essays and articles by david g allen

Were Our 'Good Old Days' Really That Good?


George Kovach died last week. He was 90. For most of my boyhood, "Mister" Kovach ran the Cities Service filling station a block away from my house.

As I read his obituary, I began having those unavoidable flashbacks of life as it was lived nearly 50 years ago. Whenever we remember the days of our youth, we invariably think of that stage of our lives as the good old days. Maybe you call them the salad days. For most of us, that time of life seemed just about right because we were far too young and untraveled to have had any perspective.

The old filling stations were lessons in merchandising. Everything the station sold was a branded product. The Cities Service logo--the outline of a green clover leaf on white background--appeared on everything.

The men who worked at the station wore neat uniforms with a Cities Service emblem. The oil cans, antifreeze jugs and just about every other container carried the store brand. And as for the gasoline, Cities Service promoted their brand as the best for your car because it had Power Prover.

In Clarksburg, Cities Service had to compete with Esso, Pure, Gulf, Amoco, Mobil, Texaco, Sunoco, Sinclair, Spur, Red Head, Ashland, Quaker State and Pennzoil. Each brand claimed that its own secret ingredient made your car engine run better. However, these claims were just so much gimmickry. (Perhaps you'll recall: "Put a tiger in your tank!")

Filling stations were big on handing out promotional items. You could take your pick from a nice selection of road maps. Ice scrapers were common giveaways in the wintertime. Sometimes, the giveaways were merchandise, such as drinking glasses. All in all, these stations competed for your business and your trust by developing brand loyalty.

Filling stations usually had two service bays. One side had a lift for lube jobs and oil changes. The other side was used for car washes and tire changes.

Fifty years ago, a car needed a lot more maintenance. On average, cars had about seven grease fittings that needed a shot of grease at every oil change. Drum brake pads, unlike today's disc brakes, wore out pretty quickly. Batteries were anything but maintenance-free. And radiators all too often overheated.

In some respects, filling stations were like the blacksmith shops in the horse-and-wagon era. Cars of the 1950s were about as temperamental as horses and, like the wagons of old, needed frequent maintenance.

Tires prove this out. Fifty years ago, a set of four tires cost about $100. Radial tires were still a new concept in Europe. We bought tube-type, bias-ply tires that did well if they lasted 10,000 miles. With their uncanny ability to pick up nails off the roadway, you could expect a tire to go flat once before it wore out.

To fix a flat tire required removing the tube and patching it with a hot patch. Then you had to remount the tire and, most likely, rebalance it. Fixing a flat tire was a real chore.

A set of radial tires today will cost four times what Mister Kovach charged. But your new radials are likely warranted for 50,000 miles or more. As for flat tires, you may never have one. All-season radial tires handle much better, are much safer and are far less likely to hydroplane than the rubber ducks of the good old days.

Last week, gasoline hit $3.89.9 per gallon in Clarksburg, the highest price yet. Today's price seems so distant from the 25 cents that a gallon cost in my youth.

If I looked only at the price of gasoline, then I'd say the good old days were indeed good. But when I look at the total cost of operating a vehicle, I must conclude that modern times are the better era of the two.

Gasoline has become a generic commodity sold mostly at convenience stores. These stores offer no service because there really isn't much of a need to check under the hood anymore. As for building customer loyalty, why hand out free road maps when cars are increasingly equipped with GPS locators? Is it any wonder then why the neighborhood filling station is all but extinct?

In 10 or so years, we won't complain about the price of gasoline because we'll plug our vehicles into an electric outlet every night. And when that time comes, we'll remember the good old days. You know -- the days when every neighborhood had a convenience store.



"Were Our 'Good Old Days' Really That Good?" originally appeared in the May 16, 2008 issue of the West Virginia State Journal.



Copyright 1990-2008  David G. Allen