The changing role of the gas pump: yesterday, today & tomorrow

By : NCR Retail

September 11, 2018 12:00 PM

Back before there were gas stations, owners of the newfangled horseless carriage had to stop at coal yards and lumber companies to refuel their automobiles. The whole process was messy and time consuming – and then S.F. Bowser of Fort Wayne, Indiana, changed everything. Today, the forecourt is changing yet again, and offers expanding opportunities for consumer engagement. Learn more here.


1885 – Pump up the…whale oil?


In 1885, as kerosene replaced whale oil for heating and lighting, Bowser invented a pump to dispense kerosene from oil drums into containers for home. But when the automobile became commercially available around 1910, Bowser mounted a hand-crank pump on the top of a metal gasoline drum and encased the whole thing in a box, and the early ancestor of the gas pump was born.


While other gasoline and oil companies claim they were the first to open a gas station where you could pump fuel into a container, few argue that Good Gulf Gasoline in Pittsburgh (smartly located right next to a car dealership) was the first drive-up filling station to dispense directly into your car’s gas tank.


1918 – Gas pumps get dialed in


By the time Congress adopted time zones and daylight saving time in 1918, pump manufacturers were experimenting with clock-face style dials and gauges to show drivers how much gas was being dispensed.


In the next few years, investment in roads and highways, through the new federal Bureau of Public Roads, expanded the appeal of the automobile – gas stations began to appear all over the country, and electrical pumps replaced hand-cranking pumps.


1934 – Digital dials


In 1934, gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger were making news and quick getaways in fast (for their time) cars. But the Wayne Pump Company, a Fort Wayne competitor to Bowser, was making a giant leap forward in forecourt technology.


It went digital.


Gas pumps began measuring how much fuel was being dispensed using a digital meter instead of a dial. Customers could now see how much they were pumping as they were filling their tanks.


Large service bay doors, bigger forecourts and brightly lit canopies on custom-built stations were designed to get the attention of travelers, and the modern gas station began to take shape.


1940s – WWII


During World War II the U.S. war effort needed all the steel it could find for planes and tanks; so car production stopped until the mid-1940s. When production started back up, cars began to get more curves and look less like toolsheds on wheels. And as cars got sleeker and lower, the old-style 8-foot tall pumps became unnecessary. So the pumps got sleeker, too.


Most cars around this time managed to squeeze 15-20 miles per gallon, which meant they’d need to fill up more often – so gas companies built more filling stations and put more pumps on the forecourt.


1950s – Rebels with carcinogens


Military research during WWII had indicated that higher octane fuels would increase engine efficiency and give higher-octane vehicles an advantage in combat. It was research that proved to be true, but for consumer use, high octane fuels needed an additive to improve performance. So fuel producers began adding lead.


The 1950s saw cars with deep growls and loud roars became status symbols for rebels with and without causes. The first generation of drivers who couldn’t remember horse-and-buggy transportation bought their first vehicle in the biggest expansion of middle-class wealth in history.


Beyond the pump, a generation raised on convenience and labor-saving devices expected a focus on the c-store – and the industry responded.


1960s-1970s – The arrival of self-service, efficiency standards and price billboards


In 1964, the first remote self-service filling station began operating. It allowed consumers to pay inside, and the pump would be unlocked so they could pump their own gas. The increased efficiency of filling your own tank rather than waiting for an attendant to do it helped self-service stations steal market share from their full-service competitors.


Average fuel efficiency hadn’t move significantly since the first gas station was opened – and if anything, heavier, bigger cars had lowered average miles-per-gallon – though not by much.


An uptick in health problems related to lead emissions from gasoline was a contributing factor the to the creation passing of The Clean Air Act (1963) and Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Act (1965), paving the way for stricter emissions controls and the establishment of fuel efficiency standards for cars. By the middle of the 1970s, average fuel efficiency began to climb toward 20 m.p.g – and so cars were making fewer stops for gas.


To maintain revenues against this backdrop of drivers pumping and leaving, convenience stores increased their offerings – and then the gas shortage hit (1973-74) and states began passing laws that required gas stations to post their prices (and whether they were sold out) to prevent long lines for service.




In the age of “greed is good” and free-flowing consumer credit, customers were beginning to pay with plastic more often. Manufacturers answered the need for credit card readers built right into the pump, and self-serve customers now didn’t even need to talk to an attendant at all.


Some cars still ran on leaded gasoline, so filling stations offered leaded and unleaded pumps to give customers the right fuel for their engine.


Maybe it was a lack of consistency and oversight in the expansion of gas station franchises, or maybe it was that gas stations are predictably high-traffic places with a high volume of cash transactions. Somewhere in the century-long journey from Fort Wayne, gas stations found themselves with a reputation for being scary, unsafe and undesirable places to shop.


Fuel shortages of 2005 led stations to demand payment ahead of service, and pumps stayed locked until an attendant in the c-store or a payment card in the pump released them. Loyalty and branded credit cards gave drivers a reason to seek out their preferred stations, as prices crashed past $2 per gallon. Stations with higher quality, more attractive c-stores became strongly preferred by customers, and brands invested in providing great experiences in safe places.


Now and the future


Margins on fuel are consistently thin, no matter what the price of a gallon is. Anyone involved in the running of a single station – or a global fuel brand – knows the key to future profitability is increasing sales in the c-store.


But with 70% of gas station customers being strictly gas-and-go, that’s a tricky well to drill. In the last few years, screens on gas pumps have been effectively used to deliver advertising, weather updates and entertainment for customers as they refuel.


Now what if, in the future, you could use that same real estate to deliver personalized offers to the consumer – as they re-fill their tank – to encourage them to head into the c-store, driving more engagement with them, and more wallet share for you?


Well don’t look now, but the future just pulled into your forecourt.