Credit Card of a Lifetime: Parting Ways With BP After 30 Years – A Brief History of Gas Station Credit Cards

So I’ve had a BP gas credit card in my wallet for most of my adult life – 30 years to be exact. So it came as somewhat of a shock to me when I received a letter the other day informing me that BP is discontinuing its gas-only credit cards, and moving all of its cardholders over to a BP-branded Visa card.

But I’m getting ahead of myself – let’s take a quick look at the history of the private-label gasoline branded credit card.

Credit cards first appeared in the 1920s (indeed, some of the earliest cards were for gas companies), but didn’t really become commonplace until the 1960s. By 1970, the industry had consolidated down to four major networks: Diners Club, American Express, BankAmericard (now Visa), and Master Charge (now MasterCard), all of whom collected a processing fee from the merchant for each purchase to cover their operating and marketing expenses.

Of course, all the major gas companies also issued their own private label cards as well, and in the early days, there was frequently tension between bank credit cards and gas branded cards.

Gasoline sales were (and remain) a low-margin business, and credit card processing fees can take a big chunk of those profits, so oftentimes it was up to the individual station owner whether to accept general-purpose credit cards or not. Until the 1980s, gas companies didn’t charge station owners transaction fees on their private label credit cards to incentivize their use, so many opted not to accept bank credit cards.

Therefore the only guaranteed way to pay for gas (other than by carrying a stack of cash or traveler’s checks) was a gas company credit card (ideally several, in case your preferred brand didn’t have a station close by). My grandfather, who was in outside sales and basically worked out of his car when I was growing up, probably had half a dozen gas station credit cards in his wallet.

Remember these?

Private label gasoline credit cards exploded in popularity during the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and 1974, which drove the cost of filling up to higher than the amount of cash a typical consumer had on hand, as well as forcing some people to leverage credit to finance their fuel purchases.

Gasoline stayed expensive throughout the ’70s thanks to inflation and global events, and by 1979 both Texaco and Mobil had stopped accepting all credit cards other than their own proprietary cards, further necessitating the carrying of multiple private-label gas cards.

This move would prove to be both short-sighted and short-lived. By the early 1980s, Texaco and Mobil had both reversed their stance on bank cards, and the long, slow decline of the proprietary gasoline credit card had begun.

Today, every major gas brand licenses its branding to bank-issued credit cards, and what was once a cost center has now become yet another revenue center.

Backside of my old BP Card. Member since 1992, until 2022.

As a result, gasoline-only cards are getting harder to find. I haven’t checked how many petroleum companies still issue gasoline-only credit cards, but after May 22 there was one less, as BP is transitioning all their gasoline cardholders over to a BPMe Rewards Visa. There’s no option to stay on the current account, and the only way to opt-out is by canceling your account, which after 30 years of being a customer is exactly what I did.

Now you might ask why I still care about private label gas company credit cards in this day and age, when you can just use a debit card or some other credit card? To me, they offer at least two benefits:

  1. A low-limit credit card limits my exposure to skimmers and PIN readers, both of which fuel pumps are frequent targets of, as opposed to risking my debit card which has direct access to my checking and savings accounts.
  2. Having young drivers in the house, gas company cards are convenient to give to my kids until they are financially self-sufficient. Unlike bank cards, gas cards can only be used to purchase gas (and maybe small snacks in the convenience store).

By switching over to a Visa card, these benefits are gone, and my BP card has become just another credit card, for which I have no particular use.

No doubt BP sees the writing on the wall: As cars continue to get electrified, fewer people will stop at their gasoline stations to get their petrochemical fix. While this transition will take decades, the arrow of history on this is already clear, so BP needs to start looking for new revenue streams, including licensing its logo for co-branded credit cards.

So what’s in your wallet? Is everyone else using credit and debit cards to pay for gas, or are you, like me, still clinging to gas-only cards, that relic from another era?