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Saturday 3 August 2019

Petrol Rationing

Could a no-deal Brexit lead to fuel rationing? There’s not much talk of it as yet but the Government would be negligent not to have plans in place.

In a recent post about petrol cans, I mentioned the 1973-74 oil crisis when rationing came close. Revisiting it again in archive newspapers reminded me what a comical tale of widespread selfishness and bureaucratic ineptitude it was. An indication of things to come, perhaps (~1400 words).

Here are some of the pages from my 1973 motor fuel ration book. Page 2 tells you to keep it safe. As you can see, I did.

According to most accounts now, the problems began in October 1973 when Arab oil exporters embargoed countries that supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War. But you could see it coming months before then. The Government denied any possibility of a crisis as early as July: a sure sign one was on the way.

In early August, they sent out ration books to Post Offices. They said it was “only a precaution”, and even at the end of October, Trade and Industry Secretary Peter Walker was still assuring us there was no need for concern. We had stocks for another 79 days, with 30 more on the way in tankers on the ocean. By then, no one believed it and there was an outbreak of ‘fill-up fever’. We began to keep our tanks full to the brim, with extra in cans for emergencies. This made things worse. Petrol stations began to limit how much you could buy so as not to run out.

Peter Walker lays down the law
Come mid-November, Peter Walker was wagging his finger saying we had to conserve fuel by driving at no more than 50 m.p.h. and staying home on Sundays. Supplies to retailers were cut by 10% and the sale of petrol in cans was banned. But it was hard to keep to a dutiful 50 while bastards in Jags were whizzing past at 80, and we just filled our cans by surreptitiously siphoning from our vehicle tanks in private.

It was, in any case, illegal to store more than four gallons at home. Even then it had to be in the correct containers (such as my Paddy Hopkirk can pictured in the earlier post). Some thought they could ignore these rules. In Banbury, a taxi driver was fined £150 for storing 30 gallons in five-gallon drums in a garage, in Hinckley another man was fined £50 for having 90 gallons in a shed, and in Coventry an engineering rep. who drove 32,000 miles a year was fined £110 for hoarding 148 gallons. They must have spent hours siphoning it through rubber tubing. Some were even found to be storing petrol in cellars and attics, which, fire chiefs correctly warned, was extremely dangerous and could be ignited by a single spark. Simply switching on a light could result in a massive explosion.

On Monday 26th November, the Government announced that petrol coupons would be distributed to motorists from Thursday of that week, again, of course, “only as a precaution”. Coupons were to be issued at Post Offices on different days according to the initial letter of your surname, beginning with A and B on Thursday 29th November.

Postmasters complained. It was one of their busiest days of the year when pensioners collected their Christmas bonuses. Queues spilled out into the streets, swelled by motorists trying to renew their tax discs before the end of the month as they were needed to claim coupons and those that expired on the 30th November would not be accepted after that date despite normally being allowed fourteen days’ grace.

Coupons were then available progressively until names beginning W-Z collected them on the 12th December. Businesses then followed a similar rota. It does not seem to have been made clear what happened if you went late or on a wrong day; I suspect you got your coupons anyway. There were warnings from Scottish postmasters of potential chaos on ‘M’ day, December 6th, because nearly everyone’s name there began with M or Mc. Extra ‘M’ days were allocated in Lewis, Harris, Barra, and North and South Uist.

The coupons were actually left over from the 1967 Arab-Israeli War when they had been printed “as a precaution” but not needed, which was just as well because that war had taken place in June and the coupons were still being printed in December. At least it meant they were ready in good time for 1973.

To claim your coupons, you had to show your vehicle log book and current road tax disc. Motorists in Sheffield were among the first to be booked by traffic wardens for not displaying a tax disc while collecting their coupons. 

Your log book was stamped to show your coupons had been issued. It was said some people were getting extra coupons illicitly by claiming to have lost their logbooks and obtaining replacements. It was left to motorists to enter the vehicle registration number on the front of the ration book. Books were therefore not necessarily tied to the vehicle for which they were issued, leading to fears of a black market.

Ration books contained six month’s worth of coupons. Everyone got a basic allowance depending on the size of their engine, so my 848cc Morris Mini (the blue one in the blog banner) fell into the ‘not exceeding 1100cc’ category, allowed four N units and two L units per month. The bigger the engine the more you got, the other categories being 1101-1500cc (they got 6N+2L or 4N+2L on alternate months), 1501-2200cc (7N+3L per month) and 2201cc plus (7N+4L or 7N+3L)*. Motor cycles got less, and buses and lorries more. Essential vehicles and drivers with special priority (doctors, nurses, vets, ministers of religion, welfare workers and some disabled people) could claim extra, and you could apply for a supplementary allowance in cases of severe domestic hardship (e.g. for getting to and from work where there was no public transport).

This all sounds very carefully thought out and precise, except that some Post Offices ran out of some categories of ration books and the Government would not say how many gallons each N and L unit might allow you to buy before rationing actually came in. You could make a guess based on the 1956-57 Suez crisis when motorists had a basic allowance for around 200 miles per month, but by 1973 the number of private cars on the road had more than tripled to 13.5 million so it could have been less.

Linwood 1970s Locking Petrol Cap
While all this was going on, the miners and electricity workers had begun an overtime ban and the miners then went on strike for a 16.5% pay rise. Prime Minister Edward Heath announced a State of Emergency and the 50 m.p.h. speed limit was made compulsory from the 8th December, with motorists fined for exceeding it. Reduced street lighting brought an increase in petrol theft by siphoning, so we all had to buy locking petrol caps (they were not standard fittings then). Mine is still in a cupboard in the garage. Television broadcasts went off at 10.30 p.m. and the use of electricity for floodlighting and advertising was banned. We were urged to switch off lights and turn down the heating at home, and papers subsequently released under the 30-year rule reveal that the Government even considered making it illegal to heat more than one room. They would have needed officious A.R.P.-like wardens knocking on doors to check your room temperatures. Power cut rotas were drawn up as in the miners’ strike two years earlier and published in regional newspapers, but never implemented. However, from the 1st January 1974, most businesses were only allowed to use electricity on three days per week. It lasted until the 7th March.

I suffered no great hardship myself. At the time I was a mature student for a few futile months at Teacher Training College. I drove in and out of college each day, and further afield on teaching practice, days out walking in the dales and home to my parents at weekends, and was never short of petrol. Rationing was never implemented and my spare can remained full for at least a couple of years. It turned out to be a good investment because four-star doubled in price to around 75p per gallon (16½p per litre) between 1973 and 1975. 

In the end, it was indeed only a precaution, but there was real irony to the 1973 Christmas Number One: So here it is Merry Christmas, everybody’s having fun.

* I think these coupon quantities are correct.


  1. What a tangled web they weave when first they practice to deceive.

    1. Good quotation. Could such a tangled web happen again now? How about buying in extra shipping capacity from ferry companies with no boats and no operating experience? (absolutely true if you're not in the UK and haven't heard of this). Northern Ireland in particular could be in danger of fuel rationing.

  2. In our Brave New World beyond Brexit, there will be many unforeseen repurcussions including the burning of David Cameron on a stake in the market place at Witney. I was surprised to find you describing yourself as a "mature" student. Surely you missed out an "i" and an extra "m" and shouldn't "futile months" have been "fertile moths"?

  3. I remember when the price per litre of Unleaded first went above £1 and cars were queuing at the petrol stations. Now I can avoid such shenanigans and cycle on past with a smug look on my face.

    1. That must have been about 10 or 12 years ago and although it has fluctuated quite widely it hasn't really changed much since.


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