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The first petrol pump, and the lesson it teaches us for our zero-emissions future

Tuesday, August 08, 2023

Black and white photograph of an Austin Seven on display at a motor museum in Birmingham

In 1895, Evelyn Ellis made the first car journey in Britain. Yet it wasn't until 1919 that the first filling station opened. It took another three years for the second one to pop up.

Most of the 20,000-odd petrol stations at the start of the Second World War were on the forecourt of mechanic's workshops, with one or two pumps. The driver pulls up, a dirty overall wearing mechanic pops out, fills the car, takes the money and off you drive. Even though petrol stations no longer have workshops attached, it's why "Garage" is used by many Brits to describe the place they fill up.

Why mention this?

It took decades between the first petrol powered cars hitting the UK streets and a reliable, far reaching refueling infrastructure arrived. As reliability, range and usage changed, so the need for garages, the services they provided and how we interacted with them changed. From the high of 40,000+ high filling stations in the 1960s, the numbers have declined to 8,000 or so, and are still falling.

Alternative fuels, whether EV charging points, hydrogen or efuels, are on an upwards trend. It's going to take a few years to build the kind of infrastructure we're used to for our fossil fuel burners. While that's happening, we might find our needs change too as we adapt to what's available and how we drive.

Moves by the EU to mandate EV charging points and Hydrogen refueling spots along major routes are a positive step and will help encourage the transition. However, I can't help thinking we need some enterprising souls, like those first mechanics who used hand cranked petrol pumps, to move things along a little quicker.

My name is Ross Hori

I'm a freelance writer, designer and photographer. By day I create articles, features and reports. At night I take photos and write fiction.

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