If you find the act of “filling up” nothing short of a chore, then you are unlikely to get very excited about the dispenser that puts fuel in your car’s tank. But there are those who positively gush at the mention of names such as Avery Hardoll, Fry, Theo and Bennett – all firms famed for making beautifully engineered early petrol pumps that still ooze style.
Classic cars increased in value by 17 per cent last year and the category of automobilia known as “petroliana” is following suit, as enthusiasts seek out pieces of roadside nostalgia to bedeck their garages. “Most pumps are in the sub-£2,000 price range,” says Toby Wilson, the automobilia specialist at Bonhams auction house, “but serious collectors are looking for the really rare ones, such as the Theo Multiple – the best of the few types of pump capable of delivering several brands of fuel through the same nozzle. One in good condition is worth up to £10,000.”
Collectable vintage pumps are found in four principal forms: the handcranked skeleton type used in the early days of motoring; the later “visible measure” models, in which fuel was contained in a marked reservoir to show the amount being dispensed; electric “clock face” pumps that indicated the quantity on a dial; and lastly, the electronic “calculator” pumps introduced in the 1970s, which displayed both the price and quantity on a system of circulating drums.
While an early, handcranked pump in need of light restoration can be bought for as little as £300, more sought-after postwar rarities can fetch five-figure sums. “Since the market for cars from the 1950s and 1960s is currently particularly strong, pumps from this era are also proving popular. The clock-face calculator models made by Gilbert and Barker, for example, have become very covetable,” says Wilson, who adds that the glass globes that once topped some pumps are also highly collectable in their own right.
“At first, pumps had lights on the top to make them visible to drivers at night. But in the 1920s someone had the idea of fitting them with glass globes carrying the name of the fuel brand. Lit up, these can look very attractive in a garage filled with classic cars.” Pump globes promoting firms such as Shell or National Benzole, decorated with the brand’s Mr Mercury logo, are obtainable for a few hundred pounds, but rarer examples can sell for considerably more. In 1998 Sotheby’s New York hammered down a sack-shaped globe promoting Carless Coalene petrol for $26,480; and in June 2014 at Bonhams a collection of 66 globes amassed by the late Michael Banfield fetched almost £52,000.
Fragile glass globes were often damaged but the pumps were built to last. “They were so well made that large numbers have survived,” says Rob Arnold, who has turned a longstanding collecting hobby into a business, Automobilia-UK, buying, selling, restoring and hiring out vintage pumps. He currently has two desirable 1930s clock-face models: a Wayne “showstopper of a pump” in green and yellow BP livery, and a Beckmeter Shell example, both with reproduction globes and priced at £4,495
“We are constantly being offered pumps that were dumped behind garages decades ago, but because they were made to such high standards, they can usually be restored using almost all the original components. We generally repaint them in period styles, but they can be finished in any colour and even modified to incorporate security safes or CD players,” says Arnold, who recently supplied a pump for the window display of the Ralph Lauren store on London’s Mount Street.
Surrey-based collector Alan Chandler, however, prefers to restore his finds himself. “It all began 13 years ago, after I built an eight-bay garage for my classic cars,” says Chandler, a property entrepreneur and furniture retailer. “I went to an auction to buy enamel signs for decoration and came away with three petrol pumps instead.”
Chandler now has 150 pumps, plus over 2,500 other items of automobilia. He also runs the informative website Petroliana.co.uk, which lists items for sale from specialist stores such as Essex-based Vintage Petrol Pump – currently offering an unrestored 1930s Avery Hardoll hand-cranked pump (£1,800) and a restored 1930s Wayne Mobilgas model (£3,295) – and UK Restoration. The latter, run by brothers Alastair and Alexander Cass, has a restored 1930s Avery Hardoll Model 888 (£4,000), as well as a visible-measure Wayne 515. “This one is price on request as there are only six in the country that I know of,” says Alexander.
But while British pumps are popular, the US market is, for want of a better petrol-related pun, absolutely on fire. In October 2015, 800 items of petroliana from a vast hoard amassed by American collector Kyle Moore were sold by Denver, Pennsylvania auction house Morphy for a total of $4.5m. A further 1,284 lots were sold in January for a combined $4.4m, and there are still two more sales to come; one on April 23-24 and the other on July 23-24.
The 2015 lots included dozens of glass globes promoting US fuel brands such as High Hat, Michigan Maid, Red Head and Bengal Green – but the star piece proved to be a double-clock-face Ecometer gas pump made by Canadian firm Service Station Equipment. Estimated to fetch $20,000-$40,000, it sold for a record $61,000 to longtime pump collector Miles Little, a real-estate entrepreneur and former strawberry farmer from Charlotte, North Carolina, who had been on the trail of this particular piece for more than 25 years.
“In collectable terms, that is probably the best pump in existence,” says 66-year-old Little, who displays his private museum of more than 250 pumps in 10 dedicated buildings dotted around his 300-acre estate. “There are only three known to exist and the other two are very unlikely ever to be offered for sale. I would always advise people to go for the unusual rarities that are really attractive-looking. And rather than buy 10 pumps for $1,000 each, buy one $10,000 pump. It will always rise in value.”