Journeying into the past with tales from the golden era of full-service petrol stations

Aug 27, 2023
From fueling mishaps to quirky customer encounters, step back in time and immerse yourself in the captivating world of old-school petrol stations. Source: Getty Images.

Full service petrol stations are long gone. Having worked at one for a while in the 70s I thought I should document some of the behind-the-scenes activities in case a future anthropologist wants to see what made these workplaces tick. I worked part-time on the weekend at one of the local servos. The weekends were the busiest times of the week back then because as we were just outside the Brisbane City borders we didn’t have to close or be part of the roster that restricted the opening times of inner city petrol stations.

Mastering the till was one of my first challenges. I had good number sense so giving correct change wasn’t a problem, but the myriad of cash register keys for each type of purchase was sometimes confusing. Petrol, oil, spare parts, cigarettes, tyres, car service, sweets, etc all had their own number code key. The boss wasn’t really happy if, at the end of the day, he’d tally up his petrol sales only to find they didn’t match the readings on the pumps because you’d been ringing up smokes as petrol all day.

Beyond asking the customer whether they wanted regular or super, the next challenge was to work out where to put the petrol. Not all petrol tank openings were in an obvious place. Some foreign cars (and I know that term refers to all cars sold in Australia now) had their tanks in odd places compared to local Holdens and Fords. VW beetles had their fuel cap under the bonnet which was okay because the engine was in the boot. It got a bit dicey filling some Italian cars as the filler cap was under the hood next to the hot engine. You were very careful not to splash any fuel about.

My biggest stuff up in this department happened when a car model I didn’t recognise came in for a fill. I hunted around the car for a petrol cap. I couldn’t ask the driver as he’d gone out the back to use the servo toilet. Then I remembered a current trend with some new Fords that had a flip-down rear number plate that hid the petrol cap. I looked around the back and as much as I tugged on the number plate it remained firmly screwed on. However, just above the bumper, there was an opening. I thought, poor guy must have lost his petrol cap. Mystery solved. I proceeded to pump petrol into the mystery hole. A few seconds later I noticed fuel splashing around my feet.

Turns out that the hole was for a missing lock and I was merrily filling the poor guy’s boot with highly flammable liquid. As my mistake registered I looked up and noticed the correct opening on the fender just below the rear window. I quickly popped the nozzle where it belonged and carried on with the fuel-filling task. I finished up as the guy returned from his task out back of the garage. He sat in the driver’s seat and I went around to his window nervously and confessed my error. This guy was of New Zealand extraction and built like the mountains NZ is famous for. I fully expected him to get out a deck me but with a big smile all I got was a ‘no problem bro’.

Feely guilty as I obviously should, I emphasised to him that quite a bit of petrol had gone into his boot. Again, ‘don’t worry about it’, he paid and drove off with petrol still dripping dangerously close to his exhaust pipe. I watched him drive down the road fully expecting to see a mushroom cloud on the horizon. Later that night I sat glued to the TV news waiting for the story about a petrol mishap causing a fireball on the highway.

Aside from this incident, working with petrol could be stressful. With smoking being one of the national pastimes then, it wasn’t unusual for customers to get out of the car and come around, with a lit cigarette in hand, to have a chat with you while you were filling their tank (or boot as the case may be). Sure there were signs warning you of the perils of mixing flames and petrol, but it wasn’t really seen as a big deal.

Nowadays if you get your mobile phone out to check the time while you are filling up your car, you are blasted with a warning over the driveway loudspeakers. As a sixteen-year-old keen to keep my newfound income, I wasn’t game to complain. They’d be chatting away about the footy or how hard their week had been while you were nervously watching which way the hot ash would fall as your nostrils filled with the pungent fragrance of petrol fumes. This cavalier behaviour wasn’t confined to the petrol pumps. Many garages then filled LP gas bottles and again some customers seemed to delight in the chance to make you squirm as their cigarette smoke mingled with the gas coming out of the cylinder. After what seemed like an eternity the little valve on the customer’s LP cylinder started spurting and you’d frantically screw up the valve thankful that you’d survived.

Old school petrol stations had warning systems that announced when customers pulled up to a pump. These were heavy duty rubber hoses draped across the driveway. When the car drove across it the change in air pressure triggered an electric switch and bell inside the station. This alerted us so that if we were out back sorting spare parts or in the workshop pretending we knew more about fixing cars than we really did, we could race out and serve the customer. I worked with two other teenage driveway attendants at the time and we got quite good at identifying customers by the car they were driving. For example, if the bell rang and we spotted a car that we knew was driven by a particularly pretty female, three hormone driven lads would almost climb the shop counter to be the first one to be of service. This warning system also worked the other way if we weren’t really keen on serving a customer.

One regular was a gentleman who came in and asked for tyres, oil, radiator water, and automatic transmission fluid to be checked without buying any petrol. To add insult to injury, he’d then brag about how he could get cheaper petrol on the other side of town at one of the new fangled self-serve stations. One day the driveway bell rang and we spotted him coming in the driveway. The three of us chose to rebel and decided we weren’t going to serve him so we huddled down behind the counter. The annoying customer waited in his car while we snickered until the boss came up behind wanting to know what was going on and why he was paying us to play hide and seek. We bolted out to the driveway and performed like a Bathurst pit crew before sending the bemused customer on his way. The boss later explained his logic that the annoying customer would eventually figure out that any savings he made from buying cheaper petrol were being lost by having to drive to the other side of town.

Not everyone was keen to get extra driveway service. Straight after you’d asked what type of fuel the customer wanted and started pumping the petrol you’d ask if you could check oil and water while you reached for the obligatory windscreen washer. Most people appreciated getting their windscreens cleaned and I had by then perfected my no streak technique.  But sometimes some young gun would drive in for petrol after spending the day waxing and polishing his car and the last thing he wanted was dirty garage water dribbling all over his gleaming ride. Given that I can’t remember ever changing the water in the washer bucket, I could see his point. Part of the driveway service involved value-adding by trying to sell some oil. Anything below the full notch on the dipstick was fair game for adding a pint of oil and on the occasions when no oil was visible it was almost a celebration as you added the cost of a quart of oil to their bill. The oil bottles themselves were part of the driveway routine with refilling and the ritual wiping of the oil bottles with a rag.

The boss said this ritual was important when business was slow as he said our frantic rubbing of the oil bottles in the driveway created movement that attracted the attention of passing motorists and reminded them to fill their tanks. It was the same logic that made those annoying wavy men inflatables popular in later years. Another strategy the boss had for slow periods was to get each of us to park our cars near a petrol bowser and pretend to fill our cars. A full driveway gave drivers a fear of missing out, so they’d dutifully come in to top up their own cars.

Sometimes on a Saturday arvo, the boss would go home early and leave us to close up. This was usually pretty straightforward. As we closed at six o’clock, we’d start the process at about five by bringing in the new tyre racks and then gradually lock away the other odds and ends such as the oil bottles, windscreen washers and the aforementioned warning hose. We had it down to a fine art where at a minute to six one of us would run around putting the locks on the petrol bowsers, while the others shut the workshop door and locked up the soft drink machine/ gas bottle area.

However, sometimes a car would come screaming into the driveway dead on six as we closed the shop door. They’d either be after last-minute petrol, a spare part for their 1965 Cortina, or even the hire of a trailer. This last one was extra painful as it took about half an hour by the time paperwork, payment, and hitching up and checking lights were completed. Some of these latecomers were polite when we explained that we were closed and legally we couldn’t operate after six (which was true at that time), others were not so civil with threats of violence or reporting to the management yelled through the glass. To make matters worse, as soon as we closed we were responsible for totalling up the till and depositing the day’s takings, (sometimes a couple of thousand dollars), in the floor safe behind the counter, so we never knew whether any of these last-minute drop-ins and demands were a cover for something more sinister.

The petrol station did have security for when it was closed. This consisted of a giant beast of a dog that was part great Dane, part wolfhound that free-ranged around the station at night. When I first saw it I pitied anyone who tried to break in at night, but after seeing how friendly she was to strangers in daylight I’m not sure how much of a deterrent she was. I do know the station owner fed her the cheapest dog food available as evidenced by the numerous cow pats spread around the shop, spare parts room, and workshop each night. The first job after opening up in the morning was to get rid of these steaming piles and spray gallons of deodoriser everywhere.

Sadly, today’s petrol stations are essentially convenience stores with petrol pumps attached and the only service involves swiping a credit card with everything else being a do it yourself job, but there will always be the golden era of the local servo to remember.

Stories that matter
Emails delivered daily
Sign up