directly from their smartphones at the pump at thousands of Exxon and Mobil locations across the United States. Just open the app, select the pump number and authorize the pump to begin fueling. To download the app, visit here: https://www.exxon.com/speedpassplus
A modern service station, the product of more than a century of development.