Harmon’s Histories: It’s time for an old-fashioned gas war in Missoula!
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
It’s time for a good old gas war ... as in gasoline ... with dealer after dealer cutting prices to be the lowest in town ... even as a loss leader!
Ah, the good old days. The last gas war I remember was 1969/1970, when the price per gallon dropped 11 cents. It was an effort to be competitive with the new “self-serve” movement.
Traditional “service” stations wanted to bring back customers, hoping they would appreciate the benefits of “full service” even if prices went back up.
For those not familiar with the concept of full service, here’s what it was like.
You’d pull up the pump, shut off the car engine and wait.
Before you could say “Jiminy Cricket,” or some other popular phrase of the day, a happy, smiling fellow would bound out to your car, ask what grade of gasoline you wanted and how you would like to pay.
You would hand the young fellow a gasoline-company credit card and say, “Fill ‘er up!” The fellow would then ask you to “pop the hood,” so he could begin checking your oil and water (or coolant) levels and, of course, start cleaning every window on your vehicle. Every window.
It was even cooler in 1930, when Standard Oil trained its “men not to accept a tip, after giving you air and water free, scrubbing your windshield and inquiring for your health even though you bought no gasoline.”
The Shell company offered even more service!
“When you drive up to one of (their) stations,” reported to the Ronan Pioneer newspaper, “two men spring out, one on each side of you, and if you only want to know where McChadden Avenue is, they beam with delight as they give you the information, and if you choose will go with you. That’s modern service.”
The last true Missoula “service station,” Gary Little’s place on South Higgins Avenue, closed last year, when Gary turned 80.
In 1966’s gas war, western Montana prices dropped as low as 22.9-cents per gallon, 14 cents lower than 1965’s gas war rate of 36.9 cents, and matching the 1964 price war low. All of this was a reaction to the cut-rate prices offered by the new self-serve model.
Even in 1961, during the previous gas-war, the lowest price around was 29.5 cents per gallon at the Bitter Root Market on South Higgins Avenue.
And four years before that, the lowest price was 25 cents, when the major gasoline chains tried to match price-cutting by independent competitors.
If you wish to go back further, here’s a newspaper report out of Butte in 1930: “It has been contended that the 27 1/2 cent price for gasoline in Butte was discriminative, unfair, and exorbitant.”
As a result, a Chamber of Commerce committee suggested that the chamber “establish a gasoline station and sell the product at cost (5 cents cheaper) in order to force the oil companies to lower their prices.”
But the idea bombed. Both within and without the Chamber, the sentiment was that “the Chamber must not enter business.”
So the men behind the idea resigned from the Chamber and immediately began acquiring financial backers to form a “Community Mutual Gasoline” company. Even “a one-cent reduction in the price of gasoline,” they said, “would save Silver Bow County motorists $80,000 annually.”
As I write this story, Montana’s average price for “regular” is $3.99 a gallon, up about 25 cents from a month ago, but down about 21 cents from a year ago.
So – bring it on!
It’s one war I could support wholeheartedly! And would you please clean off that bug on the windshield. Thanks so much.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.