We travel back in time courtesy of 10 period photographs of petrol stations in Cape Town. Can you identify the cars and the landmarks?
By Graeme Hurst
With their distinctive branding and unique architecture, petrol stations were once a standout part of South Africa’s urban areas. And in the days before cars enjoyed 20,000km+ service intervals they offered more than just petrol: many had drive-in lubrication bays and carried spares to get you back on the road…and ice-cold cooldrinks to quench your thirst! Here are a few of SentiMETAL’s favourite period stations from the Mother City…
Standard Garage Paarl
A delightful period photo of a Mobilgas garage on the outskirts of Paarl (spot the reflection of the windmill in the glass). It was taken back in ’61 and Standard appears to be an Opel dealer (the advertisement for the new Rekord in the window providing a clue!). While the light blue Opel Kapitan on the right is a local car, the Auto-Union taking centre stage has come a long way: around 1000 miles, judging by that Kempton Park licence plate. The two-stroke coupé appears to have a family onboard so perhaps they’re Vaalies down for the holiday season? No doubt a bottle of Coca-a-Cola out of the fridge on the island would go down rather well. There’s an obligatory AA sign too, while other period details include the stand for bottles (not cans yet!) of Mobiloil…clearly the era when cars needed regular top-ups!
Gordon's Bay Garage
An hour’s drive to the south would see the Gordon’s Bay Garage welcoming you to the seaside town. Still the site of a petrol station (but now in BP guise) this shot is from ’62 and clearly taken during a lull in business, with the only car on view a Willys Overlander. But, from the state of the attendants’ overalls (and the oil stains on the forecourt) they’ve had plenty of busy days. A good stop to top-up your tank after a day at the local Bikini Beach or perhaps a night at that well-known landmark, the fabulous Van Riebeeck Hotel.
Marais Motors Voortrekker Road
Another photo from the same year but this time from Voortrekker Road and operated by a rival brand. Back then Voortekker was very much a main drag through the metropolitan area and garages like this were part of its surrounding fabric. The lubrication bay is fronted by a MARFAK sign, a popular brand for the drive-in format back then. This is possibly a promotional shot, given that the two cars on the forecourt are both Ford Taunus – how cool would it be to have the keys to that station wagon variant now?
No idea on where this one was taken but we’re told it was in Cape Town and snapped in 1954. That would make the station signage quite fresh as it’s the same year the iconic red-winged Pegasus brand formally became Mobilgas. Nine years on it was simplified to Mobil – one of SA’s best-known petrol brands – before becoming Engen in 1993. The beige saloon being filled up looks to be a late ‘40s Chevrolet while the pump attendant has the obligatory cash belt. Remember those? The lead attendant on each forecourt usually sported one with a coin holder which he used to dispense your change…in the days when a full tank got you change from a ten Rand note!
GSM Dart fans will recognise this as a photo of the official sales outlet for SA’s GSM Dart in Paarden Eiland, the city’s industrial heartland. Those three letters stood for Glass Sport Motors, a sports car maker founded by Bob van Niekerk and the talented engine guru, Willie Meissner back in ’58. There’s a trio of the Ford-engined GSM Darts parked up there and their crisp lines look more in keeping with the building’s Futurist architecture than those of the Austin (possibly a Cambridge?) and Ford (a Popular?) parked alongside.
Total Sea Point
Another example of Futurism is this striking TOTAL garage along Sea Point’s main drag. The canopy and free-standing TOTAL emblem are fantastically architected when you compare them to the items delineating our forecourts today. No year on the photo but it looks to be the late 1960s or early ’70s, judging from that orange saloon (a Holden perhaps?) and that black Jaguar Mk2…bought from agents Robbs Motors in Strand Street no doubt. And (what appears to be) the little Alfa Romeo Giulia coupé sporting a go-faster stripe parked up in the background.
Vic Proctor Motors
A well-known landmark overlooking nearby Three Anchor Bay is Vic Proctor’s which is still trading. And still a Shell garage. It’s long since gained a large canopy to protect motorists from the Cape South Easter but the drive-through format over the corner remains. This snap is likely to from the 1960s, if the slightly dilapidated state of that Austin Somerset (with its bonnet open) is anything to go by. It would’ve been out of production by ’54. There’s another Austin product in the parking lot to the right: an A40 Devon by the look of it.
Back in Sea Point we have Main Road’s Milton Motors with plenty of 1950s finned fare. That saloon with its ‘hood’ up looks to be a Buick (by the four headlamps) while there’s a parked Ford Fairlane on the right. It’s tricky to see what’s in the service bay but the shape and position of the visible tail light is quite Fiat-like. And on the left we have an Opel Rekord nosing in.
Regular Camps Bay beachgoers will remember this stop. It was a Caltex until a few years ago before being re-developed, beachfront property being just too valuable to justify the existence of a fuel station, pictured here with what looks to be Dodge or Plymouth sedan. Back then the station’s Art Deco lines must’ve lent a South Beach Miami feel to the strip!
Mobil Orange Street
City bowl residents will know this spot on the east end of Orange Street in Gardens well. Once a Mobil, station, it’s now one of the city’s busiest Engen garages, complete with a Woolworths food store. But these days it’s only in lockdown that you’ll find the station this deserted! Shot in the early 1980s, the photo highlights the site’s circular canopies which were standard for Mobil forecourts at the time and visible some way off. And a reminder of singer Mynie Grové’s ‘You are No 1’ number in that 1980s TV ad!
If you have any period motoring-related photographs to share with us, please do get in touch!