Boomers Had Gas

As the world inches toward an all-electric transportation future, it is nostalgic to recall the boomer days when gasoline reigned supreme to power the internal combustion engine. There was not much in the way of alternatives, of course, but for some boomers, gasoline — and therefore the gas-powered engine — holds a place near and dear to their hearts. For some, even the smell of gasoline is a trip to another era, and another place. For Mister Boomer, not so much.

Mister Boomer’s introduction to the ritual of buying gasoline began when he was eight years old. That was when his mother would give him two quarters, and told him to go to the Sinclair gas station on the corner to fill up the red gas can that resided in the basement. The can was a rectangular shape made of metal, painted with “gasoline” in yellow letters running diagonally across the larger sides. There was a handle on the top, and a flexible metal spout.

Mister Boomer dutifully grabbed the can and walked to the gas station. There, he unscrewed the metal spout, removed the hose from the gas pump, and filled the two-gallon can himself. It was not unusual to see an eight year old do that in the early 1960s. Can filled, he screwed the spout back on, grabbed it by the handle, and went inside the station to pay the man at the register. Dropping the two quarters on the counter, the man opened the register to give him a few pennies as change.

Once home, Mister Boomer knew what was next: cutting the grass. In the early days, Brother Boomer cut the front yard, and Mister Boomer cut the back. The boys traded off in tipping the gas can spout into the tank of the lawn mower to fill it. Tank cap on, and choke switch flipped on the handle of the lawn mower, it was often Brother Boomer who would put one foot on the base of the machine while tugging the rope that spun the rotor to start the engine. Mister Boomer was stationed at the choke control, ready to adjust it as soon as the engine started. Smoke billowed out of the exhaust and an awful smell (in Mister B’s estimation) emanated from the engine; indicators that it was ready to mow.

For years, the Boomer Brothers mowed the lawn with the same gas ritual. Once Brother Boomer got a part-time job, Mister B took on the entire mowing himself.

A neighbor had an electric lawn mower. It was a Sunbeam brand, that ran off a long extension cord. Mister B thought it was pretty cool, and it was certainly quieter and did not smell. However, Mister B wondered how the neighbor managed to mow his lawn without ever running over his extension cord.

Mister Boomer’s relationship with gasoline was always one of necessity. After years of dealing with gasoline as lawn mower fuel, at the age of seventeen he bought his first car. Then the necessity of gasoline changed with an added trip to fill a car gas tank, at least once a week. Mister Boomer grew up in an area where being fluent in car culture was as expected of young men as riding a horse may have been fifty years prior. Like sports fans reciting statistics, neighborhood boys could spew all sort of gasoline-based car trivia, like the location of the gas tank spout on numerous models (some were behind the back license plate; on a ’56 Chevy, you literally flipped the red bullet-shaped taillight down to fill up the tank). Gas had become an inherent part of boomer culture.

The Oil Embargo in the 1970s changed public opinion about gasoline — for a short while. Jokes told by boomers about stepping on the gas pedal and watching the fuel gauge drop were no longer funny as the price per gallon tripled overnight. Americans quickly grew tired of rationing that required them to only buy gas on days that coincided with the odd or even last digit on their license plate. For the first time, boomers were watching how much gasoline they were using. As history has shown us, once the embargo was lifted, it didn’t take long for people to return to larger gas-guzzling vehicles. For a while, there was an attempt — mostly from imports — to downsize America’s love affair with the gas behemoths of the 1960s and ’70s. Though brands like Toyota and Subaru became household names with smaller, more fuel-efficient models, today we see larger cars that actually get better gas mileage than the compact cars of a few decades ago.

As boomers age, we are seeing a shift in the culture of gasoline-powered engines. Boomers and the younger generations have embraced electric battery-powered lawn mowers to such a degree that gasoline-powered lawn mowers are becoming an endangered species. Hybrid car sales have jumped dramatically in the past few years, as awareness of the environmental and economic issues that gasoline has presented in the decades since the boomer years becomes apparent.

It remains to be seen whether boomers will live long enough to see a day when no engines are powered by gasoline. Yet, if boomers look at the lives of their grandparents, most of them could never envision living in a world without horse-powered vehicles — still, it happened in their lifetimes. Whether you love the smell of gas or hate it, like the rush of driving vehicles with gasoline-powered engines or not, our old world is rapidly changing. Your grandchildren’s children may not know what “gasoline” was in the next couple of decades, the same way today’s kids don’t know what a rotary phone or VHS tape was.

What memories does gasoline evoke for you, boomers?

Boomers and Cars in 1971

It’s hard to believe 1971 was fifty years ago, but time is marching on. Mister Boomer remembers 1971 in many ways, one being the first year he purchased his own car. As is our customary mode of operations, let’s explore what was happening fifty years ago in the auto industry and see what effect that had on growing baby boomers.

By 1971, roughly half of the Boomer Generation was of driving age, approximately 38 million people. In Mister Boomer’s experience, the first car boomers called their own was either a hand-me-down from their parents, or a used car purchase. The Baby Boom had changed the auto industry in many ways, not the least of which was accommodating growing families. Large, “family-sized” four-door vehicles led the lists of best-selling cars for decades. In 1971, the best-selling car of the year was the Chevy Impala; it had been the number one seller, with few exceptions, since the end of the war.

The 1970s ushered in an era of pollution awareness, which seriously affected the auto industry. Sales of muscle cars, introduced in the mid-60’s and popular with early-year boomers, waned as fuel prices started to rise and environmental concerns over smog grew.

Another influence on U.S. auto manufacturers was the influx of foreign cars into the U.S. After hardly being more than a blip in terms of marketshare through the 1950s, foreign car companies made inroads into the U.S. market, most notably, Volkswagen, Toyota and Datsun. In an attempt to regain some lost marketshare, U.S. manufacturers introduced more fuel-efficient cars and compact options, the forte of foreign models.

To cut costs in a shifting market, U.S. car design didn’t change much in 1971, if at all, from those of 1970. However, with specific model sales plummeting and a new emphasis on sunroofs, both AMC and Chrysler stopped selling convertibles in 1971.

American insurance companies began lobbying in earnest for impact-resistant bumpers in 1970. A year later, regulations were enacted requiring, by 1973, that back bumpers would absorb an impact of 2.5 mph without damage to lights or latches, and front bumpers were required to take on a 5 mph impact without damage to lights. Standards and the entire approach to car bumpers has changed since then.

1971 was an interim year in many ways. The writing was on the wall that consumers valued safety, and were willing to pay the hundred or so dollars that these features added to the price of a new car. California, the most populous state, and known for its Los Angeles smog, led the way on restricting car emissions. This prompted manufacturers to meet California standards for cars sold across the U.S. Ironically, this very principle, that a state could regulate the emission standards of automobiles, is a political football even today.

The emphasis on emissions and smog control was the harbinger of 1970s regulations. The Oil Embargo of 1973 clearly illustrated the need for more fuel efficiency and less dependence on foreign oil. Coupled with the Clean Air Act of 1970, which created the Environmental Protection Agency, standards for emissions were set that car companies would have to meet within a few years. Thus 1971 saw efforts to move consumers toward their fuel-efficient models. Catalytic converters were added to production vehicles in 1973 as a further method of controlling car emissions.

Fifty years ago, in the Mister Boomer household, Ford was the car of choice. With the exception of a 1956 Chevy, Mr. B’s father bought Fords throughout his boomer years. In 1971, the family car was a 1970 Ford Galaxie 500. Mister B remembers it as a behemoth, not only in appearance but the way it drove. It was a two-door model, but the doors were longer and heavier than previous cars the family had owned. That year, Mister B’s father told him about a car a co-worker was selling and the two hopped in the behemoth to take a look. Mister B bought his first car, a 1964 Plymouth with push-button automatic transmission, for $200. Mister Boomer was environmentally conscious by then, having participated in local demonstrations on the first Earth Day in 1970. However, when it came to his car in 1971, affordable transportation to his college classes took precedence over emissions concerns. Nonetheless, he was happy to have a practical and reliable car that was not a parental hand-me-down.

What were you driving in 1971, boomers?