The Gas Shortage of the 1970’s - Oh, The Madness!
UNITED STATES - MAY 06: Paul Pierson with signs during New Jersey gas shortage. (Photo by Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
I was in elementary school during the oil crisis/gas shortage of the 1970’s. I wasn’t overly concerned at the time since, as a kid, I wasn’t driving so I didn’t really have a horse in that race. My parents, on the other hand, had their concerns. My father had to get to work everyday at all costs. Calling out was not an option; his work ethic wouldn’t allow it. We were fortunate to have two cars so it all worked out, although it was still a huge worry. A lot of people were of the opinion that the shortage was unnecessary and purely political, but the fact remained that gasoline was scarce.
My family lived in Maryland at the time of the gas shortage. Gas was being rationed and sold under certain conditions. Of course, the public was expected to conserve gas whenever possible, but measures were put into place to ensure that everyone was participating in the effort. Gas stations were selling gas on an odd/even day basis. If your license plate number ended in an even number, you could buy gas on certain days and the same concept applied to odd numbered license plate numbers. If your car had vanity tags, you could only buy gas on odd days. My parents were fortunate enough to have one of each; an even and an odd license plate number so theoretically, they could buy gas every day. During that time, though, many families only owned one car so plenty of people ran into a big problem. As you can imagine, public transportation was encouraged but was also limited due to the gas shortage.
In June of 1973, the price of a gallon of gasoline was under 50 cents. By May of 1974, it had skyrocketed to over $4.00 per gallon. The shortage and price hike were reportedly due to two major oil refineries being closed. Supply couldn’t keep up with demand and everyone was scrambling to get the gas they needed; mainly so they could get to work. Vehicles of the 1970’s were gas guzzlers, so a tank of gas didn’t last long. It got so bad that people were regularly stealing gas from unattended vehicles.
During this time, I remember many times being in the car with my parents, waiting in the gas line which stretched out of the parking lot and at times about ¼ of a mile down the road. People even lined up with their gas-powered lawn mowers. It wasn’t unheard of to wait in line for a couple of hours only to find out that the pumps were empty when you finally made it to the front of the line.
Gas stations limited the amount of gas that could be purchased on any one visit. The shortage was so dire that some gas stations couldn’t even buy gas and had to close because they had no gas to sell. President Nixon had asked gas station owners not to sell gas on Saturday nights or at all on Sundays. Most complied with the conservation request but plenty did not.
Energy conservation efforts were put in place to relieve some of the demand. Eventually, the nationwide highway speed limit was lowered to 55 MPH. NASCAR voluntarily shortened their races, even cancelling some. Everyone had to do their part.
As the frustration grew, tempers flared. People were fighting, both verbally and physically in the gas lines. If a person got in line on the wrong day (and it was easy to tell because of the license plate number) there was hell to pay. Normally rational people turned into raging vigilantes in order right that wrong. Professional truck drivers were not able to work at times because they were being limited as well. Obviously, this led to deliveries not being made to stores which in turn hurt the business of store owners. It wasn’t just a gas shortage, it was an entire economy crisis.
It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. The gas shortage created demand for more efficient automobiles; with the public's affection for gas-guzzling muscle cars waning, the market for compact and subcompact cars -- including the notorious Ford Pinto -- exploded. At the height of the 1970's gas shortage, alternative and renewable energy sources were being explored. Now, we have more fuel-efficient vehicle and even vehicles that run on electricity. At the time, we would never have dreamed of an electric car! Unfortunately, after the gas shortage leveled out, most of us went back to business as usual as far as our gas usage. The convenience of transportation was and is just too tempting.
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