11 Gas Station Premiums of Yesteryear

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Seaway China

It’s probably difficult to fathom now, but there was a time when the price of gasoline was pretty static for long periods and oil companies battled one another for the consumer dollar by attempting to instill some level of brand loyalty. How many of us today specifically seek out a Chevron station versus any other vendor when our gas tank needles are hovering just above “E”? That wasn’t the case some 40 or so years ago, when gas stations sought repeat business via Any Means Necessary. And among those Means were a variety of premiums or promotional giveaways. See how many of these tchotchkes you remember.

1. Union 76 Balls

Etsy user VintageUrbanAntiques

Union Oil introduced “76” gasoline in 1932; the name was intended to refer both to the Declaration of Independence and the fuel’s octane rating. Thirty years later, the company’s first illuminated rotating orange ball sign debuted at the Seattle World’s Fair. In 1967, the company introduced what is believed to be the first car antenna-topper. The small replica of the Union 76 ball was spray-painted orange by hand and then screen-printed with the “76” logo. Technology improved over the years so that the antenna balls could be mass produced by machine, which was handy because by 1985 the company was giving away just over a million of the toppers per year to loyal customers. 

2. Esso Tiger Tail

Pinterest user David Small

In 1959, a Chicago copywriter named Emery Smith came up with the tagline “Put a tiger in your tank” to promote the Esso Oil Company. Thanks to print and TV ads, the slogan caught on like wildfire, and Esso took full advantage of the cat’s popularity by offering faux fur tiger tails for sale at its retail outlets, which were designed to be attached to a vehicle’s gas cap.

3. Gulf Horseshoes

Time Passages Nostalgia

Gulf Oil was bought out by Chevron in 1984, but prior to that time the big orange Gulf “disc” sign was an iconic part of the American landscape. During its heyday, Gulf offered three fuel choices, at three different price points: Gulftane (sub-grade regular), Good Gulf (regular), and Gulf No-Nox (premium). No-Nox was marketed for the high-performance muscle cars popular from the 1950s to '70s; the high octane content didn’t necessarily add miles to the gallon, but it prevented engine knocks and pings. To promote the extra “kick” your car received from No-Nox, Gulf offered an adhesive set of horseshoes free with a fill-up. Rocking a pair of orange shoes on the bumper of your Camaro told the world that you cared enough for your ride to pay those extra pennies per gallon for premium.

4. Texaco Fire Chief Hat

Texaco introduced its Fire Chief brand of gasoline in 1932, so named because the octane rating met the requirements for fire engines. Over the years the company offered many versions of a fireman’s hat as a premium: Some cheap plastic versions were given away free with a fill-up, while some more elaborate versions (with a battery-operated light and microphone/loudspeaker) were available for a low purchase price.

5. Hess Trucks

PInterest user American Collector

The first Hess gas station opened in 1960 in Oakhurst, New Jersey. Four years later, the company produced a branded toy tanker truck (which could be filled with water and emptied via the delivery hose) in time for the Christmas season at the bargain price of $1.29, batteries included. The toy was such a hit that the company continued the tradition, producing a new model each succeeding year. 

6. Sinclair Dinosaur

Collector's Quest

Sinclair Oil registered the Apatosaurus as its trademark in 1932. At the 1964 World's Fair in New York City, the company hosted a display that featured nine life-sized dinosaurs, highlighting the beginning of the formation of crude oil. Dino, the company’s mascot, was featured on a variety of premiums, including plastic piggy banks so the kids could start saving up for their very first tank of Power X. 

7. Esso Oil Drop Man

Seaway China

The Happy Motoring Oil Drop Man was introduced as an Esso mascot in Denmark during World War II as a pleasant medium to deliver the bad news about ongoing fuel shortages. He debuted in the U.S. in 1958 and appeared on various giveaway items, including key chains and gift packages that featured a road map, a can of handy oil, and one of lighter fluid. Happy was phased out in the 1960s by the more aggressive Esso tiger.

8. Shell Presidential Coins

Listia

Long lines were forming at Shell stations in 1969, but not because of any gas shortages. It was the company’s Mr. President Coin Game that caused folks to flock to the pumps. Shell offered a series of 31 coins featuring the different Presidents of the United States (we had a lot less of ‘em back then) along with cards on which there were marked slots for specific coins. When you filled up a card, you won the specified prize. Some coins were instant cash winners—Martin van Buren was worth $500 and James Madison earned a cool $1000, while poor Chester A. Arthur only netted you a buck. Of course, in 1969, a dollar bought three gallons of gas pumped by an attendant who checked your oil and washed your windshield.

9. Gulf Lunar Module

Retroweb

To commemorate the Apollo 11 mission, Gulf gave away a free lunar module model kit in 1969. The cardboard sheet filled with punch-out pieces measured about 12 inches by 18.5 inches and came with a set of fairly complicated instructions for assembly. For those patient enough to fold all those pieces and insert the various tabs into the correct slots, the finished piece was an impressive replica of the lunar lander.

10. Marathon B.C. Comic Glasses

TGL Direct

In the early 1970s, Marathon Oil teamed up with Johnny Hart and gave away a variety of glassware featuring his B.C. comic strip characters. All told, there were 26 different pieces available, including a large glass pitcher. How many dads were sent out to the nearest Marathon station for an emergency fill-up when Junior accidentally broke his favorite Grog glass?

11. ARCO Toy Animals

Etsy user Tinselandtrinkets

In 1971, ARCO (Atlantic Richfield Company) decided to play on its name to get kids to bug their parents to stop at ARCO every week: they offered a plastic model of Noah’s Ark along with 12 different pairs of toy animals. If you’ve ever found a tiny plastic turtle in the far reaches of your junk drawer and wondered where it came from, it was probably part of this set.

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March 11, 2014 - 10:11pm
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