Photos from the Vault

1979 gas crisis brought long lines, short tempers and one creative protest on wheels

Fred Brieske began his protest over the gasoline shortage on May 5, 1979, the day after he spent four hours waiting in line to buy gas during the 1979 crisis.
Fred Brieske began his protest over the gasoline shortage on May 5, 1979, the day after he spent four hours waiting in line to buy gas during the 1979 crisis. Telegram-Tribune

When fabulists turn back the clock to the good old days, they always skip 1979.

Revolution in Iran and price hikes by other Middle East oil producers lead to long lines at the gasoline pumps and gave America a shock for the second time in the decade. The first gas crisis struck with the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973-74.

A restless nation driving Detroit gas guzzlers ground to a halt when the pumps ran out of gas. “Born to Run” became sit and wait.

Rationing was imposed, gas stations sold out and closed and the economy was in shock.

The presidency of Jimmy Carter stalled as well due to the energy crisis, inflation, unemployment and other issues in the following election year.

When politicians chant “Drill, baby, drill” the fear of what happened to Jimmy Carter is in the back of their minds. California politicians have mixed feelings about ocean drilling, having experienced a well-documented offshore oil disaster a decade earlier.

In 1979, mechanical gasoline pumps that only dialed up to 99.9 cents had to be set at half price and stations posted cardboard signs that said “Pay double what pump reads.”

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As gas prices rose in 1979, mechanical pumps could not be set for prices that rose above a dollar a gallon. File Telegram-Tribune

The national mood was surly.

San Luis Obispo County resident Fred Brieske was mad enough to cover a van with pop culture slogans. Influences from Woody Guthrie to the Lone Ranger to Rocky Balboa to the movie “Network” cover the van and reflected some of his and the nation’s frustration.

Linda Gentry wrote this story for the June 21, 1979, Telegram-Tribune:

Gas crisis fuels his protest

Fred Brieske’s van is a vehicle of protest.

His battered white Ford van sports American flags on both side mirrors and is covered with slogans that read:

“Don’t pick on small gas stations. Let’s wake the sleeping giant that this country was built by! This country was built by you and I.”

I’m made as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. No gas. No taxes.”

“People unite, if we can’t buy gas, don’t pay your taxes!!!”

The painted messages are accompanied by the theme from “Rocky” blaring from the twin speakers mounted on the roof of the van.

If we all get together and all row the boat, we can whip the oil companies, the politicians, the crooks.

Fred Brieske

Brieske said his campaign to force government to deal with the gas crunch began May 5 — one day after he spent four hours waiting in line for gasoline in a Long Beach service station.

“The same day a …guy knocked down a pregnant woman in a gas line,” Brieske said.

The whole situation and its potential ramifications made him angry and concerned. He decided to act.

To celebrate Mother’s Day, the 29-year-old Brieske said he and four other men pushed his van 30 miles from Long Beach, where he was living, to Los Angeles City Hall.

“Two cop cars helped us push it up the hills,” the former car salesman said with a grin.

At City Hall, he said, “We sat there all day and we protested. Not one cop bothered us.”

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In May 1979, nearly a dozen cars line up for gas at a station at Foothill Boulevard and N. Chorro Street in San Luis Obispo. The station put up an “out of gas” sign next morning. Wayne Nicholls Telegram-Tribune

Brieske, who owns the former Rose Garden Ballroom in Pismo Beach and is buying an apartment building in Grover City (now Grover Beach), urged people to stop paying their taxes to force government officials to solve the gasoline problem.

“They can’t send everybody to jail,” he philosophized. Besides, he said, “You might meet some nice girl like Patty Hearst, get married and live happily ever after.”

Brieske said government officials must be forced to balance the national budget before revolutions like those that plague Third World nations begin in the United States.

“I’m fighting because I believe in our country,” he said. “I do not want to see our country turn into a Nicaragua or an Iran.”

It could happen, Brieske said. “About 5 percent of the people that come up and talk to me … are gun-toting fanatics.”

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San Luis Obispo’s Chamber of Commerce pushed for a special gasoline allocation to prevent closings such as this one from stranding visitors to Poly Royal in 1979. File Telegram-Tribune

These people say they’re ready to use their guns if the gasoline situation doesn’t improve, he said. “I say, you don’t want violence.”

Brieske estimated that 70 percent of the responses to his van with its slogans, flags and music have been positive. “Twenty percent (of the people) just ignore you,” he laughed.

He’s been contacted by reporters from television and radio stations, newspapers and Newsweek magazine, since the protest began more than a month ago, Brieske said.

Is the protest effective?

“If we all get together and all row the boat, we can whip the oil companies, the politicians, the crooks,” he said.

“This is the first time I’ve ever protested. I’m glad I’ve finally been educated enough to realize what’s happening.”

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp

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