By Ken Lass
I bought my first car in 1972. It was a brand new Plymouth Gold Duster. I loved that ride. Treated it with the tender loving care you’d give a newborn baby.
I had just gotten hired to my first full-time job at the exorbitant salary of $400 per month. My biggest concern was that I would not be able to afford the gas to keep the car running. After all, the price at the pump had zoomed up to a ridiculous thirty-six cents per gallon. Just a few years earlier, we were only paying a quarter.
Outrageous as this obvious price gouge was, at least I was still getting full service when I pulled in. I had but to roll down my window (hand cranking it, of course) and tell attendant number one whether I wanted to fill ‘er up or just get my usual five dollars worth. Meanwhile, attendant number two was already at work spraying detergent across my windshield, wiping it clean, and examining my wipers to see if they were getting worn. Simultaneously, my hood would pop up, as attendant #3 was busily checking my oil and wiper fluid levels while pulling the wire brush out of his tool belt to scrape the corrosion off my battery terminals. Attendant #4 was lurking around the perimeter of my vehicle, taking the inflation reading from all of my tires.
If I got a tad bored while waiting, I could step out of my car while all this was going on and roam into the station, where I could pick up a free state road map and draw a soft drink out of the dispenser. The drink was supposed to cost a dime, but often the station owner would just give me a wink and tell me it was on the house. Really, the least he could do, considering the bizarre profit he must have been making off my gas purchase. Most of the time, I just sat in my car and watched the service team at work. I was reluctantly willing to pay the increased cost because these guys always came out and gave me the full-service treatment. At least that would never change.
Four years later, I traded in my Gold Duster for a 1976 AMC Gremlin…… Oh, I see you laughing. I’ll have you know this weird-looking little vehicle was all the rage then. Wide and a little clunky, but it had stereo speakers in the doors and FM radio! And the gear shift was on the floor, as opposed to the steering wheel, giving it a race car feel. It was awesome. But there was trouble brewing.
At the time, I was busy getting married and pursuing my career, I wasn’t paying much attention to the news. I kept hearing snippets of reports about America’s deteriorating relationship with the oil-producing countries in the Middle East. Whatever my young adult mind thought. Not my concern. Until this thing called the great gas shortage struck in the late seventies.
Not only did the price per gallon skyrocket to eighty-nine cents, but even at that unimaginable price, there wasn’t enough to go around. The country actually had to resort to gas rationing. If your license tag ended in an even number, you were allowed to buy fuel on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. If an odd number, you could gas up on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Run out on Sunday? Too bad. Pump up the tires on your bicycle.
There were lines at the pump blocks long. There were fistfights as drivers got out of their cars to challenge someone who tried to cut in. I clearly remember my Dad, who was a staunch Republican, complaining that the whole mess was because the Democrats in office had mishandled the whole foreign policy thing and that things would get better if Ronald Reagan could win the presidential election in 1980. “Mark my words,” Dad said. “Gas will never go above the one-dollar mark.”
Reagan did indeed take office in 1980. Gas went up to $1.19 per gallon.
Eventually, after buying a house and having children, I graduated to driving a truck. It was a Mazda with an extended cab so the kids could sit in the backseat. It was 1989, and we had moved to Trussville. I wasn’t getting anywhere near the gas mileage I had with the smaller cars, but that was okay. Things had settled down on the international oil market, and the United States had stepped up its own production. The cost per gallon had actually gone down and hovered around one dollar.
By this time, I was pumping my own gas, wiping my own windshield, checking my own oil and fluid levels, and inflating my own tires. A lot more work, but I was okay with that. At least the gas crisis was history. We had learned from our mistakes.
I knew I would never have to pay $1.19 for gas again.
(Ken Lass is a retired Birmingham news and sports anchor and Trussville resident since 1989.)