Pump It Up: the Lost Art of Petrol Pump Style (Manor Road Garage, East Preston, UK)

Let me take you to East Preston, which is near Angmering, which is near Littlehampton, which is halfway between Chichester and Brighton, on the south coast of England. Of late, East Preston’s chief newsworthiness has been a most unseemly row about the provision of street lighting on the Angmering-on-Sea Estate, which East Preston Parish Council can no longer afford to provide. “This council believes Angmering-On-Sea may be the only private estate in the country which has benefitted from a parish council providing it with street lighting,” said the parish council. I’ll have to remember that. It’s quite some claim to fame.

But the reason we’re visiting East Preston is nothing at all to do with arguments over street lighting. It’s because it’s the location of Manor Road Garage, a beautiful residential conversion of a rare transport building, and one which is a reminder of a time in the middle of the 20th Century when industrial designers made things look beautiful, because it never occurred to them not to.

Manor Road Garage, East Preston. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page
Manor Road Garage, East Preston. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

Manor Road Garage was built in 1919 but its distinctive Streamline Moderne frontage was added in 1934. With its curved wings featuring recessed bands at their outer edges, wrap-around windows, and a central fin on which a flagpole used to be mounted, the garage embodies the glamour of inter-war motoring. It’s a very rare survivor from this part of motoring history and along with its inherent architectural interest, its essentially intact survival is one of the reasons the building was listed at Grade II in 2007. Its continued existence is all the more surprising given that the garage closed in 1973, and the building stood derelict for nearly 40 years, fenced off from the world and slowly decaying.

But a few years after it was listed, the garage was given a new lease of life as a characterful residential development. The rear of the site, which comprised the garage’s workshops, was demolished and completely rebuilt, but the distinctive facade was retained. What used to be a car showroom, with its large curved window looking out onto the forecourt, is now a bright living room.

That window looks out onto the other great survivor of the Manor Road Garage site, four Shell petrol pumps installed in the 1940s/50s.

Restored Shell petrol pumps at Manor Road Garage, East Preston. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page
Restored Shell petrol pumps at Manor Road Garage, East Preston. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

I can just remember, as a very young child, seeing a few petrol pump like this, lingering on at various garages, usually small independent ones in the Midlands. By that time, like the ones at Manor Road Garage before its restoration, they looked scruffy and had lost the glass globes which typified them.

Very early petrol pumps (known in some countries as bowsers, I discover) weren’t terribly pretty, looking functional at best, and more typically as though someone had bolted together a bunch of spare parts to make a working pump. Yet still, even these early efforts seem to have included distinctive illuminated glass lamps on the top.

Early petrol pump on Handcross High street. © Copyright Peter Jeffery and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Early petrol pump on Handcross High Street. © Copyright Peter Jeffery and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Why? They don’t add to the functionality of the petrol pumps, yet someone somewhere clearly spent time and effort designing something of some degree of artistry, detail and attractiveness. Perhaps the best answer is, why not? A long time ago, it simply didn’t occur to the designers of machinery that you shouldn’t make some attempt to make it look attractive.

It’s the same thinking that led to early railway station platform ticket machines being decorative as well as useful (see one here). Today, in a more ‘advanced’ world, ticket machines are generic lumps of cuboid blandness, and so are petrol pumps. That’s progress for you. One day in the late 1960s or early 1970s someone simply decided to accept ugliness as a standard part of the transport offer. I’m sure it was cheaper, but the result of this change cheapened our everyday experience and robbed us of some tiny moments of joy in our lives.

But back to the petrol pumps. By the middle of the 20th Century, when the Shell petrol pumps at Manor Road Garage were installed, petrol pump design had reached its high water mark. Just like the cars they were built to serve, they had become little gems of inter-war Modernism, streamlined and curvy. Chrome fittings added to the flash image and brought extra glamour.

Atop all of these petrol pumps were examples from an array of different glass ornaments, advertising the fuel being dispensed below. You can see the level of thought that went into petrol pump design at the time if you look closely at Manor Road Garage’s glass tops.

Although each one is shell-shaped like the Shell logo, they have different, cast-in, lettering, depending on the kind of fuel being dispensed from that pump. In the days when each pump dispensed a different sort of fuel, rather than pumps being multi-purpose as they are now, it ensured that as a car driver you parked up alongside the correct pump. At that point an attendant would come and fill up your car for you (and I can just about remember that, too, at a few smaller garages). It really was a different world.

Vintage pumps, with their attractive glass lamps, make sought-after display pieces. I found this one, another Shell example, in a garage in Haslemere, Surrey:

Vintage Shell petrol pump in the collection of S T Engineering, Haslemere, Surrey. Picture taken with kind permission, by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Vintage Shell petrol pump in the collection of S.T. Engineering, Haslemere, Surrey. Picture taken with kind permission of S.T. Engineering, by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Other fuel suppliers had glass globes of different designs:

Esso and Cleveland petrol pumps, Somersham. © Copyright Tiger and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Esso and Cleveland petrol pumps, Somersham. © Copyright Tiger and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

While Esso used a fairly straight-forward oval design, Cleveland employed a fantastically swish winged ornament.

It’s a worldwide thing too, this appreciation of the lost art of the petrol pump. Here’s a spectacular line-up of Moderne gasoline pumps, each one topped off with a glass ornament, in Canada:

Vintage gasoline pumps in a museum in Canada. Photo by Pixel1 via this Pixabay page
Vintage gasoline pumps in a museum in Canada. Photo by Pixel1 via this Pixabay page

The Museo Fisogni in Italy specialises in the history of filling stations (and must therefore be somewhere towards the top of the list in The Beauty of Transport‘s yet-to-be-published world travel guide).

Of course, there’s a roaring trade in vintage petrol pumps and the glass ornaments which used to sit on top of them (as you can see here).

The decline in the aesthetics of petrol pumps coincided with the move to self-service fuelling of cars. I wonder why? Perhaps it was just that, a coincidence. The last quarter of the 20th Century saw a lot of everyday design reduced to pure functionality. Cheaper, I’m sure. More honest? Possibly. Less joyful? Definitely. Filling up your car is now an entirely mundane affair.

The extraordinary personal freedom car ownership confers was a cause for celebration in the 1950s and 60s, and that joy was reflected in the exuberant design of petrol pumps. Eventually, however, we came to realise the downside of widespread car ownership and over-usage. Traffic congestion, air pollution, and noise are the spawn of the destructive over-use of the private car. They are matched by soulless filling stations and joyless petrol pumps. Perhaps we simply get the design of petrol pump we deserve.

Further Reading and Bibliography

A newspaper feature on the conversion of Manor Road Garage to residential use, with before and after photos, here 

Historic England’s listing citation for Manor Road Garage, here

How to find Manor Road Garage

Click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map

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