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The “idle” days of the 1970s

“It’s about complacency.” That’s how Alfred Hitchcock described his 1963 horror film The Birds. And the same could be said about America’s relationship with petroleum. It wasn’t even a topic of conversation until the gas shortage of 1973/1974, when OPEC decided to punish the United States and other nations for supporting Israel in the Arab-Israeli War.

Off went the oil spigot. Almost overnight, gas became super-expensive and super-scarce. Stations went out of business. Motorists waited for hours just to approach a gas station.

Everyone struggled to change their energy consumption habits, especially transportation habits. Fuel-efficient Toyotas and Hondas stole market share from US automakers. The nation instituted a 55mph speed limit while it scrambled to wean itself off Middle East oil in a hurry.

To quell the chaos at gas stations, the US eventually moved to an odd-even rationing system, so license plates ending in odd numbers could get gas on odd-numbered days etc.

Complacency, shattered:

Gas line Pinehurst, Billerica 1973. Photo credit: Jeff Benrimo
Pinehurst, Billerica, 1973. Sure enough, that Sure station out of gas. The line of cars is waiting for gas at another station WAY down the street. Looming behind the trees on the left is the screen for the Pinehurst Drive-In movie theater, where every patron was suddenly more than happy to adhere to the engine-off rule. Photo credit: Jeff Benrimo, BHS class of 1970.
Pinehurst 2019
Same spot, 2019.


Lee Mortimer Colby, Burlington: “Getting Gas” was an activity my friends and I participated in. It took most of the evening. License plates ending in even numbers went certain days; odd numbers other days. We’d get in line, park the car, talk, joke around with others in line, finally get our turn & fill it up.

Geri Marion, Burlington: I lived in Winnmere and gassed up at the Mobile that now is Dunkin’ donuts. The line would be up Winn street into the parking lot of the Church of the open Bible at 6:00 in the morning. 💤 Drivers would fall asleep at the wheel and then the horns would start beeping. I was 18 driving to college those dark mornings. Definitely unforgettable.

Margaret St. Onge, Burlington: I was a ‘tween and remember cousins and neighbors asking me to go with them to keep them company or entertain their kids in the back seat while waiting at loooong lines for gas.

Wayne Higden, Burlington: I remember standing at the Shell station, it was Arco back then, at Cambridge and Winn and watching the owner put his tow truck at the end of the daily line because his supply had run out. Another time I left my job in Natick in the middle of the day to get gas to make it back to Burlington at the end of the day. The whole ration process brought back memories for older folks that were alive during WWII.

Robert Matos, Burlington: I have a memory of sitting in my Dad’s car waiting in line at the gas station near the center. All the windows down, radios blaring and people talking. My Dad’s arm hanging out the driver’s window. I also remember he would always get the S&H green stamps. He died in an accident in Feb ’74 so that would have been the summer before that. I would have been eight around then.

Terri Grover-Miller, Burlington: I recall running out of gas while waiting in line at Jack’s Esso station. The gas station guys had to push my car up to the pump. They were not happy.

Brian Doyle, Woburn: My friend and I both worked at 2 different gas stations part time. We got our gas after closing. No lines, and we did not worry about what day it was.

Larz Neilson, Woburn: I was in Vermont then, and Stu was in crazy-town trying to get gas for the van. He’d watch the gas station next door to see when the line was short, and go over with some jugs. I had just dumped my V8 for a 240Z, incredible mileage.

Judy Cobb Woods, Woburn: I had a Volkswagen back then, so it took about $5 to fill my tank that lasted over a week.

Beverly Holbrook Treen, Winchester: I remember that was when my Dad bought himself a bike!

Doug Ferrin, Lexington: I was one of the gas jockeys pumping gas at the time. I felt bad for people waiting two hours to get $5 of gas.

Bill Litant, Lexington: I remember being grateful that I could bicycle to work (Somerville/Cambridge) and that my ’67 MG was getting 28 mpg, which, in those days of guzzlers, was a big deal.

1967 MG


Meredith Viano, Lexington: My Dad, Bud Viano, was owner of The Colonial Garage in downtown Lexington, 1600 Mass Ave. It was a Buick dealership but also had a Mobile gas station. I remember my Dad getting up and leaving by 6:00 am to direct traffic as the cars were backed up through the lights in downtown. He was spit on and broke up fights between people. Things calmed down a bit when they went to the odd/even end number on your license plate as to what day you could get gas.

Paul Petersen, Lexington: I remember driving out to Fitchburg (there was a K-Mart out there) on Saturdays and fueling up while there. No lines, sales on Saturdays; they were hardly aware of a gas shortage. Luckily, my car got very good mileage for the time, so it spared me some of the waiting in line. My next car had a 6 cylinder engine and a 22 gallon fuel tank, in anticipation of future shortages.

Photo credit: NPR.ORG
San Jose, March 1974


Here’s a timeline from

October 1973: OPEC embargo begins

In response to U.S. support for Israel during the Arab-Israeli War, the member nations of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) began an oil embargo, which eventually included Western Europe and Japan.

November 1973: Nixon responds

The Emergency Petroleum Allocation Act, approved by President Richard Nixon, authorized federal controls over the price, production and marketing of oil and gas. It was just one of many government efforts to manage the effects of the embargo.

December 1973: Gas lines form

As fall turned into winter, and gasoline became an increasingly rare commodity, long lines formed at gas stations, fraying commuters’ nerves. As supplies dwindled, many gas stations went out of business.

January 1974: Consumers react

After the OPEC oil embargo entered its third month, consumers began to realize that smaller, energy-efficient cars had distinct advantages over larger, gas-guzzling automobiles and trucks. Consumers also began to save energy at home by moderating their use of hot water, heat and air-conditioning.

February 1974: Project Independence

Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, introduced Project Independence, the first of many programs designed to make the U.S. less dependent on foreign sources of oil and gas.

March 1974: Embargo ends

After Israel withdrew the last of its troops from the west side of the Suez Canal, OPEC agreed to end its oil embargo, closing a dark chapter in energy history.

Late 70s billboard (second crisis)

4 thoughts on “The “idle” days of the 1970s Leave a comment

  1. Boy do i remember the gas shortage. I was working at wentworth sunoco during high school. I was working that night and all of a sudden cars everywhere so bad they were backed onto wilmington road, dickie doyle came in to help me since i was working alone. i think we didnt close until midnight

  2. I had just gotten my driver’s license at that time and I owned a car. On certain days me and my Mom would each take our cars down to where Shell was on the corner of Winn and Rt 3A and we waited in long lines very early in the morning before I had to go to school.

  3. I would go to the Old Colony Gas Station on 3A next to Town Grocery to fill up my shitbox. LOL In 73, the year I graduated from BHS the lines would go all the way down past Dale Pharmacy almost to Mr. Donut sometimes. I remember seeing a Help Wanted sign at the Old Colony Gas Station at that time and thinkin to myself, “NO F’ING WAY” hahaha am I gonna go to work in THAT gas station at THAT time. LOL

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