1973 oil crisis: When gas prices shot up to 55 cents

Posted by David Middlecamp on October 25, 2013 

The oil crisis of 1973-74 resulted in prices as high as 55 cents a gallon. ©Larry Jamison/The Tribune


By any standard, 1973 was an epic news year.

Four decades ago San Luis Obispo experienced the second 100-year-flood in a four-year span.

Streaking was a fad.

Investigations were closing in on President Richard Nixon, and it was revealed that he had a secret system to record conversations in his office. The tapes could exonerate or convict the president of wrongdoing. The president resisted handing over tapes to investigators, and soon it was revealed that a key tape had an 18 1/2-minute erasure.

Newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Demands were made that the Hearst family feed the homeless.

One news event still sends aftershocks.

Days after Egypt and Syria launched the Yom Kippur War Oct. 6, 1973, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, met.

The plan was to use oil as a weapon against Israel.

Israel won the ground war after initial setbacks, with the assistance of $2.2 billion in emergency aid from the United States.

The OPEC nations found a path to greater wealth and more attention from the West.

Previous attempts to dictate oil prices had not succeeded, but this time the oil-producing nations operated in concert. Shortages and price spikes were the result.

Stories about fuel economy and gas shortages became common in late 1973 and early 1974.

At that time, it was a shock when gas prices climbed to 55 cents per gallon. The new national speed limit would be 55 miles per hour.

The crisis lifted when OPEC increased production, but it was a suspicious era.

Under a cartoon depicting Nixon and his cronies beating up House of Representatives investigators, the Telegram-Tribune editorialized on March 26, 1974, under a headline "Was the gasoline crisis for real?"

Excerpts from a Feb. 9, 1974, story by Jim Hayes show consumer expectations have evolved slightly in four decades:

In those halcyon days before the energy crisis dawned on all of us, the number of miles one could squeeze out of a tankful of 29-cent regular was of interest only to a few automotive engineers, the fabricators of TV commercials for a couple of major oil companies and salesmen who were pushing the virtues of gnome-size cars. Now consumption is everybody's business.

•  •  •

Statistics compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year in air pollution studies by certified engineers show that the "average" American-built car got less than 13 miles to the gallon. Examples: A Ford wagon, eight mpg; an Olds Cutlass, 11; a Chevrolet Impala, 12; a Ford Pinto, 21.

The article concluded with advice that applies today.

• Make sure your car is in excellent tune.

• Practice good driving habits [Put a half-filled water glass on the dash, don't spill, smooth driving is most efficient.]

• Plan driving ahead

• Check tire pressure

• Buy an economical car

• Buy a locking gas cap [Now a standard feature, siphoning thefts were on the rise.]

• Watch the accessories [some car heaters or air-conditioners lop 15 percent off efficiency.]

• Turn off the engine when stopped.

• If all else fails buy a bicycle.

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