Sorry No Gas
How Americans Met the First Great Gasoline Crisis—Nearly Forty Years Ago
October/November 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 6
Pleasure-seeking habits changed radically. The Sunday driver was gone from the land. Dr. Benjamin Spock (C ration) would remember with amazement “how easy it was to drive around in New York City and to park the car.” Resorts reported dramatic declines in customers, and many shut down for the duration. Thousands of roadhouses and restaurants and the other paraphernalia of the highway culture also closed their doors. In 1943, visits to national parks fell 68 per cent below prewar levels. Emily Post unbent etiquette’s rules enough to decree that it was no longer necessary to drive to the station to pick up one’s weekend guests. Lovers’ lane was replaced by those stand-bys of an earlier generation, the front parlor and the porch swing. Neighborhood bars and movie houses were jammed, as were any race tracks that could be reached by bus or trolley. But most of the time the average citizen simply stayed home, marooned “on his front porch,” Time reported, “with a well-stuffed wallet.” It was the fat wallets that caused particular frustration, for personal income was rising at an astronomical rate. Although wages were controlled, there was full employment for the first time since the 1929 crash and all the overtime pay anyone could want, yet there was little to buy and, thanks to gas and tire rationing, nowhere to go.
In the emergency the gasoline engine’s old rivals enjoyed a brief renaissance. Here and there a rejuvenated Stanley or Doble steamer could be seen, and elegant tall black electrics glided silently along city streets otherwise empty of traffic. Bicycling was encouraged by publicity photographs of the OPA’s portly Leon Henderson puffing a cigar as he pedaled his “victory bicycle.” Soon bicycles by the thousands could be found in factory parking lots—although most were old ones, for bicycle manufacture was on the wartime proscribed list. And horses were back, too, pressed into service to pull delivery wagons.
This is not to say that America’s car owners ever stopped trying to change the rationing rules. Pressure groups and lobbyists and politicians laid siege to OPA headquarters in Washington, where a “gasoline eligibility committee” met regularly to contend with their petitions and to set policy guidelines for the local boards. The committee would have welcomed Solomon and his wisdom to its sessions.
The American Bar Association, for example, maintained that all lawyers were upholders of the public welfare and thus entitled to C-ration stickers, but the OPA ruled only in favor of country lawyers, leaving city attorneys to make do with A or B allocations. The medical field, too, needed definition, leaving such practitioners as chiropodists, naturopathic healers, and masseurs out in the cold as far as extra gasoline was concerned. However, healers of ailing cars, such as used-car-parts brokers, won C allotments. B stickers might be granted for church volunteer work, but pleas for C stickers to attend church services fell on deaf OPA ears. Attending a funeral was not excuse enough for additional coupons. Boy Scout executives were praised for contributing to the morale of the nation’s youth, but were denied extra allotments. The pleas of hunters and fisherman that with C rations they could add to the country’s food supply were rejected. And while the administration urged everyone to plant a “victory garden” to relieve the strains of food rationing, the OPA ruled that unless those gardens were larger than fifteen hundred square feet, even the most patriotic yeoman was not entitled to extra gas to reach his plot.
The job of overseeing all this proved too much even for Leon Henderson: worn out, ill, and “bleeding from his political wounds,” he resigned in December, 1942, and was replaced by Prentiss M. Brown, a former Michigan senator. It was during Brown’s tenure that the gas-rationing program took a new, tough, and highly unpopular turn. On January 7, 1943, a fiat was issued banning all pleasure driving on the Eastern seaboard, regardless of a motorist’s windshield sticker. This was necessary, the OPA explained, because of continuing fuel-transportation problems.
Easterners were indeed plagued by spot shortages, which sometimes left motorists, even those with full ration books, woefully contemplating “Out of Gas” signs at filling stations. Any tank truck making a delivery run was customarily trailed by a long line of cars. But to ban what little driving pleasure was left to a law-abiding A-card holder struck many people as petty and unfair. The New York Automobile Club charged OPA inspectors with “Gestapo methods” in harassing motorists embarked on innocent errands. Those attending a concert or a wedding reception or a ball game (even though major-league baseball had Washington’s blessing as a booster of civilian morale) risked the loss of their rations. Grumbling increased in June when, under orders from Harold Ickes, who was in charge of overall petroleum priorities, the weekly A ration was cut to three gallons and the B and C allotments to two and a half gallons apiece. The OPA did not help its case with such puritanical rulings as one that banned all trips to summer homes, but allowed a single journey to close up a summer place—provided that the driver came straight back and did not tarry one extra minute to enjoy himself.