When Gasoline-Powered Cars Were First Used, Where Did They Get Gasoline?

When Gasoline-Powered Cars Were First Used, Where Did They Get Gasoline?

This fall I taught a class at the Osher Institute at UCLA; the class was called American Moments and one day I was talking about early automobiles and why gas-powered engines became the norm instead of electric-powered, which were also being made in the early 1900s.

“Where did people buy gasoline?” asked a member of my class.

I didn’t know the answer, but I promised to look into it before the next class.  The best information I could find was that before there were gas stations, drivers could buy gasoline in canisters at a general store.  None of us were totally satisfied, but that was what I could find.

I should have thought of calling the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.  Recently in The Wall Street Journal there was a review of the newly revamped museum, and my attention was riveted by these sentences:

“Gasoline engines were initially troublesome because they were smelly, noisy and often broke down. Also, gasoline was hard to find. That changed in 1901 when oil was discovered in Texas. There were still no gas stations, but a picture here from the early 20th century shows a home-heating-oil truck also delivering gasoline. Even though they had to carry gasoline cans when taking longer trips, drivers liked the unlimited range of cars propelled by a gasoline-powered, internal-combustion engine. “

So there it is!  A much more satisfactory answer to how early drivers obtained gas for powering their cars.

And here’s one more fact: At a recent auto show I noted that some of the beautiful early cars had a permanently-installed compartment along the running board that held gasoline so they knew all along they would have to carry along extra gas as they traveled.

And here’s another interesting tidbit:  I was writing about Billie Burke and Flo Ziegfeld and their estate in Hastings, New York and there was a description of a “motor room.”  What’s a motor room?  A room where drivers and passengers, windblown and dirty from riding in an open car, could come in to clean up–even shower–after their journey.

For more information on early cars, see “Auto Sales Stimulus, 1909.

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