In 1970s Los Angeles, gas was a bounty

What three-word phrase should always be spoken with caution?

  • I love you.
  • Do it.
  • Fill it.

All of them, in fact, but the latter – depending on your choice of ride, a full tank of gas can now cost you a hundred bucks sniffing the fumes.

How did we get here – again?

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The internal combustion engine has had no more ardent devotee than Southern California. The romance began slowly 125 years ago, when the first experimental gasoline-powered automobile arrived in downtown Broadway around 2 a.m. on Sunday, May 30, 1897, avoiding the equine morning rush hour. The car’s creator, J. Philip Erie, is said to have spent $30,000 developing the unique model – a stupendous equivalent of around $1 million today.

Seven years later, according to a count, there were 1,600 motor vehicles on the city’s roads, limited by law to 6 mph in business districts – as if anyone could drive even the half that speed in downtown Los Angeles in 1915, when the entire county is over 55,000 horseless carriages seemed to swarm downtown all at once.

Soon the growing city would design itself around its cars. Gilmore – the family that started the Farmers Market and Gilmore Field — sold gasoline named Red Lion, Blu-Green. The Violet Ray gas was actually tinted purple.

A few gas stations are fantastically designed. The mid-century modern Googie-style Union 76 station in Beverly Hills was designed by Gin D. Wong, a principal architect on the Pereira & Luckman team that helped create LAX’s yet futuristic themed building, with others, among them the famous black architect Paul Williams.

A plunging triangle shape covers pumps at a Beverly Hills gas station at sunset

In Beverly Hills, you can refuel at an architectural landmark.

(Iris Schneider/Los Angeles Times)

Wong’s gas station design was also intended for LAX, but was ultimately built in Beverly Hills, where its glamorous swoops and bows found their way, of course, into movies and TV shows.

Early gas pumps did require pumping, much like a water pump, and some skill was required to operate them safely. So smartly uniformed attendants – “gas pump jockeys” – who washed windshields and checked tire and oil pressures were summoned to the pumps by a double sound bell departed as the cars rolled over a winding wire laid across the lanes of the pumping island.

Everything, almost gone now, like free glasses or steak knives with a refill, free maps, free air for your tires, free water for your heater, free maps for your trip.

As soon as pump technology permitted, the first independent self-serve gas station in LA, and possibly the country, opened in East LA, in May 1947. Pump jockeys been replaced by “girls” who traveled from distributor to distributor on roller skates, doing good and making a difference.

Within a year, the city deemed self-service a safety hazard. Other cities and states have banned self-serve gas, with encouragement from big oil company chains and the American Petroleum Institute, which has called self-serve a “threat” to safety.

It wasn’t until the gas shortages and oil embargo of the 1970s that self-service became the norm – and the necessity. This required a learning curve; people left without their gas caps and pumped gas onto their shoes and even into their radiators.

Nostalgia-focused sites like to post photos of gas stations of yesteryear sell gasoline for 29, 39, 79 cents a gallon, but make no mistake. Prices are now at record highs in real dollars, but inflation adjusted in modern dollars, that cheap gas of long ago equates to two, three, even four dollars a gallon.

In the late 1970s, the nation was shocked when prices broke the triple-digit dollar-per-gallon barrier. This is one of the reasons gas stations have come to use electronic price boards; things changed too fast for guys climbing up and down ladders to change them by hand.

For more than 25 years, Californians have paid at the pump rather than at the doctor’s office. The California Energy Commission estimates that the state’s “special recipe” for cleaner-burning gasoline added something between five and eight cents to the cost of a gallon of gasoline. And the state’s singular vapor-recovery nozzles (which an automotive website calls, here, foreskins) prevent gas vapors from flowing into the atmosphere, another blow to cleaner air. Go with it.

Yet throughout the two devastating crises of the 1970s, price was secondary. The real angst was whether you could find gasoline. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and a coalition of Arab states, Arab members of OPEC banned oil sales to the United States and other nations that had sided with Israel.

Again, in 1979, after the Iranian revolution, oil supplies fell – fractionally, maybe 4% or 5%. But the combination of rising prices and falling quantities has provided the nation with a wild and panicky exercise in supply, demand and human psychology.

We had rationed gasoline during World War II, usually at less than four gallons a week for a passenger car. In 1942, California capped speed limits at 35 mph. In Los Angeles, unpatriotic speeders were warned they would be arrested, and – worse than a fine – their names would be reported to the local ration board, so if they found they needed new tires one day, or more gas than their rations allowed, they’d be down to the shitty creek.

At least twice during the crises of the 1970s, oil shortages were so severe as California under governors. Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown instituted an even-odd system for buying gasoline. Under this system, you couldn’t buy gasoline at any time. If your license plate ends in an even number, you can buy gasoline on even calendar days; odd plates had to be purchased on odd days. Personalized plates counted as odd.

A man at a gas station shows a sign in Chinese;  nearby another sign indicates "no gas"

Kaz Hirata’s signs, in English and Chinese, tell drivers that a Shell station in Chinatown ran out of fuel in February 1974.

(Jack Gaunt/Los Angeles Times/UCLA Library)

Gas supply in 1974 reportedly bottomed out at only about 20% below normal, but drivers acted about 50% below reason. Think COVID and toilet paper hoarding.

Some gas stations have shorter hours than banks. People parked in front of gas stations at night and slept there waiting for them to open. Lines wrapped twice around the block. A queue in San Pedro had 150 cars.

California’s roughly 8,000 gas stations were asked to display a red, yellow or green-green flag when gas was available; yellow, gasoline for emergency vehicles only; red when the stations were empty. When gas ran out and stations closed, people made puns about the weather: Well, another dry weekend in LA

People were told not to buy gas unless they needed at least half a tank. Governor Reagan accused of unnamed humiliating a man who filled up his tank for 67 cents and then insisted on paying by credit card.

Of course, fights broke out. Gas station attendants were knocked out with baseball bats and beer bottles. A man who reached the pumps after hours of queuing and found he could only afford $2 chased the attendant into the bathroom with a hammer. In Venice, at a self-service station, people started beating up empty gas pumps. A man jumped the long line of cars at a Hollywood train station, and when angry drivers swarmed him, he pointed a gun at them with one hand and filled his tank with the other. He was still filling it when the cops arrived.

In 1974, a customer at Sid Hackel’s gas station in Beverly Hills was told he could only buy $10. So he spat on the attendant. Sid himself said, “If he had done that to me, he’d be walking around with no teeth.”

Of course, people cheated. They approached the drivers waiting in line and fanned out $20 and $100 to try and make their way to the start of the line. In 1979, a man who wanted to buy gas when his own license plate wouldn’t allow him to change the plates from his wife’s Dodge to his Cadillac. He got arrested and was fined $20, or just over 20 gallons.

A May 1979 article in The Times featured a photo of Barbra Streisand filling up her own tank.

A May 1979 article in The Times featured a photo of Barbra Streisand filling up her own tank.

In the second round of the gas crisis, in 1979, entrepreneurs organized alternative gas guardians. Outfits like the Jockey Club are charged to wait for you: $150 per month for the first month of service, $50 per month thereafter, excluding gas.

The theft of gas was obvious. That was before the gas caps and shutters were locked, and the midnight thieves used the siphons stealthily. In Santa Ana, someone hijacked a Shell tanker truck at gunpoint. An unknown thief drove an unmarked tanker truck to a Hawthorne gas station and sucked a thousand gallons from underground tanks.

And of course panic made people reckless. Members of a Santa Ana family were badly burned when gas they had stored in plastic bins caught fire. A Torrance driver with a broken gas gauge tried to look in his tank to determine how much he had and lit a match to see better. Boom.

NASCAR has reduced the length of its races. The nation reduced its speed limit to 55 mph, where it remained for two decades. Unsold Cadillacs were stuck in lots as surely as saber-toothed tigers were stuck in the La Brea tar pits. The mileage-hungry Japanese cars have gained a foothold in the American market.

After each of these fits, we swear we’ll never be fooled like this again, and then we fall back into our old ways and relearn that other, not maladaptive meaning of “gas” – the cause of agonizing pain.

Abdul J. Gaspar