Where did early car drivers get their fuel?

When the first commercial automobiles went on the market, where did the drivers get the fuel to run them?


Before there were automobiles, people used kerosene for all kinds of things (lamps, heating, even as a laxative). They often obtained kerosene by distilling oil, and gasoline was a waste product that was generally discarded. Pharmacies and general stores occasionally had some of the stuff lying around for use as a cleaning solvent or other things, so when early experimenters started looking for fuels for their cars, gasoline was generally available (in small quantities) and was cheap.

As more and more automobiles started using gasoline, the oil companies realized that they could make a profit on this stuff that used to be a waste product, and the oil companies like Standard Oil actually lobbied the early auto manufacturers to use gasoline for their cars. There was competition from diesel cars (which basically ran on vegetable oil) and electric cars, though electric cars back then suffered from limited range and recharging issues, both of which still exist to some degree today.

Gasoline grew accordingly. It started out as a cheap waste product sitting on shelves in pharmacies and the like, then became a profitable side business for those pharmacies, and when that kept going well, people started making purpose-built gas stations.

If gasoline hadn’t been available in local stores and pharmacies, we would have likely seen steam cars used for a much longer period of time. Steam cars can run on pretty much anything that burns, though they do have the downsides of taking a long time to warm up and they tend to explode if you let the steam pressure get out of hand. Jay Leno has shown off at least one of his steam cars in his Jay Leno’s Garage videos on youtube. You can watch that to see just how much effort it takes to start one up.

As a side note, most early automobiles had very low compression ratios which meant they could be adjusted to run on almost any fuel that would vaporize. The Ford Model T C/R was 4.5/1 versus today’s engines of 9/1 to 11/1.

That was also sort of a side effect of the flathead/valve in block design.

I notice around me the remnants of many more gas stations than remain today. Most were also small service stations as well, since cars broke down a lot more often. Just a block away there were two such stations on opposite street corners, now one is an animal hospital (with a slightly larger and separate auto mechanic and body shop behind it that’s still in use) and the other is a part of an art gallery https://goo.gl/maps/imDuMYpzkbC2 These are just two examples but there’s dozens if not hundreds more like this around just Cincinnati alone.

I bring that up because they’re so prolific but hiding in plain sight. Most of these facilities are from the late 1910s through the 1930s. What you don’t see however are remnants of the sidewalk gas pumps that were the transitional step between picking up some cans at the hardware store and full on service stations. I found a reference in a 1924 Kansas City newspaper that there were 300 in that city, and the municipal government was already trying to have them removed, hence why they’re mostly forgotten by now. It’s a wonderfully urban solution to what is normally a very anti-urban activity and building type. You still see them in other countries, but there’s certainly issues to be dealt with such as being more difficult to clean up spills, damage to pavement, public versus private right-of-way concerns, not to mention storage tank locations, monitoring, litter, unsightliness, and protection from wayward vehicles.

If you are interested in this topic in general, you would enjoy the documentary Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip by Ken Burns. It is a true story about a man that made a bet that he could drive cross-country from San Francisco to New York and somehow did it but not without extreme difficulties. It only took him 63 days! Finding gas was the least of his troubles (pharmacies and general stores carried it for other purposes as noted).

Cars were hideously unreliable in the very early days and spare parts took a long time to ship in by railroad if they were available at all. Even simple things like tires didn’t last long and there were no clear, long-distance routes especially in the Rocky Mountain region. You could spend two days travelling 40 miles across rough roads only to have to turn around because the road suddenly ended, became impassible or reversed direction.

That took place in 1903, the same year that the Wright Brothers flew their first successful plane. It is astounding that cars and planes were fairly common about a decade later. It puts our current rate of technological progress in perspective to learn radical changes happened at least as quickly during that period as well.


theres an early talkie where these people go for a "country drive " and get low on gas and they stop at a farm that has gas painted on the side of a big visible tank they honk and the farmer comes out with a hand crank pump he hooked up between the 2 filled up the car

the farmer said 2.50 and the driver argued that it was cheaper in town farmer said well ya could give him back the gas and try to make it to town the driver paid

I asked grandma about the authenticy of the scene and she said some farmers had a sideline if they were near a road or sold extra gas left over from the tractor …

Radio followed a similar arc, from being a laboratory curiosity in the late 19th Century to being a Morse code-only medium with crude voice and sound experiments in the first decade of the 20th Century to, by the 1920s, being not only commercialized but the center of a national craze: It was not only the first new medium since the invention of newsprint, it was the first new kind of medium, the first mass medium, where everyone could listen to the same broadcast over a huge region. Telegraphy had similar speed, but it was point-to-point; radio is point-to-everyone. Television added images, but radio had all the essential characteristics.

Six or seven decades later, depending on how you count and who you were, in-home computer networks gave us everyone-to-everyone communications. And it’s slowly killing both radio and television, at least in their current forms. Who knew mass media would have such a short shelf life?

Here’s a surprising good read about that. :slight_smile: enjoy!
The Evolution of Fuel

This is a myth. The later Doble cars could start within 30 seconds and had a flash boiler which meant they stored no steam and couldn’t explode.

A fascinating point/claim.

The current idea of oh-my-future-shock (i.e., only becoming more entrenched since the concept of “future shock” emerged decades ago): has it ever been explicitly compared by competent historians to the emergence of technologies (with radio, as a kind, and electricity, as a source) in terms of public un-ease?

Another good read is “American Road” about the 1919 transcontinental motor expedition. It was a major Army expedition that took 56 days to travel from DC to San Francisco.

Auto travel improved quickly. Twenty years later, two women in my family, a widowed aunt and her sister-in-law did the same trip in 10 days.