Roadside Classics: A Tiger On Your Roof and Other Gas Station Memorabilia

There was a time when a visit to a gas station – aka filling station or service station – would involve encountering branding that was clearly intended to differentiate the station you did choose from those that you did not choose.  It’s hard for me to pin down when that stopped being the case and when gas stations became generic carbon copies of each other regardless of brand, but it has happened during my driving lifetime.

There was a time though, not that long ago, when one wouldn’t be surprised to encounter something like this life-size fiberglass tiger leering at them from the roof of an Esso station. In fact, you’d expect it; and seeing that beast on the roof might be the very thing that drew you in to the station. This might particularly be the case if you had small children in the car who were actively cultivating the mental connections between driving, cars, gasoline brands, mascots and life-long purchasing habits, just as the folks at McCann-Erickson intended in 1964.

Actually, this particular 8′ long fiberglass tiger has leered at me as recently as sometime during the first decade of the 21st century. I was reminded of this fact when I spoke to the man who now has it, and a slightly smaller model, mounted on top of his house.

His house is about 2 miles up the road from the Exxon station where the tigers originally lived.  The tigers moved to his house (I do expect money may have been involved in that transfer) when the Esso station turned Exxon station turned into a Walgreens/Chipotle/Panda Express parking lot. I recall that particular Exxon had a large cage-shaped bin of stuffed toy tigers, watched over by their fiberglass parents. On one visit I asked if the large tigers were for sale and was told “no”…not at the moment. In fact, that was good news for me whether I knew it or not at the time; as those were the days – about 20 years ago – when I would have not thought twice about hauling home a gigantic piece of gas station memorabilia. My only question being if it would fit in the back of the Town & Country, or if the kids would need to be left at the gas station while I took out their seats and converted the van to cargo mode. Once home, it likely could have sat on top of the 30 year old BMW that hadn’t moved in a dozen years, right in front of the two or three Coca Cola machines that also inhabited my basement/garage/back yard around that time. I’ve pared down those static collections of stuff in more recent years (although that would be somewhat surprising news for most people who know me). Better that I didn’t get the large tigers as I think I would have been hard pressed to ever let them go.

The tigers disappeared from the Exxon station when it was remodeled from a “service station” into one of those modern things that’s basically a donut coffee liquid sugar-and-caffeine-in-honking-big-plastic-cups dispensary that sells gasoline on the side. Shortly after, the Exxon station itself disappeared. The current owner of the big tigers told me that the service station operator gave up the tigers once he could no longer procure the smaller stuffed ones to sell. I don’t know if this might have had something to do with various legal disputes over the course of the proceeding decade concerning Exxon and Kellogg and the use of the tiger as a trademarked mascot.

Anyway, I was mighty pleased to catch a glimpse of the big tigers a little while back while driving by what at least for me is a local landmark — the “house with all of the gas pumps”.

And that’s what this post is really about.

It turns out that The House With All of the Gas Pumps (as it’s known by everyone in my family) is the residence of a Mr. David Dwyer in Nashua, NH, and he’s been collecting gas pumps, pump parts, and all sorts of gas station memorabilia for over 30 years. I was careful to check as to whether Mr. Dwyer minded that I identify him here in this post, and he’s fine with that. In fact, much of what you see here is for sale. I was careful to note that I personally wasn’t in the market for any gas pumps. I swear. I’m not.

David’s collection leans heavily to pumps that last saw commercial use in the 1950s. For me, it’s wonderful to see these old globe-topped pumps with their globes intact and mounted to the pumps. All too often I see just the globes for sale. No doubt those are attractive to collectors who don’t have the fortitude (or space) to wrangle an entire pump. Yeah, there’s something to be said for convenience, but when you see the whole contraption, you really sense how these classic pumps were designed to make a bold statement to the motoring public. It’s just not the same when you only see part of the intended whole.

In this collection, there are also some of the older glass cylinder pumps, a few clock-face pumps, and even a couple of the trapezoidal ones that I remember from the 1960s and 70s. Nothing has a card reader, and the pricing dials are all in cents, not dollars.

With that, I’m going to mostly just leave you to look at the pictures I took when visiting David’s collection last week. I found the bright colors of these machines…machines that like the cars that they serviced were intended to stand out, be noticed, and draw in the viewer…just the thing to brighten up a gray, cloudy, winter New England day.

Jenney Gas was a Boston-based refinery/oil company that started off as a whale oil producer in 1812 and was ultimately sold to Cities Service – later Citgo – in the 1960s!


So as I said to Mr. Dwyer, I really don’t want a gas pump, but I have to admit that there’s part of me that still wishes I’d been able to buy the fiberglass tiger when I first saw it 20 years ago.  It could have anchored my Esso Tiger collection, that now only consists of the Happy Motoring Key Club tag that I have from my mother’s old keychain. I lost my plush tiger tail (that was intended to be attached to your gas cap) some years ago.

She carried her keys with that tag on them for 30+ years, and for easily the first dozen was asked nearly daily by me “Do you think that you could REALLY drop them in any mailbox and they’d come back????”.  The answer was “Yes”…although she wisely always declined my immediate suggestion that we engage in real world research by chucking her keys in the nearest mailbox.

Well, never having run that particular experiment, I still have her keys. The Esso Tiger keyfob is plenty enough of a keepsake.