- Historic Sites
Sorry No Gas
How Americans Met the First Great Gasoline Crisis—Nearly Forty Years Ago
October/November 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 6
Presiding over all this, and squarely in everyone’s field of fire, was Leon Henderson and the Office of Price Administration. In size the OPA was second only to the Post Office Department; in bureaucratic complexity it was unmatched. It was, said one observer, “born in strife and lived in turmoil.” Yet no one could complain that it was a distant bureaucracy, out of sight and out of reach. There was a total of fifty-six hundred local OPA boards to administer the various programs and controls, staffed largely by unpaid volunteers from every walk of life and generally bipartisan in political persuasion, for neither party wanted to shoulder the blame.
The gasoline rationing plan devised by Henderson’s OPA differed fundamentally from most other wartime rationing programs. Since petroleum was a key strategic weapon of war, and since a major goal was to save tires, gas for civilians was rationed according to individual need rather than parceled out on the equitable one-to-a-customer principle followed with such items as meat or sugar or canned corn. Every car owner received a basic so-called A ration, initially four gallons a week, good for perhaps sixty miles of driving. If he could persuade the local rationing board that he simply had to have more fuel, he would be eligible for a supplementary B or C ration. The B allotment generally went to those who could prove they had farther to drive to work than A-ration gallonage permitted. The key test for a C ration was “relation to the war effort or the public welfare,” as the OPA put it. War-plant workers fell into this category, as did doctors and others involved in “public welfare.” There was an unlimited “emergency” category for police, volunteer firemen, civil defense personnel, and the like, and a special T ration for truckers. Tied to the system was a compulsory tire-inspection plan whose web of regulations had to be followed religiously in order for a vehicle to be eligible for a recapped or new tire.
All the world would know how well anyone had done at their local ration board, for lettered windshield stickers were handed out along with gas-coupon booklets in each category. At the gas pump, the attendant would remove the appropriate number of coupons, on which the car’s license number had to be written, from the customer’s ration booklet. Coupons were valid only for a specified period, to prevent saving up for a sunny day.
Motorists by the millions promptly descended on their local boards to seek the supplementary gas rations. Processing war workers was simplified by plant transportation committees that approved mileage claims and organized car pools, whose members countersigned the applications. Both the virtues and the faults of the decentralized ration-board system soon were evident. Exaggerated claims of need could more easily be deflated by those who knew the local situation, and car owners found it hard to fool a neighbor sitting on an OPA board. On the other hand, there were many instances of neighborly favoritism and string pulling. (There were also small human dramas. A woman in Dunkirk, New York, wrote a pleading letter to her local board asking it not to grant her husband the B sticker he sought, for he only wanted it “to go out with other women.”) Under the circumstances, it was probably about as fair a system as could be devised, and patriotic support of the war effort played a very real part in these across-the-counter negotiations. About half the nation’s car owners obtained B or C classifications, and in the vast majority of cases they were legitimately awarded.
Along with the millions of windshield stickers and ration books came a flood of admonitory posters and leaflets and advertisements. Posters bluntly asking “Is This Trip Necessary?” were everywhere. Another poster warned, “When you ride ALONE you ride with Hitler! Join a Car-Sharing Club TODAY !”—a theme given emphasis by a picture of a joy rider breezing along in an open convertible, oblivious of the ghostly figure of the Führer on the seat beside him. A typical magazine ad depicted a slacker dozing on a couch above copy that read,“… Sure, you out-smarted the ration board on gas all right… and kept a certain Army plane in Africa out of the war.” The OPA’s leaflet explaining the rationing program was embellished with a drawing of a satanic-looking Japanese soldier guarding a great pile of tires, with the caption “ This is why your mileage is rationed.”
So the American car culture settled gingerly into its new, poor-relation status. Since the mid-twenties the automobile had been seen as a necessity of life; now it was just that and nothing more. There was little gas for anything beyond getting to work and accomplishing other spartan tasks the OPA labeled “general utility.” “It takes practically the whole day, every day, to figure out how to get certain things done without using any gas,” observed The New Yorker ’s E. B. White.