Collector Car Corner – Gas Stations, department stores and old car memories

Collector Car Corner - Gas Stations, department stores and old car memoriesProof of how popular Sears auto centers were is this Sears Service Center toy, produced by Louis Marx Co. in the 1960s. Following company realignment, Marx offered a limited number of the Sears auto centers in 1995 from original tooling. The company has since gone out of business again, but some retailers are selling the remaining kits on eBay and other sites like dimestoretoys.com. (Compliments dimestoretoys.com)
Collector Car Corner - Gas Stations, department stores and old car memories

Back in the 1950s, it was common to see all employees wear uniforms and bow ties at your local gas station. This Gulf station photo shows the attendants taking care of an early 1950s style Studebaker and making recommendations to the owner. (Compliments Gulf Oil)

Greg, I did a Google on the question, “What happened to the Burlington, N.J. Kmart” and I came across your story online about going to the Vineland, N.J. Sears store with your dad and mom and your brother.

I grew up near Detroit, Michigan, and also have fond memories of Montgomery Ward and Sears (stores and auto centers). The toy departments were great to see at Christmas time and the hobby department was cool with all the models.  My dad owned a Sears Elgin boat that I learned to water ski with.

It’s really a shame that these stores are closing. You said you worked in the paint department at Sears in Vineland. I too worked at both S.S. Kreske’s (a forerunner of Kmart) and at the Kmart in Burlington, N.J. It was a lot fun looking back. Sadly we lost both Sears and Kmart in our town of Pottstown, Pa. The end of an era I guess. Anyway, thanks for the memories and would love to hear your memories of those stores, gas stations and cars of the era. Sincerely, Dan York, Pottstown, Pa.

Collector Car Corner - Gas Stations, department stores and old car memories

Sunoco had a popular “Sunny Dollars” game back in the sixties. Customers had to match both sides of a dollar denomination bill, with the top prize being $1,000. Sinclair also had a game called Dino Dollars. (Photo compliments of Sunoco)

A: Dan, thanks much for your email about memories of stores and cars from back in the fifties and sixties. The recollections I have center on the Sears & Roebuck located at Landis Ave. and the circle of Rte. 47, in Vineland, N.J.  

When we relocated there as a family in 1958, Sears was the “in-store” to go regardless of need. I remember many times my parents shopping while my dad’s 1955 Plymouth Savoy received an oil change at the Sears Auto Center.  

So be it a specific oil change, a set of tires, tools, a complete tune-up, a Ted Williams baseball glove or JC Higgins bicycle or shotgun, Sears had it all. The store in Vineland, like many Sears of the decade, also had a Hires Root Beer stand right smack in the middle of the store where they served hot dogs on a bread type semi-toasted roll. If I had been a good boy that week, I might even go home with a plastic molded 1/24 scale car, my favorite back then being a 1957 Pontiac two door hardtop. As you mention, Sears had a great toy section, and the holidays were my favorite time to visit Sears.

Sears aside, the gas stations of the era are still engrained in my head. There was so much activity back then at the gas station as all gas pump attendants were in full uniform, many with bow ties. There was always a friendly hello and “Happy Motoring” at the end if it was an Esso. If it was a Gulf station, the roles were reversed and the consumer had to tell the workers “Riley sent me” thanks to the TV hit “The Life of Riley”, starring William Bendix and his greeting request “Tell them Riley sent you.”  

The gas attendants back then would clean your car’s windshield, check the oil and even make sure the tire pressures were correct regardless of weather. The Flying A, Sinclair, Esso, Gulf and Texaco stations stand out in my mind, as does Sunoco and later American, the latter the first to offer a no-lead gasoline before government mandates. 

I remember Sunoco was one of the first to have a “Sunoco Sunny Dollars” game promotion where every time you bought gas, you received a game piece of half of a dollar nomination. If you matched both ends, you received the cash and the most I ever won was $2.00. My buddy one time won $10, which was huge when gas was 33-cents a gallon.

Unlike today’s Food Mart gas stations, the stations of past were fascinating places for a young lad like me. From engines being changed, transmissions rebuilt to tires mounted and balanced, I loved everything about a gas station and I asked a lot of questions. As for snacks, even though the old stations didn’t have literal warm meals and tables to dine, most back then had the Coca-Cola, Nehi Orange, 7-Up, or Pepsi soda products. They also had to have a nice lineup of potato chips and pretzels and perhaps five or six selections of candy bars, my favorites being Skybar, Turkish Taffy, Clark Bar or Sugar Babies. Oh yes, can’t forget those Planters salted peanuts, too, at five-cents a bag.

Sadly, as the years went by and the auto manufacturers took further control of minor and major car repairs and routine service (some manufacturers today offer three years of regular routine service of oil changes, tire rotations, etc. when you buy a new car), the gas stations we knew growing up have nearly disappeared sans the few that still dot the landscape in our geographical regions of the U.S.  

The alarmingly few independent garages that survived are thanks mostly to dedicated baby boomer consumers although some of the younger generations have found out how good these little garages are. But with high tech cars advancing more every year, it’s just a matter of time before more of these wonderful independents shutter their doors.     

In spite of the independent garage’s future, we’ve got to end this column on a positive note. The reason why gas stations were and in some cases still are very popular is because in addition to providing a service, they are still a great place to hang out and say hello. They also serve as an exceptionally good place for your collector car to be properly serviced, as the small independents still know how to setup a Holley carburetor, fix the water pump or replace a broken rocker arm without any trouble. A new camshaft for your’55 Chevy with the 350 engine you ask? Sure, no problem.

As for my years at Sears in 1968-69, that job in the paint center was fun and allowed me to setup my initial Sears credit card. I then purchased my first set of headers for my ‘67 Plymouth GTX.  I think the l cost was around $95.00 for those Hedman Hedders, which my brother Mike and I put on that same night. We then fired the car up sans muffler hookups at 2:30 a.m., much to the chagrin of my neighbors.

 Thanks for the memories Dan and have a Happy Thanksgiving and upcoming Christmas / holiday season.

(Greg Zyla is a syndicated auto columnist who welcomes reader questions on auto nostalgia, collector cars and old-time racing at greg@gregzyla.com or at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, Pa. 18840.)

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