Car Gas Station Lust: Sinclair Oil
Is it possible to love/lust an oil company? For the most part, gas stations to me -- and likely most people -- are just part of the landscape, places that need to be visited every now and then to fill up the ol' family car, SUV, truck, whatever. I have my preferred locations and companies, of course, which all depend on various intuitive and actual calculations involving price, proximity, and quality. My engine does well on some brands, not so well on others, and I patronize various stations more or less often depending on how the calculus comes out. Around Seattle and the northwest, I generally go to Shell or Chevron for quality reasons (my engine runs better on those for whatever reason), avoid 76 (I still call it "Union 76") for similar reasons, and often end up at Sam's Club when I'm feeling thrifty -- although I can't use it for more than a couple of fill-ups as my engine starts to run rough after a while.
But, you know, it's still just gas, right?
Well. . . .yeah. . . .but. As I like to say around here, a lot of what we think about cars is cemented early in life, usually by association with happy memories of youth in our parents' car, first teenage cars, etc. Same goes, I would posit, for gas stations. Our family road trips inured me to certain gas station highway signs, from the red, white and blue Mobil, to the red, white and blue oval-with-the-flame of Standard, and the big orange Union 76 signs. I also recall the old Phillips 66 shield, but for some reason I don't recall going there that often, on road trips or otherwise.
Oh, but there's one that remains forever in my childhood heart as the epitome of, well, exciting gas stations: Sinclair. Herein, my hommage to that wicked COOL "dinosaur gas" station that endlessly fascinated me as a youth -- and later. Oddly, however, it is perhaps my least visited station, largely because they aren't present in the states I have resided in either as a youth or an adult. Then again, maybe it's that mystique of unobtainability that fires my passion for that glorious green diplodocid.
Like many companies in the early part of last century, Sinclair was founded and named after one man, in this case Harry F. Sinclair (1876-1956). Starting out in pharmaceuticals, Sinclair eventually found his way to the "awl bid'ness" in roundabout fashion, first selling lumber to be used on oil derricks. He eventually turned to prospecting for oil in the Kansas and Oklahoma regions, generally creating small companies to run single leased properties and taking some stock in the companies himself as part of his compensation. When the land scored oil, he would cash in big. After working his way into the oil wholesaling end of the business, he soon found himself managing 62 separate oil companies, drilling rigs, and a bank. Finally, in May 1916, he brought together the combined assets of eleven separate oil companies to create The Sinclair Oil & Refining Corporation and subsequently expanded the company into drilling, piping, and refining, and distribution segments. By 1919 he had consolidated even further, creating the aptly named Sinclair Consolidated Oil Corporation. Like most entrepeneurs, he didn't limit himself to oil and he was directly involved in a couple of ventures whose impacts reverberate even today.
Much of the business revolved around lubricants and other industrial applications but when automobiles started selling in quantity, Sinclair moved heavily into the gasoline market. One of their first big successes was their "H-C Gas" which was a response to the development of the "ethyl" additive -- technically Tetraethyllead, an organolead compound that, when added to gasoline, increased its octane (chains of 8 carbon atoms) rating and thus increased compression and delivered more power in addition to eliminating engine knocking. Since Sinclair couldn't get the ethyl franchise for what he considered a reasonable price, they created their own high-octane fuel, called H-C, with a 72-octane rating. Technically, the "H-C" stood for "Houston Concentrate" but was often referred to as "High Compression" instead, which probably made for better ad copy anyway.
Unfortunately, Sinclair was also intimately involved in a bit of business that was, up until about 1972, one of the greatest government scandals in history: Teapot Dome. Most of you under the age of about 45 or so may not ever have even heard of Teapot Dome, but for decades it was a staple of history textbooks. What happened was, the Navy had Federal lands set aside for oil production to ensure that warships would have a ready supply in case of emergency ('Naval Oil Reserves' they called them). The Teapot Dome area of Wyoming was one, along with two others in California. In 1922 control of these areas was turned over to the Department of the Interior, and one of Sinclair's subsidiaries, Mammoth Oil, was given a low-cost no-bid lease contract to develop the Teapot Dome land (others got similarly sweet deals on the other properties). This sweetheart deal and apparent kickbacks to Interior Secretary Albert Fall produced the epic scandal that sent Fall to prison and got Harry Sinclair a fine and short prison sentence. Up until Watergate, Teapot Dome was generally regarded as the archetype for government corruption.
But it wasn't all bad news. Sinclair was also a prominent investor in the Federal League of Base Ball Clubs or the Federal League. The "FL" was started in 1914 by John T. Powers with Sinclair and others as financial backers; Sinclair was principal owner of the Indianapolis franchise that won the pennant in 1914. It had 8 teams, some in established major league towns. Because the League didn't abide by the existing player agreements on pay scales, they could poach players from the established majors and ended up inflating salaries -- the first inkling of what free agency would bring. They snagged a few top players, and were considered a major league at the time, but the whole thing lasted just two seasons (1914 and 1915) when several of the teams were bought out by existing major league owners. It did leave one lasting legacy, the property at 1060 West Addison in Chicago: Wrigley Field, which was originally built for the Federal League Chicago Whales, later folded into the Cubs organization.
Sinclair also made his name in horse racing. After purchasing the Rancocas Farms stables from the Lorillard family (of tobacco fame), Harry brought back to preeminence what had been a highly successful stable operation in the late 19th century. The stables eventually produced a Kentucky Derby and three Belmont Stakes winners and several hall of fame horses and jockeys. Unfortunately, Harry had to sell the farm and horses as part of the fallout from the Teapot Dome scandal.
I suppose I could go on and on with the colorful history of Harry Sinclair and the Sinclair company, but you get the gist. Besides, they have an entire series of web pages devoted to all things Sinclair. But there are two items that tickle my fancy regarding this company, both fairly geeky. The first was their addition of nickel as an additive compound to their gasoline. Way back when (and even now), the buildup of "gunk" in the combustion chamber and Sinclair's nickel-based additive was supposed to cut down on engine deposits, thus improving performance and reducing wear and eventual degradation. Lest you think this is purely throwback, recall the recent campaign by Shell to promote their gunk-reducing nitrogen additive. Here is one of Sinclair's more innovative ads for their nickel additive:
And there you have probably the BEST part of Sinclair, Dino the Dinosaur. Man, as a young lad I was mad about dinosaurs. While my siblings were busy with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, I was poring over dinosaur books. Heck, I was even precocious enough to get them from the adult section of the public library. So when I saw a gas station with a flippin' dinosaur on their signs, I was hooked. Now, although Sinclair had a presence in Wisconsin when I was coming up (they started leaving the state in 1969 and may not have been in our little 'burgh), I only really remember seeing them on our annual pilgrimmage to Alabama in the summer to see my dad's side of the family. We'd pack up the car and head south, hitting all sorts of stations we didn't have up north. Even then -- late '60s, early '70s -- Sinclair wasn't all that common in the states we traveled through, but they were memorable. Never forgot 'em.
Why a dinosaur? Sinclair initially associated dinosaurs with their line of Wellsville lubricants that were derived from Pennsylvania crude deposits, largely Devonian in age, ca. 380-390 million years old. This was, of course, before the Age of the Dinosaurs -- the Mesozooic, starting around 250 million years ago -- but heck dinosaurs are old, oil is old, so whatever. Anyway, Sinclair started using various dinosaurs in ad copy in 1930. At first, it wasn't restricted to the friendly "Brontosaurus" (more on that later) either; they also used Tyrannosaurus rex and my personal favorite, the tri-horned Triceratops. The ultimate decision to stick with the eventual "Dino" wasn't, apparently, some sort of complex command-level focus-group-derived executive decision: the public liked the Brontosaurus better, so they eventually just settled on that.
And now a short digression on the name so that we don't get hundreds of letters from all sorts of smarty-pants 6th-graders decrying my use of 'Brontosaurus'; non-dweebs may skip the following couple of paragraphs.
During the 19th century there was something of a land grab as far as museums went, with wealthy benefactors sending explorers to every part of the globe to procure rare and wonderful specimens to display in their museums. Besides the intrepid archaeologists, cadres of paleontologists also went off in search of fossils, especially dinosaur fossils which were the big draws. Competition was quite fierce at times and this extended to the naming of specimens since the presence of the so-called "type specimen" for a particular species lent an added caché to any collection. One particularly able competitor in the dinosaur wars was Othniel Charles Marsh who in 1877 described some fossil fragments of a sauropod dinosaur and named them Apatosaurus or "Deceptive lizard". Later that same year he also described another set of related fossils which he named Brontosaurus or "Thunder lizard". This latter term was the one that caught the popular imagination, and most media outlets went with Brontosaurus. Trouble was, the original Apatosaurus specimen turned out to be, in reality, a juvenile Brontosaurus. Now, naming convention in paleontology states that the first name given to a species has precedent and thus, as far as the small circle of paleontologists was concerned, it was always Apatosaurus. That didn't really stop anyone from using Brontosaurus and that was the popular name for that particular species for decades, including the 1930s when Sinclair picked it up as the company's mascot.
The issue came to a head in 1989 when the US Postal Service issued a set of dinosaur stamps with Brontosaurus as one of the critters. This upset quite a few (very vocal) purists, and even prompted SJ Gould to pen a defense of the popular name called "Bully for Brontosaurus" defending the long-used name as proper in a larger sense (we later find out that Marsh had also put the head of a different species on his Brontosaurus specimen). Count me as a Brontosaurus defender.
At any rate (this is where you non-dweebs can start reading again), Sinclair trademarked the Brontosaurus and he soon also had a name: Dino. That, by the way, should be pronounced "Dyno" rather than "Deeno" to avoid confusion with that other dinosaur. Besides using Dino in their advertisements, Sinclair also provided company-sponsored geological- and dinosaur-related materials to schools and libraries for educational use (and a free bit of advertising) and even funded some fossil hunting expeditions by the American Museum of Natural History. Part of their promotional materials included a little Dinosaur stamp collecting book, reproduced above. AND in 1964-65 they sponsored a "Dinoland" exhibit at the New York World's Fair complete with animatronic dinosaurs, these days a staple of many science museums. The statues were produced by the Jonas Studios of Hudson, NY, and were shipped by barge down the Hudson River to the fair (photo). Most of the originals still exist in various outdoor theme parks in various states of repair, so they are still out there available for viewing.
And of course there are the memorabilia. Posters, stickers, inflatables, plushes, puppets, pens, and anything dino-related. I vaguely recall having one Dino object at some point in my youth -- since lost -- and picked up another inflatable Dino in the late 1980s when I had occasion to drive through Sinclair Country (probably Wyoming), but I had to discard that as well -- I think my cat shredded it at some point. And so, here I sit in Sinclair-disabled Washington state, with only Shell, 76, Chevron, and assorted other brands to choose from, none with that fabulous dinosaur -- a flippin' dinosaur! -- as a mascot.
Apparently, I'm not the only one with a fondness for Sinclair. While researching this little post, I came across this link with a photograph of what appears to be a fully restored Sinclair service station. As you can see from the photo (right), it has the old gas pumps and a Sinclair truck out front, but has a barrier across the entrances. A little more digging found that it was a Preservation Award winner in 2011 from Historic Fort Worth, Inc.. You can also check out Jon Williamson's blog for more photos, including an interior shot. Apparently the owner restores old cars out of the building and did the building as well.
I admit this missive is probably a bit goofy, though as we have seen, at least one person is a bit more enthusiastic about it than I am. I don't really mean this to be a misty-eyed paean to some mythical past where clean and friendly service station attendants quickly and politely "filled 'er up" with premium, checked the oil, and washed the windows; I remember those days, but only vaguely, and I am one who adores the convenience of pumping my own gas. But seeing that cute little green Brontosaurus always brings a bit of a smile to my face and on those rare -- very rare as it turns out -- occasions that I find myself within shouting distance of a Sinclair station, I'm pretty certain I would go at least a little out of my way to pump some good ol' "dinosaur gas" into my car. Fine, fine, give us stations with 20 pumps and a full-service convenience store, and super-duper high-tech (sounding, at least) additives that promise to clean our fuel injectors, scrub deposits from our cylinders, and find the quickest route to the nearest sushi restaurant for us, but please let us have at least one station that retains a little bit of goofiness from years gone by.
The top sign is from Merchant Circle. The first Sinclair Oils sign comes from the Schwanke Car, Tractor and Truck Museum site (also found elsewhere), though for a much more, errrr, attractive one click here. The H-C gas bulb photo is from the Primarily Petroliana site, and the old Sinclair Oils with the Brontosaurus sign is from Retro Signs 'n More. The stamp kit image comes from the Rigastamps Web Store. The barge is from Stephen Bissette's blog (also found elsewhere), and the restored Sinclair Station photo is from the Fort Worth forum site where I first came across this station. Also, special thanks to Wendell White of Sinclair who provided valuable information for this post.
Addendum: This link has a 1958 photo of Milwaukee WI with a Sinclair station. Also a historic Sinclair station (now a BP) in Janesville WI. So far no sources indicating a Fond du Lac (my home town) Sinclair.