Panic gripped motorists on November 29th, 1956, when the UK government announced its plans to begin rationing petrol from the following month.
The move was a response to the ongoing Suez Crisis, sparked when Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser took control of running the Suez Canal four months previously. It led to an invasion of Egypt by Israel, followed by the UK and France, all intent on seizing back western control of the vital trade route which was the main source of fuel from the Middle East into Europe.
But heavy political pressure from the world’s two post-war superpowers – the USA and the USSR – forced the three invaders into a humiliating withdrawal in early November and the Suez Canal remained closed to shipping. Now the British government was forced to think again, with the prospect of major fuel shortages looming large.
Sixty-one years ago today, it announced its plan to begin rationing petrol for a period expected to last at least four months, from December 17th, 1956, to April 17th, 1957. Just like in the war years, motorists would need ration books with coupons to claim the small amount of petrol they were entitled to.
The Minister for Fuel and Power, Aubrey Jones MP, told reporters that ordinary motorists would be entitled to enough fuel to cover 200 miles per month, while people driving on business would be allowed an extra 100 miles per month on top of that. Farmers, religious ministers and essential local authority workers would be allowed up to 600 miles a month. However, there would be no mileage limit for a third group of drivers, which included doctors, midwives, veterinary surgeons and disable drivers, who could have as much petrol as they needed.
Although rationing would not come into force officially for almost three weeks, the Minister asked all petrol stations to begin restricting daily sales with immediate effect until the start date of December 17th, so that supplies could be spread over the coming weeks. He hoped people would react to the news in a calm and considered manner, begin to curtail any unnecessary driving and continue buying fuel only as and when they needed it.
They didn’t. Instead the news caused widespread panic buying across the country, with people trying to stock up before rationing came into force. Many garages quickly ran out of fuel and closed their forecourts. Other introduced their own form of rationing, restricting people to one or two gallons of petrol each, or only serving their regular customers.
Even that had its pitfalls, as the owner of a garage in Buckinghamshire explained: “We are almost afraid to serve our regular customers. When motorists saw a car being filled they stopped and waited. In five minutes we had a queue of 50 cars waiting and had to turn them all away.”
By the mid-1950s, Britain’s motor manufacturing industry was starting to recover following the austerity of the war years, with demand for new cars beginning to rise, but the fuel shortages dealt it a fresh blow. With no fuel available, very few people were looking to buy a car and two of the biggest manufacturers, Vauxhall and Ford, soon announced cuts in production leading to a four-day week for workers.
Panic buying of petrol continued so that by the time official rationing came in, garages across the country were mostly closed and the roads were very quiet as people conserved what little fuel they had. It was particularly noticeable in big cities such as London, where traffic was reduced by at least two-thirds, but buses and tube trains were packed.
There was also an outcry when petrol prices rose sharply to around six shillings per gallon – about £7.25 per gallon in today’s money (although petrol is now sold in litres, the current average price for a gallon would be about £5.27). People accused the oil companies of profiteering, but they claimed they had to raise their prices due to loss of revenue from falling petrol sales.
Eventually the Suez Canal reopened in early March 1957 and a United Nations peacekeeping force was established to maintain the free navigability of the route. The flow of fuel from the Middle East gradually resumed and petrol rationing was ended, much to the relief of British motorists.