A teen’s plight with his car and the 1973 gas shortage

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

It was a piece of junk on wheels, but it moved, and that’s all I could afford – a 1968 Volkswagen fastback. My first car, and I paid for it in cash.

I just got back in town from my summer job and had enough left over from my paycheck to buy the car from a mechanic friend of mine. I just got my driver’s license also, and was ready to hit the road.

Then a little complication popped up - the 1973 gas shortage in October.

That’s when the members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries started an oil embargo in response to the United States’ support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War.

The war began in early October 1973, when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. After the Soviet Union began sending arms to Egypt and Syria, U.S. President Richard Nixon began an effort to resupply Israel.

In response, members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) reduced their petroleum production and placed an embargo on oil shipments to the United States and the Netherlands, the main supporters of Israel.

The Yom Kippur War ended in late October. Israel won with the assistance of $2.2 billion in emergency aid from the United States. At home, the embargo continued, sparking an international energy crisis.

Washington’s earlier assumption that an oil boycott for political reasons would hurt the Persian Gulf financially turned out to be wrong. The increased price per barrel of oil more than made up for the reduced production.

I kept up with the news, but didn’t really follow the Yom Kippur War all that closely. Being a teen-ager with wheels, I had my mind on other matters that had nothing to do with wars on the other side of the world.
But I did have a major problem that the war created. I couldn’t get any gas to put in my brand new-to-me clunker.
I was in line for hours just to get 10 gallons, which was the limit. The VW could go a long way on 10 gallons if it didn’t break down.

The gas lines wound around several blocks. Getting at the end of one was pretty depressing, but we all did it where I lived. That was the only way to get gas, unless you knew someone in the business.

I made the best of it, listening to the radio, helping to push other cars that ran out of gas while in the line, joining in the conversation about what a crock all this was, and even doing some homework.

Israel had successfully pushed back incursions from Syria and Egypt, and the USA was getting used to gas rationing in the form of odd-even days, depending on your license plate number.

By January 1974, world oil prices were four times higher than they had been at the start of the crisis. So, when gas became available again without rationing or waiting in line, we paid for it dearly.

It was hard to be a teen with a car back in those days, thanks to world politics. Gas prices shot up by 55 cents per gallon in just a few months.That was a big shock to my meager wallet.

But I could now fully enjoy this VW Fastback. It wasn’t all that fast. The new 55 MPH national speed limit suited it just fine. It really didn’t want to go much faster. It also leaked somewhere in the back and the water accumulated in the battery compartment under the back seat. That was not a good combination.

I drilled a hole through the bottom and let the water run out. Luckily, there were no gas lines or exhaust pipes where I drilled. And then, it started smoking profusely.

It broke my heart, but I sold the car for a little less than what I paid for it. It was for the best. I didn’t have the money for an engine job that it needed. So, we parted ways.

The gas shortage was over, and my VW ownership days of the car didn’t last much longer. I swore that I would never buy an old car again, a promise that I broke when I bought a 1968 Buick Skylark, just in time for the 1979 gas shortage.

Perfect timing on my part, but I wanted wheels, even though it was once again hard to find gas. But I’ll leave that for another column.