Fill’er up with ethyl

Ed Rood

In another world, I would cruise into a gas station and my cracking voice would boom out: “Fill’er up with ethyl.”

Yes, this truly was a different time and a different way of life. Gas stations in the 1950s were where patrons would purchase gas, have their windshield washed, have their engine oil checked, have the air pressure of their tires checked and maybe even get directions to where they were going. All for the price of around 30 cents a gallon.

Sure, the stations also sold items like candy bars, gum, peanuts and pop. Some even went so far as to sell cigarettes, but none sold modern-day necessities such as water, pizza or booze. Like I said, this was a different world.

So what was this “ethyl” stuff? I imagine a majority of those of you who read this column on a regular basis already know. But for those of you younger readers, it might take a little explaining.

No — ethyl had nothing to do with anything feminine. The word was short for tetraethyl, an compound added to gasoline to boost its octane rating. It was marketed as a way to avoid engine knock in automobile engines as far back as the 1920s. It was also referred to as premium gasoline.

Tetraethyl contains lead. Although even regular gas had some lead back then, ethyl had more lead. Of course, this also increased the price per gallon and thus was known as the “rich man’s gasoline,” because it cost a few pennies more.

The problem was, and is, lead is highly toxic. The health hazards were well known early on, but the company producing ethyl chose to not mention that information for many years. Some see it as akin to the tobacco companies and the health problems presented by smoking.

But by the early 1970s, the government had started phasing most leaded gasolines off the market in the United States. By the later part of the 1990s, leaded fuels were entirely banned in this country.

Today one cannot drive into a gas station and shout “fill’er up with ethyl.” Number one, as I just noted: There is no ethyl. Number two, and more importantly: You’d just be shouting at yourself because no one there is going to put gas in your car but you. The same goes for checking oil, tires and washing your windshield.

It is a different world.

Ed Rood is the former publisher of the Tri-County Times.