Memory Lane: Life Behind The Gasoline Pump

Selling is an art, but I never mastered it. Yet, in the late seventies, I worked as a sales rep for a major oil company. I had a territory of about 40 gas and service stations, gas bars, and a relatively small number of convenience stores. At that time, convenience stores offering self-serve gasoline and basic groceries were few and far between. Now, they have become the norm, and a lot of garage owners do not sell gasoline, preferring to concentrate on mechanical repairs. The markup is so small that it’s just not worth it to stop whatever job they are doing to pump a few dollars worth of gas.

Regions of Interest

From the northernmost to the southernmost gas stations in my territory, I had to drive some 200 miles to get to them. Of course, I didn’t visit those in the same day. I planned my weeks accordingly, trying to visit each station once a month. Apart from a city of about 100,000 inhabitants where I had about five or six stations, most of my customers were out in the sticks. So, I drove a lot of miles and experienced white line fever, or is it yellow these days?

In addition to covering my territory, I had to go to the district office once in a while for sales meetings with other reps, the sales manager, and the manager. The sales manager would have all the data on how much gasoline each station purchased, as well as oil, washer fluid, and so on. Since they were under contract with the oil company, they had to purchase their supplies from us. I never saw competitors’ products in any of the gas stations in my territory. The contracts were normally for ten years. Before the end of the contract, we would renegotiate with the retailer, and if he wasn’t happy, he could sign with another company, usually for a higher margin on gasoline profit. The company owned a few gas stations that were leased. Most were independently owned stations that sported the colors of the oil company and offered their products.

Big Promotions & Busted Transmissions

In the spring and fall, we usually had promotions. For the fall promotion, I had rented a trailer to house all the signs, leaflets, posters, and other promotional material. I was the one responsible for fastening the large plastic posters to lamp posts and informing each retailer about the new promotion. I visited my customers in record time. Unfortunately, the end result was a damaged transmission toward the end of the trip, forcing me to drive strictly in second gear. I managed to finish my work, return the rented trailer, and make it home. I was told to drive the car to the refinery about 80 miles away, which I did (in second gear) using country roads. At the refinery, I took possession of a new company car, a Chevrolet Malibu station wagon, black. I always had a thing for black cars, even though dirt stands out just looking at them. It had a 305cid engine. With a station wagon, I could load up promotional material without having to rent a trailer.

Super Trooper

One time, I got a ticket for driving with summer tires in winter. There was a police school in my territory and the recent graduates would exercise their “skills” at handing out tickets. There I was, driving at the speed limit, for a change, when a kid stopped me. He checked the car over, especially the rear tires and asked me for my papers. Handing him my driver’s license, registration, and insurance, I told him I was not speeding. He didn’t say a word and went back to his cruiser where an older, more experienced policeman was sitting in the front passenger seat. After a while, the kid came back and handed me a ticket. I said “what for?” He replied that I was driving in December with summer tires. I told him that it wasn’t against the law. But he retorted there was snow on the ground and that constituted dangerous driving, that’s why I got the ticket. It was BS and I was livid. What could I do? He had the badge and the gun.

Fair Enough

Although I wasn’t the best salesman, I wanted to earn my salary and did my best. The company also had sub-brands of motor oil and other oil-based products they wanted us to sell to independent gas stations that were not affiliated with any of the large oil companies, “jobbers” they were called. I put my best foot forward and sold more than my quota, which won me a weekend trip to see a National League baseball game, all expenses paid.

Summertime was when the brass would show up and tour each territory. I had gone to all my stations the month before the big visit to make sure the lots and buildings would be clean, the gasoline islands freshly painted, and so on. I carried the paint with me in the station wagon and would give it to the owners. The paint was that of the company colors for uniformity and also as part of their contract. Of course, one or two didn’t get with the program and the old paint was still there on the island, cracked and peeling after a winter of wear and tear. I must admit, however, they did repaint after I pointed it out again.

Regardless, the big boss was impressed enough with my efforts that he picked me to spend a week at a National Fair to represent the company. They would reimburse my hotel and meals, just like they did when I travelled in my territory. I had to dress up as a gasoline pump attendant from the 1920s. The uniform looked like a policeman’s uniform of that era. The shirt and pants were green, similar to the company’s colors. I wore a cap and made sure the visor was polished, like my shoes. The uniform was replete with a bow tie, Sam Browne belt and gaiters. Check your oil, sir? Actually, they didn’t ask back then. They just did it, and also washed the windshield.

The Wonderful Whippet

The area where I was stationed, as it were, was out in the open and cordoned off. Luckily, it never rained while I was there. In my little corner, there was an old gasoline pump with the glass container on top. I don’t remember if it was a single or double pump. The attendant would pump gasoline in the glass container, which was graduated, then fill the customer’s tank. They knew exactly how much gas had been put into the car. They didn’t have meters back then.

And as part of my display, I parked a 1928 Whippet next to the pump. After my shift, I would drive it inside a building where I kept it overnight. The Whippet was manufactured by Willys-Overland between 1927 and 1931. Like car manufacturers still do today, companies boasted improvements to their automobiles each year: more cargo space, larger wheelbase, more powerful engines, and so on. The major improvement on the 1928 over the 1927 model was the addition of two more brakes. On the 1927 car, they only had brakes on one axle. In 1928, they had brakes on all four wheels. They didn’t have hydraulic brakes on those cars, they were mechanical. This meant if the brakes were not perfectly adjusted, the wheels would not all stop at the same time, which made it a bit tricky to drive, or at least stop.

The Whippet sold well and you could purchase one for about $700 and change. It had a Knight six-cylinder engine and the car was built to high standards. The competition was fierce, in that segment as they would say today, from such manufacturers as Chevrolet, Ford, Essex, De Soto, Plymouth, and Pontiac. Henry Ford’s Model A became a formidable rival due to the fact it cost much less at $500, yet its 4-cylinder engine developing 40 horsepower to the Whippet’s 50 horsepower proved to be powerful enough. Because of the depression, competition, manufacturing costs, and licensing fees, Willys stopped production of the Whippet in 1931.

People, especially older folks who remembered that era, would stop by and have their picture taken with me. Sometimes, the sales director of the oil company, who had selected me to be there, would drag me away to hand out certificates at a meeting or other event. And for photo ops and promotions.

1926 Willys Whippet on display at the 2010 Autotron Classic in Rosmalen, Netherlands. Photo: Alf van Beem.

Life Goes On

After the fair ended, I returned to my territory. In the summer, we also organized promotions with tire companies, during a big opening for example. I was fortunate to be able to visit a tire manufacturing company. And I visited one of the company’s oil refineries. An engineer accompanied us and explained the process as we toured the facility. It was also on a dedicated lot at the refinery that I had to undergo a defensive driving course and skid control training as part of my employment. Every day, I continue to use the skills I learned there and I am very grateful for it.

At the end of the day, being a salesman was just not me. Although I didn’t deal with the public, only the retailers, I found the work humdrum. I’m not knocking it. Some guys and gals have made successful and happy careers as sales reps. But in my mind, there was a limit to what the retailers could order. If their garage was in a two-horse town, how much motor oil could they push? Working as a sales representative for a major oil company did allow me to discover another world beyond a plain old gasoline pump, however.

I eventually quit the oil business to become a helicopter pilot. And at one time, I was in the dairy business too. I miss driving that Whippet, though; starter button on the floor that you pressed with your foot, or crank started it. Sweet!

Michael Bellamy is the author of our Memory Lane series, a collection of work that examines the unique relationships we have with automobiles. Bellamy has held a number of interesting jobs over the years, including a helicopter pilot and chauffeur to high-ranking politicians. He enjoys driving his 1997 Lincoln Mark VIII LSC and 2003 Dodge Dakota. 

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