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Sorry No Gas
How Americans Met the First Great Gasoline Crisis—Nearly Forty Years Ago
October/November 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 6
Hot coupons might be sold to individual car owners in bar or back-alley transactions, but most black-market operators preferred working with filling-station owners, where the deals—and the profits—were larger. A dealer usually was charged between eight and fifteen cents apiece for hot coupons. Favored couponless customers were then treated to extra gas at whatever markup above the controlled price the market would bear, with the dealer making up the shortfall in his coupon records from his black-market stock. The profits in this business were considerable for all concerned; in the spring of 1944 Newsweek quoted Bowles’s estimate that transactions in hot coupons were totaling one billion dollars a month.
In addition to the gasoline siphoned out of the allotments for legitimate needs, the black market posed a threat to the very rationale of the rationing program. If there was such a flourishing black market, reasoned the motoring public, then perhaps there was plenty of gasoline to go around after all—which, as military needs multiplied late in the war, was quite the opposite of the actual situation. The OPA’s vigorous crackdown on the black market began to take effect by the winter of 1944–45. The coupon chain was tightened up, more sophisticated methods were used to detect counterfeits, and OPA-run monitoring centers were inserted into the system. From there hot coupons were traced back to the dealers, who were fined or had their gas deliveries debited or, in the most serious cases, were shut down.
At its peak, about a year earlier, the gasoline black market was estimated to account for some 5 per cent of the daily civilian allocation of 50,400,000 gallons. Sociologist Marshall Clinard, studying the black market as a symptom of whitecollar crime, concluded that between one in two and one in five gas-station operators succumbed to temptation at one time or another. There is no way of knowing how many motorists patronized the black market, or what proportion of those who did made it a regular habit. Newspapers played up a tourist rush to Florida during the winter of 1943 that was fueled largely by hot coupons. OPA inspectors told of an A-sticker driver caught at a watering spot six hundred miles from home; when questioned, he piously claimed to be visiting his ninety-seven-year-old mother on her birthday, and was it his fault that she still liked to hang around summer resorts? Some commentators on the period have compared the level of black-market lawlessness to Prohibition, but that is a considerable exaggeration.
Chester Bowles, whose three years at the helm of the OPA gave him some perspective on the black market, concluded that 2 to 5 per cent of the population was “inherently dishonest”; another 20 per cent obeyed the regulations without questioning; and the remaining 75 per cent “genuinely want to be honest” but disliked being proof of Barnum’s assertion about suckers. When and where wartime gas rationing was fairly and equitably administered according to actual need, it seems clear that the vast majority of the people complied out of patriotic motives. When the system bumbled or took turns perceived as repressive, such as the pleasure-driving ban, the black market flourished. It should be remembered just how large a slice gasoline rationing took out of the car culture’s accustomed way of life—a consumption cut of 40 per cent in 1943 and 1944—which makes the overall record of compliance rather remarkable.
On V-J Day, August 15, 1945, as the nation joyously celebrated the war’s end, motorists found their tanks running over. Bowles went on the radio that evening to announce the immediate end of gasoline rationing. “Now,” he promised, “you can take your gasoline and fuel oil coupons and paste them in your memory book.” America’s love affair with the automobile could resume at last. Never again—or so everyone believed—would a frustrated motorist feel compelled to pray: