Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Alison Kreitzer

Gas Stations

The widespread adoption of the passenger automobile during the twentieth century altered the physical landscape of Greater Philadelphia and the United States. By the late 1910s, gas stations began to serve Philadelphia drivers seeking fuel for occupational and recreational travel. Since consumers could not visually determine the quality of gasoline, petroleum companies distinguished themselves from their competitors by designing gas stations with logos, color schemes, and architectural styles that proliferated along the region’s streets and highways.

[caption id="attachment_28762" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of a gas station modeled after a Greek temple. Early gas stations were designed to be both beautiful and functional. This early Atlantic station on Fortieth and Walnut Streets was modeled after a Greek temple. (Google Books)[/caption]

Purchasing gasoline was initially a messy and cumbersome process. Consumers bought gasoline by the bucketful from local garages, hardware stores, or groceries and filled their cars by hand with a measuring can. Sylvanus F. Bowser (1854-1938), an Indiana businessman, invented the Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pump in 1905. Consumers inserted a hose from Bower’s contraption into their gas tanks and manually pumped gasoline stored in nearby tanks. Nicknamed “filling stations,” gasoline pumps originally lined public streets, but motorists blocked the flow of traffic each time they stopped to refuel.

Off-street service stations with multiple gas pumps allowed petroleum manufacturers to distribute gasoline more safely. Atlantic Refining Company and Gulf Refining Company opened Philadelphia’s earliest gasoline stations during the late 1910s. Atlantic hired Pittsburgh architect Joseph F. Kuntz (1866-1938) to construct functional yet architecturally sophisticated stations. Kuntz modeled one Atlantic station located at Fortieth and Walnut Streets after a Classical Greek temple with columns, white terra cotta tiles, and nighttime lighting.

[caption id="attachment_28756" align="alignright" width="300"]a color photograph of a gas station modeled after a small Spanish Revival house. The windows have been covered with painted canvas to give the illusion that the interior is furnished. Gulf Oil opened this brick, Spanish Revival gas station at Twentieth and Arch Streets in 1930. It remained standing but not operational in 2017. (Photograph by Lucy Davis for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Easily built and inexpensive prefabricated stations replaced the monumental architecture of the city’s initial gas stations during the 1920s. Gasoline manufacturers erected stations that mirrored the cottages and houses located in residential neighborhoods. For example, Gulf Oil opened a brick, Spanish Revival gas station at Twentieth and Arch Streets in 1930. Gas stations expanded their range of services during the Great Depression by selling tires, batteries, and other automotive products as well as offering repair services to drivers.

Despite the proliferation of gas stations, travel remained a stressful experience for African American motorists, who faced discrimination when they attempted to patronize roadside businesses. This was not the case, however, at gas stations of the Esso brand marketed by Standard Oil of New Jersey (later part of Exxon Corporation) to residents of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and New York during the 1930s. Esso was one of the only gas station chains that openly welcomed African American motorists, who sought out Esso stations for guaranteed service and access to facilities, such as restrooms.

Philadelphia service stations owners struggled to supply gas to their customers during World War II. The federal government initiated a national gasoline rationing program in order to conserve gasoline and rubber in December 1942. Philadelphia residents received gasoline coupons based on their driving needs. Priority users, such as doctors, defense workers, and truck drivers, were allotted supplementary gasoline stipends throughout the war. As American men joined the nation’s military efforts overseas, female Philadelphians took over key roles as garage attendants at the Atlantic Refining Company’s Point Breeze petroleum facility as well as local gas stations.

[caption id="attachment_28759" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of a woman pouring radiator fluid into a car. She is wearing a work uniform, white gloves, and a hat. Gas stations expanded their business to provide motorists with other services during the Great Depression, including repairs and sales of automotive batteries and tires. This 1941 photograph shows a Sunoco attendant filling an automobile radiator with fluid. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Following World War II, as Americans purchased automobiles in unprecedented numbers and moved into single-family suburban homes, new service stations provided commuters with convenient places to refuel on the Schuylkill Expressway, at the Pennsylvania Turnpike interchange at King of Prussia (Valley Forge), in the Main Line suburbs, and in downtown Philadelphia. With the expansion of suburban shopping centers, such as Cherry Hill Mall in New Jersey, gas stations proliferated along access roads and highways during the 1960s.

In order to save consumers money, most states moved towards self-service pumps by the 1960s, but not New Jersey, which adhered to its Retail Gasoline Dispensing Safety Act, enacted in 1949. Garden State residents remained opposed to self-service pumps and celebrated full service gasoline stations as an unusual aspect of New Jersey’s automobile culture. In 2016, New Jersey remained one of only two states (the other being Oregon) that continued to prohibit self-service pumps.

During persistent gasoline shortages in the 1970s, gas stations became the scene of long lines of motorists waiting to purchase gasoline. After the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an oil embargo on the United States in 1973 in retaliation for the U.S. decision to aid Israel in the Yom Kippur War, the price of oil per barrel within the United States quadrupled. Left with insufficient supplies of gasoline to meet motorists’ needs, stations posted signs to inform customers they were out of fuel.

[caption id="attachment_28760" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of a gas station attendant standing next to a gas pump and a sign. Text on sign: "Temporarily out of gasoline. Open for your other driving needs" The United State’s intervention in the Yom Kippur War led to a 1973 oil embargo by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). This December 1973 photograph shows a common sight during the embargo–a station that ran out of gasoline. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

By the late 1970s, independent and budget-friendly gas stations challenged brand-name gasoline chains throughout the Greater Philadelphia region. Price-conscious motorists increasingly patronized independents, such as Bi-Lo and Skat, because of their lower-priced fuel. Gas stations including the Kocolene brand kept prices low by cutting out repair services.

The growing popularity of off-brand and self-service gas station again altered station design. Gas stations adopted large canopies over their gas pumps to provide customers with quick service and protect them from the weather. Gas stations also constructed rectangular buildings offering grab-and-go food and beverages. Small convenience stores, like Sunoco’s Aplus chain, became popular gas station staples by the 1980s and 1990s. Along expressways and highways, full-service travel plazas proliferated, offering motorists brand-named gasoline as well as refreshments from chain eateries, such as Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King, and Dairy Queen. Into the twenty-first century, gas station design and services continued to evolve to meet motorists’ changing tastes and needs.

Alison Kreitzer is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of American Civilization at the University of Delaware. She is writing a dissertation about dirt track automobile racing in the mid-Atlantic region.

Automobile Racing

Motorsports developed into a popular leisure activity in the Philadelphia area during the twentieth century. Originally an activity enjoyed by wealthy car owners, the advent of the Model T Ford allowed local technophiles to build their own race cars and compete in regional races. By mid-century, drivers raced at fairground horse tracks and purpose-built speedways throughout the region. Although several Philadelphia-area speedways closed by the late twentieth century because of increased safety concerns and suburbanization, auto racing continued in eastern Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey, and Northern Delaware.

[caption id="attachment_25761" align="alignright" width="300"]Spectators at the Point Breeze Racetrack in 1910. The Point Breeze Racetrack is shown here during the 1910 race, with some spectators standing in the infield of the track. (National Automotive History Collection, Detroit Public Library)[/caption]

Automobile racing originated in Europe as automobile manufacturers worked to test their car designs and market them to consumers. Wealthy Philadelphians formed the Quaker City Motor Club, which introduced automobile racing to area residents in 1906 at Point Breeze Racetrack, a horse track in South Philadelphia. This race also marked Pennsylvania’s first automobile racing fatality when Ernest D. Keeler (ca.1879-1906) crashed during practice for the event.

The Quaker City Motor Club also sponsored automobile endurance races on area roads. From 1908-11, the club organized a 200-mile race on an eight-mile course through Fairmount Park for American-manufactured automobiles with stock chasses. The event attracted local drivers such as brewer Erwin Bergdoll (1890-1965) as well as nationally-known racers including George Robertson (1884-1955) and Louis Chevrolet (1878-1941). City leaders debated the benefits of these races, and the Fairmount Park Commission suspended all racing in 1912 after concluding that motor races endangered participants and encouraged recklessness among the city’s automobilists.          

Philadelphia-based interest in auto racing expanded in 1919, when a group of local businessmen founded the National Motor Racing Association. They promoted automobile races in Byberry, Pottstown, and West Chester, Pennsylvania, as well as Harrington, Delaware. The National Motor Racing Association and other regional promoters held automobile races on horse tracks during annual agricultural expositions at area fairgrounds. 

In 1926, the National Motor Racing Association constructed one of the nation’s first purpose-built dirt speedways in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. Nicknamed “the big left turn,” the mile-long Langhorne Speedway featured a unique circular design, which allowed drivers to reach higher speeds. Area residents drove their family automobiles to the track located along Route 1 between Philadelphia and Trenton to see the nation’s leading drivers race against local favorites.

[caption id="attachment_25760" align="alignright" width="300"]A Car Races Past the Crowd at the 1910 Fairmount Park Races. The Quaker City Motor Club sponsored automobile endurance races on area roads. From 1908 to 1911, the club organized a two-hundred-mile race on an eight-mile course through Fairmount Park for American-manufactured automobiles with stock chassis. (National Automotive History Collection, Detroit Public Library)[/caption]

Drivers from Greater Philadelphia garnered national acclaim for their racing exploits during the interwar period. In 1928, Charles Raymond “Ray” Keech (1900-29) of Coatesville set a new land speed record of 207 mph at Daytona Beach, Florida. Keech recorded several wins on local dirt tracks and won the 1929 Indianapolis 500 in a car entered by Philadelphian Maude Yagle (1885-1968). The only female car owner to ever win the Indianapolis 500, Yagle continued to hire Philadelphians, including Fred Winnai (1905-77), Jimmy Gleason (1898-1931) and Frank Farmer (1892-1932), to drive her race car over the next few racing seasons.

With the advent of smaller and less powerful race cars known as “midgets” during the Great Depression, automobile racing resumed within Philadelphia city limits. Promoters hosted midget races at Yellow Jacket Stadium in Northeast Philadelphia at Frankford Avenue and Deveroux Street. Formerly home to the National Football League's Frankford Yellow Jackets, the stadium had been converted into a paved, one-fifth-mile speedway. Yellow Jacket Stadium held night races each week prior to World War II and remained popular with local residents who could walk or take public transportation to this speedway in the city.

The Office of Defense Transportation suspended all motorsports across the United States in 1942 in an effort to conserve the nation’s limited supplies of gasoline and rubber. Racing resumed immediately following the Allied victory. Postwar interest in automobile racing remained high, and a second Yellow Jacket Speedway located at Erie Avenue and G Street hosted biweekly midget racing programs from 1945 to 1950.

Over the next four decades, drivers competed in American Automobile Association (AAA)-sanctioned events, NASCAR (the National Association for Stock Car Racing), and in racing motorcycles and USAC (United States Auto Club) sprint cars at area speedways. Langhorne Speedway continued to attract the nation’s top open-wheel drivers, including A.J. Foyt (b. 1935), Mario Andretti (b. 1940), Al Unser (b. 1939), as well as NASCAR stars such as Lee Petty (1914-2000), Tim Flock (1924-98), and Edward “Fireball” Roberts (1929-64). Concerns over drivers’ safety as well as development along Route 1 led to the closure of Langhorne Speedway in 1971. Dirt track racing continued at local fairgrounds, including Harrington, Delaware and Flemington, New Jersey, until the 1990s.

[caption id="attachment_25762" align="alignright" width="300"]A Drag Racing Car at the Atco Raceway in New Jersey. In New Jersey, the Atco Raceway, organized by the South Jersey Timing Association, opened in 1960 and remains an active drag way today. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

The rising national popularity of stock car racing encouraged the construction of two area asphalt speedways for NASCAR racing events. The one-mile Dover International Speedway (originally called Dover Downs Speedway) located in Dover, Delaware, opened in 1969. Pocono Raceway, known as the “Tricky Triangle” because of its three sharp turns, began hosting races on its 2.5 mile speedway in 1971. Among the largest sports venues in the mid-Atlantic, Pocono Raceway and Dover International Speedway are known as “superspeedways.” Each track hosts two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races each racing season. Large crowds of race fans camp on-site in order to attend qualifying races, related events, and socialize throughout the weekend of the race. 

In the first decades of the twenty-first century, racetracks throughout central Pennsylvania, such as Williams Grove, Lincoln, and Port Royal Speedways, as well as New Jersey’s Atco Dragway, New Egypt Speedway, and Bridgeport Speedway, hosted a variety of racing programs each season. NASCAR racing also continued annually at Pocono Raceway and Dover International Speedway.

Shared interests in speed, automobiles, and technological daring brought people from diverse backgrounds together at the region’s speedways, and automobile racing remained a popular leisure activity for mid-Atlantic residents. Motorsports, especially NASCAR events, continued to provide significant income to area tourism.   

Alison Kreitzer is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of American Civilization at the University of Delaware. She is writing a dissertation about dirt track automobile racing in the mid-Atlantic region.

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