In the 1950s the emergence of suburban America led to the boom in automobile travel. This was a time of cheap fuel, before air quality regulations and seat belts. Cars were nowhere as fuel efficient or reliable as the vehicles of today. More than 230,000 service stations dotted the nation. All four corners of many major intersections were occupied by service stations. “Service stations?” The gas station of the 50s was truly a full-service station and puts today’s modern fill & go places to shame. Customer service was a key factor in the success of any service station, and competition was stiff for the 1950s customer.
When you pulled into a service station, your car would usually run over a tiny rubber hose laid across the entrance driveways. A bell would “ding” and as many as four uniformed attendants not only filled your tank, but opened the hood and checked the oil and coolant while others checked tire pressure and washed your car’s windows. At one station, they wiped down the radio antenna.
A trip to the service station was an experience even the kids enjoyed. Some service stations let the young boys “help” fill the tank or check the tires. One chain had trampolines for them to jump on while the parents filled up the family car.
Not only that, but these businesses often provided incentives to get your return business. Some gave out promotional items with a fill-up like drinking glasses imprinted with the company logo. China dishware or cutlery was another incentive. Each time you’d go to the station, you would receive a free bowl, plate or other piece. If you returned often enough, you could amass an entire set of china or flatware. Mostly, the free giveaways were toys, key chains, calendars, Blue Chip stamps or Green trading stamps. (If you are too young to remember trading stamps, it worked like this… with each purchase you made at a participating business you’d receive stamps that were pasted into a book. When you accumulated enough stamps, you could trade them for items in a catalog. This very similar to credit card or frequent flyer points today.)
Free road maps were another giveaway you don’t see anymore, but they were given out as a courtesy in the 1950s. One company in New York even provided an “upside down” map from New York to Florida where south was at the top of the map for easier use by southbound drivers. To keep the customer coming back, some held contests for free fill-ups or offered the chance to win a prize. Some went so far as to give away a new car to a lucky customer!
My own father would drive twenty miles from Orange County, California to buy gas at one of the Parks Texaco stations in Long Beach— all for a chance to win a new Cadillac. Eventually, the Parks stations closed and he has since passed away. He never won the Caddy.