What Would You do…if gasoline was $10 a gallon?

I was getting my drivers license about the time gasoline was selling for twenty-four cents a gallon.  All gasoline was infused with lead as an anti-knock ingredient at the time so there were no catalytic converters in use nor were there O2 sensors.  Almost all vehicles used carburetors and mileage could be as low as eight miles per gallon for some of the really big cars.  But at those prices, who cared?

gas station SC 1960

I could fill up my VW for about $3 and drive all day.  And I usually did.  With the freedom of having transportation and cheap fuel I would explore for hundreds of miles.  It gave me the ability to extend my social life the way smart phones and Facebook does now for the current generations.

We didn’t have to worry about texting since there were no cell phones, only pay phones positioned strategically around all the towns and villages.  Gasoline stations were easy to find as well.

Today the village I grew up in has only one filling station, but as a young driver it had five.  When you pulled up to the pumps you ran across a black air hose that rang a bell in the station.  A person would come out and ask you how much you wanted.  “Fill ‘er up”, was the common refrain.  The attendant would pump your gas, clean your windshield, and ask to check your oil.  They would also fill up your tire if it looked like it was low on pressure and add water to your radiator, too.  All for about 25 cents a gallon.


It wasn’t until years later with the advent of unleaded fuel, catalytic converters, and fuel injection that you realized how smelly the old cars with their carburetors were.  When I go to a car meet today and a car from the sixties or seventies pulls up I can almost smell the difference between a Rochester Quadrajet carburetor and a Holley Double-pumper.

In the early 1970’s there was a “gas crisis” that brought long lines and low availability of gasoline.  Soon after that prices on gasoline rose and a new pump showed up at filling stations that was labeled “un-leaded”.  The big oil companies discovered that customers would even pump their own gas with no discount in the price.  The only state to ban the practice is New Jersey where you are still not allowed to pump your own gas.

In 1978 it happened again.  Long lines and gasoline stations running out of fuel.  The “Big Three” auto companies started producing small cars with limited success.  It was hard for their engineers to think in terms of light weight and smaller packaging of components.  They even converted some of their engine blocks to diesel with disastrous results.


Chevy came out with the Vega.  It had an aluminum engine block with sleeved cylinders and a cast iron head, intake, and exhaust manifolds that turned it into a nose heavy compact car that failed miserably.  Ford created the Pinto and achieved infamy as its rear mounted gasoline tank was prone to engulf the car in flames if it was rear-ended.  Chrysler partnered with VW and used the front-wheel drive platform of the Rabbit to create the Omni Horizon.  Later Ford produce the “world car” also known as the Fiesta.  It had a Kent four-cylinder engine from England, a transmission from France, seats from Sweden, a body from Germany, etc.  At least it was light weight and economical.  It still had a carburetor but it burned unleaded fuel and had a catalytic converter.

Today it is impossible to find a carburetor on a currently manufactured vehicle sold in the US.  There are always catalytic converters and only unleaded fuel is available.  Fuel injection is strictly controlled by ECU computers and OBD II alerts drivers to any emissions failures.  Sensors abound as do processors on today’s cars.  They are sophisticated networks that roll around on four wheels.

Gasoline is now just shy of four dollars a gallon although it has seen brief peaks well above that.  Over the years there have been dramatic cries for the US to work toward independence from the foreign oil producing countries as if it would somehow result in cheaper prices and greater availability.

The fact is that the US is currently the leading consumer of oil and enjoys fuel prices far more favorable than most other countries.  But it cannot and will not last forever.

Some day we will look back at today’s gasoline prices with nostalgia and longing.  Some day we will be paying $10 a gallon.

So maybe it would be appropriate to ask ourselves just how would we change out habits if and when that time comes?

What kind of choices would we have?

We could hope that by that time cars would have far better mileage than we can obtain from them today.  The Federal government has set up over 54 miles per gallon as a mandate after the next decade.  So let’s do the math, shall we?

Let’s say that on the highway we can achieve 21 miles per gallon and that we drive 100 miles.  That means the vehicle consumes about 4.76 gallons at about $3.60 a gallon so the trip would cost us about $17.14.  No we do the same 100 mile trip in the car of the future that achieves 54 miles per gallon and we burn up 1.85 gallons of gasoline.  But now a gallon cost $10.  So our 100 trip now costs us $18.50.

Not very comforting to the wallet, eh?

Chances are we won’t be able to afford a new car by the time the “high” mileage car mandate goes into effect.  We will likely be driving a car or truck that might burn 17 miles per gallon around town and maybe 24 on the highway.  I’ll let you do the math on the cost to travel in your vehicle.

I can hear the smirking Prius owners now.  Only keep in mind that as gasoline prices go up so does the price of electricity and the cost of goods sold.  Transportation is not free.

So we can only hope to find vehicle that we can buy that will make some fantastic mileage.

We can only hope to find ways to make our current vehicles get fantastic mileage.

We can change to far more conservative driving styles in the hope of getting fantastic mileage.

When I traveled to China on business I saw that the drivers were extremely cognoscente of what fuel cost.  Outside of hotels where taxis would queue up to wait for fares no one would leave their engine running.  In fact when it was time to move up in line they would push their taxi up another space.  When you did get in one and be driven to your destination the driver would shift before the engine reached 2000 rpm.  The faster an engine turns the more fuel is consumed and they didn’t want to consume any more than they had to.

old gas station NH

We could look at alternative forms of transportation.  Bicycles and motor bikes (motor scooters included) are known alternatives.  Although it is hard to enjoy a business meeting when the participants are all sweaty after biking to work.  The weather might make riding a motorcycle a death defying trip if it was snowing or there was a heavy rain.

Public transportation has been touted as the best solution for decades, but it has been shown over and over again to only be fiscally productive if the environment it is used in is a dense population.  Atlanta’s Marta; Boston’s T; Washington, D.C.’s Metro; are all fine examples of mass transportation that is fast, cheap, and convenient within their specific environments.  Imagine though if these services had to contend with a total population of former-drivers and former-driving commuters instead of the volumes of riders they handle today.

Mass transportation is a poor solution to convey workers when the work places are dispersed such as in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.  Car pooling has been tried with very little success.  It is not just that people want to drive in their own vehicle, they often need the flexibility and freedom to adjust their work schedules and be able to respond to family emergencies and run after-work errands.

Take some time to look around and realize just how much of our communities, businesses, and living areas have been designed around the assumption of individual motor transportation.  The seas of asphalt parking lots around shopping plazas and malls.  Even apartment complexes have parking to accommodate residences’ and guests’ vehicles.  compare the roads of towns that were established in the seventeenth century (such as Boston) to cities that had their huge growth in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the areas that saw their biggest expansion in the late twentieth century.  The width of roads, the layout of streets, and the dispersion of shops and services are vastly different.  It is one thing to adapt an urban environment from one designed for pedestrian and equine transportation to one that must accommodate motor vehicles, but it is far more difficult to go in the other direction.

With the Internet and Wi-Fi enhancing our ability to communicate and socialize perhaps we just would cut back our usage of motor vehicle to the minimum.  If we reduced the average miles travels a year from 14,000 to 4000 that might save $4000 a year if we had vehicles that averaged 25 mpg and gasoline cost $10 a gallon.

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4 Responses to What Would You do…if gasoline was $10 a gallon?

  1. Lee K says:

    We are leaving the Golden Age of Automobiles and are entering the Dark Ages of expensive fuel, ever more expensive vehicles, mind-numbing gridlock, and a dismal economic outlook. Gone forever are the days when we could fill up our cars for a couple bucks and drive just for the pleasure of driving. The average US car costs a person $7000 a year to own (gas, maintenance, insurance, financing, and depreciation) which is a significant burden for any but the financially well-off. As the father of two young adults, I don’t see the passion in them that my generation had for cars, but instead an attitude towards cars as expensive appliances that are a necessary evil. They are doomed to a decade or more of automobile hand-me-downs before they will realistically be able to afford anything remotely approaching new. I don’t blame them at all if they desire a Prius or more fuel efficient vehicle when the staggering financial burden is taken into account. High gas prices are only part of the overall (bleak) picture.

  2. Kevin says:

    I like the thought provoking write up jim. May be worth adding that in some countries today, the UK as an example, they already pay $10 a gallon and it goes up 5% over inflation every year.
    So at $4 a gallon the US is still getting it good, and the car companies need to start to develop improved engines or make the leap to Hydrogen cell perhaps which may be the change in Europe soon – after all they have had LPG conversions for decades now too.

  3. Kevin says:

    A Head line from 2011 in the UK on Petrol prices – Conversion rate today is $1.58 to the UK Pound, so in March of 2011 the equivalent was $9.48. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/mar/09/petrol-prices-record-breaking-6-per-gallon

  4. Noel says:

    I spent 2 weeks in Germany back in May and gasoline was about $9 to $9.50 a gallon. Lots of people drive diesels, and the folks I was with were running on the autobahn at 100+ mph. Not exactly the best speed for fuel economy. But then they were in company cars and someone else paid for the push juice.

    When I do the math of dumping my 16 year old Saab, which gets 23 mpg locally and almost 28 mpg at 75-80 mph on the highway it just doesn’t work very well. I don’t commute, so I drive about 7500 miles a year. A Prius costs $25K, a Volt is $35-40K and for the amount I drive it makes no sense, even if gas prices are much higher. Even at $10/gallon, a car that doubles my mileage would save me $1500 a year. But payments on the car would be more than twice that! Then there’s higher registration and insurance costs on a newer car. And the hybrid or electric car won’t perform as well as the old Saab. My old Swede won’t last forever, but there are other fun but economical cars that are a better overall value for my needs than a 50+ mpg hybrid or electric. Just sayin’…. one needs to look at the whole picture. I don’t buy new cars, so I somehow see a nice used turbodiesel in my future.

    As for public transport, I took a lot of that in Deutschland, too. Intercity trains run 100 mph or more and work quite well. But public only works in densely populated urban areas, as Jim notes. I like and use it when I’m in those places, especially in Europe, but I don’t want to live in a city (I don’t live in the sticks but I can see them from here).

    This side of cars is all gonna change, and some of it will change rapidly. We’re not running out of oil, but we ARE running out of cheap, accessible oil. I think we’ll see $6/gallon gas in the next 3-5 years, if not sooner. $10 by the end of this decade. I look at the car magazines and keep thinking how the new new high powered stuff is really nice but it’s all a remnant of the age of cheap gasoline.

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