Treasured signs of past automobile age

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A vintage Pennzoil Safe Lubrication sign. (Skinner Inc.)

Cheap gas, economically-priced American made automobiles, miles of open highway, and a gleaming gas station on every corner.

That was the golden age of the automobile in America. Today little remains of that sweeping era except for the surviving signs that once marked the landscape. From Aeroshell Gasoline to Willard Batteries, signs emblazoned across the countryside, forever beckoning to merry motorists.

Their attraction was unavoidable. Their meaning was undeniable.

“Such signs served as advertisements for the company owning the gas station,” note Mark Anderton and Sherry Mullen, authors of the book Gas Station Collectibles, “as well as for specific items available for sale in the station.”

The skyline of the U.S.A. was generously dotted with porcelain signs proclaiming the virtues of one particular gasoline brand or service station-related product or another. Today porcelain signs of this genre are uppermost in collectors’ minds as well.

Even the very earliest auto-related signs could be interesting. The die-cut metal Miles To White Rose Service Station signs, for example, featured a youngster wearing checkered pants and holding a sign with the number of miles to go to find the service station. These signs, copyright 1917, were a product of the strange sounding En-Ar-Co Motor Oil Company.

Another early bird was the Goodell Auto Oil Company, which used a green tree on a round logo to attract motorists during the early 1900s.

As the Roaring Twenties found a steadily increasing number of automobiles on the American road, the retail options likewise grew. Many Miles Transmission Oil signs featured a race car logo in the early 1920s. Michelin Tires offered a balloon-like man sitting in a tire, and Brockway Motor Trucks proposed, “the right way.”

If anything the automobile product signs of the 1930s were even more animated than their forerunners. Passing motorists could catch a glimpse of Cargray Gold, Cities Service Koolmotor, and Bulko Gasoline depicting an elephant. Marathon Products offered a figure of a man running and the slogan, “best in the long run.”

Elsewhere in the 1930s, Goodyear Pathfinder Tires signs promised “a dependable tire at a low price,” and Hood Tires provided “neighborhood tire experts.”

Gasoline rationing as a result of World War II had a devastating impact on auto ownership and motoring early in the 1940s. Still, some creative signage continued along the nation’s roadways and highways including Invader Motor Oil’s knight on a horse and Fleetwood Motor Oil’s air-
plane logo.

By 1945, “the stuff of dreams for most people included a new car, a set of good tires, and a world without gas rationing,” observes Stephen Sears in the book The Automobile in America. People could afford to drive a little bit more too—personal income had risen 68 percent between 1939 and the late summer of 1945.

Meanwhile Sears compares the “auto mania” of the 1950s to the 1920s—only more so.

The 1950s generation “easily embraced the auto culture with a fervor easily matching that of the 1920s generation,” he notes. “There was the same enthusiastic acceptance of the automobile as an instrument of change—change in living patterns, in recreational habits, in social status. There was no pause in auto-fueled urban and industrial decentralization or in the rush to the suburbs.”

“New shopping centers, new drive-in businesses, new highways, continued the alteration of the face of America to accommodate a nation of motorists.”

And with the movement was a steady march of signs that signaled the wave of ‘auto mania.’ Choices included Blue Sunoco, Pontiac Service, Shell, Quaker State Motor Oil, Fire Chief from Texaco, Shamrock Kerosene, Indian, Keystone, and even Texaco Marine White Gasoline.

If the golden age of automobile and its accompanying signs did not end in the late 1950s, it certainly lost much of its glimmer. The national economy went off the road into a recession in 1957. Among other things it jolted those motorists who were driving huge, domestic-made gas-guzzling cars that barely averaged 12 miles to the gallon. Soon the trend among American consumers was toward a lighter, foreign-made vehicle which would require less gasoline.

Even so Americans would not entirely surrender their free-wheeling automotive ways. “By decade’s end,” observed Our Glorious Century, edited by Edmund Harvey Jr., “the automobile had joined the flag and apple pie as quintessential symbols of American life.”

A few bright, new gasoline-related signs were popping into view in the 1960s. Sterling Super Blend appeared on a giant letter Q, and Union 76 Plus was decked out on a flashy orange oval sign. Texaco Diesel Chief signs followed a familiar theme and used plenty of red to make the point.

The nation hit a bump in the road early in the 1970s. In 1973 after months of paying around 35 cents a gallon for gasoline, the price in some parts of Florida hit a stunning $1 a gallon.

“Americans, who had long regarded cheap energy and rising prosperity as birthrights, faced a colder, grimmer reality,” concluded Our Glorious Century of that time in history.

Today the signs of yesterday’s romance with gasoline products are catching the fancy of collectors. Texaco Fire Chief, Lee Tire, Pennzoil, Tydol, Valvoline, and Last Chance Garage signs are re-appearing in auction houses, antique malls, and other outlets.

As a general rule auto-related signs from the early 1900s through the 1960s in good condition are included in the most favorable automobile age. Bright colors and distinguished graphics rate high with collectors. Typically more unique signs such as those making reference to aviation or marine fuels and services command higher values.

More Images:

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Enameled metal sign promoting Quaker State Motor Oil.
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Super Pyro auto-related sign made of painted fiberboard. (Skinner Inc.)
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Painted fiberboard Sunoco Car Service sign. (Skinner Inc.)
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Auto-related roadway sign promoting Grey Rock fan belts. (Skinner Inc.)
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Colorful green and yellow sign for Lee Tires. (Skinner Inc.)

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