What's Your Gas Shortage Story?

Back in the ‘70s, waiting for gas wasn’t an uncommon experience, from what I understand. I wasn’t around back then so I don’t know for sure, but many of the people I know who were alive back in the ‘70s knew the experience all too well.


My grandparents have told me about how late 1973 brought lines to filling stations and some strategic thinking to commuting and road trips, and my dad has stories of driving a soda truck when gas was tight later on in ‘79. These experiences sound unreal to me.

Along with the economic squeeze the shortages put on Americans who needed their vehicles to make their livelihood, the effect was emotional as well. Shortages of something as fundamental as gasoline were already nearly unheard-of in 1970s America. The last time most Americans had any difficulty getting fuel was probably during World War II rationing. And so tensions ran hot. Truckers protested. There were riots.

The reason I bring up the gas shortage is this report by the late Jim Lehrer from 1979. Lehrer, 85, who passed away earlier this week, founded PBS NewsHour and was a titan of television journalism. He reported on nearly everything that happened since he started the program back in the ‘70s and his retirement in 2011. I was interested to see what kind of reporting he did on cars (there had to be something) and this turned up.

It’s clear that even in an urban area like Queens, with public transportation more accessible and usable than in most of the country (even during the city’s ‘70s malaise), the pain the gas shortage brought around was real. Lehrer’s reporting and interviews with locals make that clear.

So what about you? Do you have memories of either of the gas shortages in the ‘70s? Maybe just stories you’ve heard? Oh perhaps from other shortages elsewhere around the world. Whatever you’ve got, let us know in the comments below!

Max Finkel is a Weekend Contributor at Jalopnik.



Well I remember this report when it was on the first time. I was a kid of about ten then, and my parents and I didn’t take trips on the weekends, or evenings. We stayed home a lot. My mom and dad said that it was like the war, meaning WW II when they were kids. My dad took the train to work, but there are some points to be made thinking back on rationing. For those who believe that personal transportation can be replaced by mass transportation, you are crackers. What happens when personal transport comes to a halt is that economic activity is greatly reduced. People can’t get out to spend money. People will always find a way to get to work even if it means moving house, but they will stop spending money because they can’t get to where they need to be, and goods are no longer reliably delivered. Signs go up saying that stores and restaurants are out of things. There is no replacing the efficient movement of goods and people that personal transport provide.

Another thing that one should notice is the small number of Japanese cars in this segment. It was the 1973 oil embargo that caused the AMC Gremlin to sell so well, but it was the 1979 oil crisis that caused the sale of VWs, Le Cars, Toyotas to explode. People waited almost 18 months to take delivery of a Toyota corolla hatchback in the early eighties. By 1985, America had firmly made the change to small Japanese cars, and it was basically the predominant car until the CAFE standards after the 1991-92 recession caused buyers to replace those cars with SUVs because they wanted to get back into large cars, but those were impossible to get on dealer lots.

Oh and you might hear a guy here talk about being turned away because he had an even number. This report is from after the Carter administration tried to create an ad hoc rationing system by having the last digit of your license plate determine if you could buy gas on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or a Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. People didn’t work on Sundays back then for the most part. The odd/even system did nothing to change the lines for gas. Lines started to dwindle as people adjusted by driving less, and the taps got turned back on as OPEC came to the realization that they needed our dollars more than we needed their gas, but as trade wars go, this was the worst I ever saw.

I don’t miss the 70's. It was angry decade and little worked well.