Theme: Places – Petrol Stations

For about a century, petrol stations have been the one place all cars had to go to. Their time may be running out though.


In Europe, Italy has the most petrol stations (21,000), followed by Germany (16,000). Quite possibly in less than a few decades, the petrol station will be as rare a sight as a horse trough. Already their numbers seem to be dwindling. Three quarters of UK petrol stations have closed since 1975. In Londonland there are 34,000 cars per petrol station. Part of the loss is to do with changes in the economic geography of the stations. Many of the oldest ones were in urban centres and quite probably it is more profitable to put an office or apartment building in the same location than to

German Rasthof, Hamm: source
German Rasthof, Hamm: source

try selling fuel and sandwiches. Another trend involves the change in role of the petrol station from fuel stop to food stop. Many of the main retailers have muscled in on the sector and have restyled the stations as convenience stores with petrol pumps outside. The fuel is bait to attract customers for others things and is used an almost-loss leader. For independent petrol stations it is hard to compete with chain stores. This and the increase in land prices means that one by one they close, to be replaced by something else.

Petrol station nourishmet: source
Petrol station nourishment: source

In future other factors may further reduce the prevalence of these lovely places. Or they might stop being petrol stations and become energy stations. However, if the trend towards electric cars continues, the need to have centralised fuel stops diminishes: note the appearance of energy outlets on the pavements across Europe. Each of those is doing the same thing as a petrol station but without a copy of the Independent and a packet of John Players being involved.

Mushroom-type petrol station, undated: source
Mushroom-type petrol station, undated: source

For me there are two petrol station situations. One is the routine filling of the car which concludes with a sinking feeling when the huge bill is displayed. 84 litres of petrol is quite an investment. That takes place at a station local to me where I don’t notice anything as I trudge through the process apart from the scent of fuel vapour.

The other situation is the fuel-stop on a long drive to somewhere new. Then even a large expanse of concrete and a characterless store becomes part of a moderately thrilling adventure and a relief from the motorway’s rumble and thrum. At these usually random pit-stops I like to take a look at the maps on sale, which types of Pringles are in stock, the baked good and whether they sell any coffee. For some reason I think of a station somewhere north of Hamburg and south of Flensburg. I think it might be an Aral station, with its characteristic blue logo. It’s only a canopy, some pumps and a metal framed kiosk.

If there is time one can return to the car, sip an insipid and over-priced coffee and have a smoke, taking time to eyeball the vehicles which roll in and roll out. These are fabulously place-less places, with layouts designed centrally and which pay no regard to the local setting.

It was not always like this. In the 1950s the German autobahn network grew and with it the chains of rest-stops. Many have a very late 60’s and early 70’s architecture: long, low and with a brownstone amalgamate pavement. Some of the plantings (in concrete boxes) are almost attractive. These have a pleasant and nostalgic atmosphere, from when driving might have seemed innocent and more glamorous than it does now.

Much the same transformation has affected airline travel. For petrol stations on the autobahns the change from concrete to steel meant the architectural element disappeared. The cast concrete had more sculptural qualities than the units made from sheet aluminium, plastic panels and identikit signage.

Conceivably the motorway service stations will be the last to go. The urban stations are almost gone (they still have them in Switzerland, tucked into apartment blocks) and the remaining stations will be dotted around the scatter-block no-places of the suburbs, appended to supermarkets. As I like to say, every increase in convenience is marked by a concomitant decrease in quality.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

10 thoughts on “Theme: Places – Petrol Stations”

  1. I’m surprised you get away with smoking whilst in a petrol station Richard. Saying that it reminds me of one of the depot shunters at the train company I work for who always has a fag in the same hand as he uses for filling up the train fuel tanks with diesel.

    1. If I had the time I’d move the car away from the pumps. It takes an hour to get through a Cohiba y Christo Bullingdon corona: it’d be impolite to sit blocking a pump for all that time.

  2. I won’t miss petrol stations once they have succumbed to their inevitable demise. They are transactional places; a backlit concrete void bereft of friendliness or charm.

    A criticism levelled at battery powered cars is that they do not offer the quick convenience of filling a ICE powered car at a petrol station. But surely I cannot be alone in finding the routine of filling up to be decidedly inconvenient? It generally involves me making time to go out of my way for an additional stop. In comparison, a battery powered car would require me to go to my house, which is where I would probably be going anyway, considering that is where I keep my family, bed and most of my stuff.

    1. On review, I think I must have been blending petrol stations and rest-stops (Gasthofs) up a bit. The two are linked. Further I was thinking of the decidedly 1970s German ones with their horizontal forms, dense plantings of conifer bushes and brown pebbled concrete slabs. Here I am deep in the territory of 1978, just before 1979. The Aral stations of recent times are quite ghastly, especially the metal boxes on the motorways. I have no time for the UK model (is there on near Oxford?) of a central atrium surrounded by a line of counters where you choose your fast food. These have too much of the shopping mall atmosphere. The 70s ones are far cosier in their own way. Interestingly there is very little like that in Denmark. There are not so many motorway stations and those that exist are not much more than big petrol stations with awful coffee. The Danes didn´t get into motorway building until a lot later than the Italians, Germans and French.

  3. In London, petrol stations get fewer and fewer. Ten years ago, within 10 minutes of where I live there were 6, now there are 3, in ten years time there might be one. Or none. With diminishing stations, range anxiety for ICE cars will become a real problem.

    I agree that everything about modern petrol stations is a pain. Queuing to pay for your tank behind someone who is sorting out their scratch cards is inconvenient. Even more so is the guy saying “could you check again that you don’t have any Cohiba y Christo’s? If not Montecristos will do at a pinch”.

    Another difficulty at petrol stations is Pump Posture. Deciding how to stand as the fuel trickles into your vehicle is very important. In other countries they often leave the catch on the pump that means you don’t have to hold it open, but not in the UK. So do you crouch over it, peering down the orifice to see the rising fuel, or do you lean casually up against the car, facing the outside world apparently without a care until a stream of diesel vomits down your trousers?

    Petrol Stations – a minefield. And even more so if Richard’s there apparently.

    1. I prefer to stare blankly into the middle distance. I find that is becoming my default repose as I approach middle age.

    2. Is it necessary to repeat I am not holding a blazing Djeep right by the fuel tank aperture at any point? As I said earlier, I was thinking of the rasthof/motorway bistro end of the petrol station spectrum where after you´ve tanked and fed you then get to have a contemplative smoke before launching back onto the continental arterial for another 11 hours.

    1. Chris: architects! The central pillars are too thin with respect to the thickness of the canopies. And I really doubt they provide any shelter at all. They´d have to be lower down or wider in diameter. The conceit is nice and the execution hopeless. That says it all about architects. With due respect to human beings who read this and who are architects, I have to say I´m exasperated.

    2. There are also better – meaning nicer to look at and more useful – examples. This one is not properly speaking a petrol station, but a rest stop on the Swiss A1 motorway. Apparently it was designed not by an architect, but an engineer, and was one of the early examples of thin walled concrete shells back in 1968. A few years ago I remember it was threatened to be destroyed and replaced by something “more practical”, i.e. an anonymous steel and glass block that’s cheap to erect.

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