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Wednesday 1 May 2019

Petrol Cans

Did you know you can’t siphon petrol any more?

Petrol Cans

We decided to change our eleven-year-old car; not an easy decision because it has low mileage for its age and could easily keep going a fair few years yet. On the other hand, it does need well over a thousand pounds spending on it (tyres, major service, MoT test, dented front wing, one of the back doors no longer locks and the air-con smells terrible, and those are just the things we know about), and it has let us down a few times recently (flat battery, faulty ABS brake sensor, petrol leak). We need a car we can rely on as one child still needs ferrying with a full load several times each year to and from university 125 miles away, and the other will soon be going 50 miles in the opposite direction. And I suppose we’ll have to visit them. And we use it for holidays. I know that some people these days manage to run cars for twenty years and 120,000 miles, but I don’t feel it’s extravagant to say we need a better car. We found one but had to wait.

Still waiting, and anticipating a couple of longish journeys in the next few days, I filled up to the top with petrol: fifty-five pounds worth. The same afternoon, the garage rang: they had the car. Well, I know when it comes to buying cars, fifty-five pounds is small change, but it’s not an amount I would willingly give to a motor trader if I didn’t have to. I got out the petrol cans from their longstanding hidey-hole at the back of the shed and spent an hour cleaning off the cobwebs.

I can’t remember when they were last used. There are two five-litre plastic cans, a larger ten-litre metal one, an ancient two-gallon can with ‘Pratts’ embossed on all four sides, plus spouts, pipes and funnels. The Pratts can and at least one of the five-litre plastic ones came from my dad’s house. Together, they would hold over half a tank full.

Pratts Motor Spirit Advertisement 1930s
Pratts Motor Spirit Advertisement, 1930s
Or perhaps not. The Pratts can is dodgy. It must be from the nineteen-twenties: the kind you strapped to the running board in case you couldn’t find a petrol station. It would once have been spruce green but is rusty all over now. It looks all right inside though, and the heavy brass screw-cap is as serviceable and satisfying as ever. It would spray-up nicely for a vintage car owner. Pratts of Duckinfield: suppliers of motor spirit and lubricating oil, later part of Anglo-American Oil and then absorbed into the Esso empire around 1935. Strangely, the screw-cap bears the Shell name.

From an earlier post (link at end), here is my dad in 1928 standing in Uncle Jimmy’s Bullnose Morris. Below him is what could be the very same petrol can. 

At least the big red metal can looks all right. It still has its label: Paddy Hopkirk Products. That must be the Paddy Hopkirk who won the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally in a red Mini Cooper S. His petrol can, the label says, “has been manufactured using only the best materials available to the highest standards demanded by Paddy Hopkirk”, and, most importantly, “... has been individually checked by me to guarantee it leaves our factory in perfect condition.”

Wow! Individually checked by Paddy Hopkirk. That explains why it is still so good after forty-five years. I bought it around the time of the 1973-74 oil crisis and kept it full of petrol under the seat of my red Mini Van. That never won the Monte Carlo Rally. It went like a bomb though, or could have done at almost any moment. 

Having cleaned up all the petrol cans, I pushed the flexible hose into the car filler pipe, and pushed, and pushed. It went in a long way, but when I sucked all I got was petrol-flavoured air. No petrol at all. I’ve siphoned petrol many times in the past and know how to do it, and how not to get a blistering mouth full, and the other hazards, but it would not work at all this time.

I didn’t know that cars have anti-siphon devices now.

As things turned out, the Easter weekend intervened and we used more than half the petrol. We took the old car to and they did. I expected respectable premises, not a lad on his own with a computer in a smelly Portacabin surrounded by dirty skips. All he did was record the numerous marks and scratches and check that the engine started. When the computer said yes, and how much they could offer, I forgot to argue.

As regards the new car, well, it’s like a spaceship – six gears, adaptive cruise control, electric handbrake with automatic hill-hold, parking sensors, automatic stop-start in traffic queues*, satnav “infotainment” screen – almost like learning to drive all over again.

* It even re-starts the engine in a traffic queue when the car in front starts to move forward. Spooky!


  1. The new car sounds pretty decent. We've six gears in our VW GTI. It sometimes feels like I'm driving a race car when I put it through its paces. I have never siphoned petrol, but have seen it being done in films & it sort of always looked cool. I hadn't realized that one couldn't do that anymore. Fantastic photo of your father, by the way.

    1. Golf GTI - what a lot of horses! The new car is sheer opulence alongside the old one. I love the photo too: its suggestion of early C20 innocence and its associations with Uncle Jimmy's sad story.

  2. I too have discovered the anti-siphonableness of cars after spending a good half an hour with my brother trying to get a hose down the filler pipe of a car that was going for scrap, only to get the hose wedged (probably at the non-return valve flap) and ultimately snap when giving up and trying to then remove it.

    1. I've read that the best way to empty the tank is to go underneath and disconnect the fuel pump pipe. As this particular car had a leak in that very place a few months ago I think I know how to do it, but decided that giving away the £20 to £25 of petrol that was left was a price worth paying for not having to.


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