I like a good factoid – and noticed, in a press release from the Petrol Retailers Association that: the number of filling stations in the UK is back to level of 1912.
This does leave 9,500 forecourts but already 150 have closed this year. One of the motoring memories for 1978 noted in the MIPAA Revolve ezine was the closure of 1,400 fuel forecourts as diesel fuel prices increased by 24% and petrol prices by 18%. But back then, filling stations numbered 74,000 around Britain.
I am reminded of the 1,000 Mile Trial, which I rate as a PR masterclass in changing public attitudes. Back in 1900, Claude Johnson (who later became known as the hyphen in Rolls-Royce) organised this amazing tour in his role as Secretary of the Automobile Club of Great Britain. He secured a media partner in the form of Sir Alfred Harmsworth, newspaper owner and founder of the Daily Mail, and “established the legitimacy of the motor car with police, magistrates and in the public imagination”.
One of the many logistical challenges facing Johnson in organising this round Britain event was the lack of fuel stations. Elizabeth Bennett’s amazing book which commemorated the centenary of the event, explains that 250 gallons of petrol were needed each day and a list of suppliers and price per gallon was compiled for the event programme.
Entrants were required to reserve their supplies and pay for this in advance. Most petrol was sourced from chemist shops and private supplies kept at country houses by those who owned a car.
Ensuring the right density of “motor spirit” was another issue – affected by changes in temperature. It was highly inflammable and largely transported by railway, with the sender or receiver being held “responsible for any damage that may occur through careless handling on the part of the railway companies’ servants.”
Of course, greater fuel efficiency means we don’t have to fill up our cars so often – and the mighty supermarkets are open 24:7, so why worry?
Well, in many towns and rural areas, the fuel station is also the local shop. It sells newspapers and many other essentials. Like local post offices, schools and pubs, losing the petrol station is another indication of decline in community services.
The oil companies claim to make little profit from retailing petrol – so maintaining huge networks of filling stations isn’t top of their list of priorities.
Back in 1900, motoring was largely for the rich and their cars were more of a hobby than a necessity. They had chauffeurs and other servants to help locate fuel – today, we’re on our own.
Finding fuel doesn’t really seem that difficult today – and environmentalists might argue that making it more of a challenge would be a good thing.
The decline in the number of filling stations is a good example of the boiled frog syndrome. This alleges that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will never jump out.
Likewise, people don’t notice the gradual reduction in filling stations. When I was the PR Manager at National Breakdown, a vehicle breakdown company (now Green Flag) – I used to issue motoring advice that included never driving with less than a quarter of a tank of fuel and carrying a spare safety can for emergencies.
Of course, I forgot my own advice on the two occasions where I ran out of fuel. If filling stations become more and more scarce – you can be sure, more people will find themselves in similar situations.