Mum and dad purchased Station Road Garage in 1966 from Dickie Worth (of Worth’s coaches). It was a lot of money at the time, but dad managed to convince Petrofina to give him a loan to help fund the purchase. Originally an attended service petrol station with workshop, the business offered repairs, fuel sales, motor spares and breakdown recovery. In 1985 the business stopped doing repairs, and we started a taxi service. This eventually became Johnsons Chauffeur Cars; my youngest brother Peter now runs this. In the field behind the garage, farmer Cyril Dangerfield used to graze his cows and then walk them down the road to Meadow Lane for milking. Often they would come back up the road on their own; on one occasion father was down the pit fitting an exhaust to a car when one of the cows decided to take a look, so a quick telephone call to Mr. Dangerfield was made. Looking at traffic now it is hard to believe there were so few cars then.
Over the years we have had great staff, who have all been valuable members of the team and we thank them all. One that sticks out was the local village Bobby, Stan Hicks; many will remember him. He would look after the pumps when he finished his police duty, so my father could go home for lunch. He was a great help around the garage and a real character. Not one item was shop lifted during his time with us!
The early years were certainly difficult as the profit margin on fuel has always been low and the number of cars on the road is nothing like we see today. When we started, petrol was around 25p a gallon but now it is about £5.00. Our first load of fuel cost just £337 to fill the tanks and this was with fuel company Petrofina (Fina). Subsequently we have traded with Murco, UK Petroleum and finally with current supplier Gulf.
Running a filling station today is a lot harder than it used to be – health and safety, hazardous zones, risk assessment and all the environmental conditions can be difficult to keep up with. In the early days you had to have a petroleum licence to store and sell fuel. This was controlled by the fire service on an annual basis and that was about it for regulations. Now we have petroleum officers who can turn up at any time so we have to be ready as the rules and conditions are constantly updated. Fuel stocks and calibration is another big issue as our tanks and pumps are monitored 24 hours a day by an external auditor. This means the pumps always dispense accurately and the deliveries are always correct. Fuel deliveries were certainly different in the early days; when the tanker arrived you had to get up on top and check all the compartments with a dipstick. Our current fire officer would have a heart attack if he saw us doing that nowadays!
In 1996 we completely redeveloped the site, turning it into a modern self-service filling station with a larger shop (forecourt shops were where the market was heading). This was a major investment, but it had to be done – the existing garage was completely past its sell-by date. We purchased more land from the council to double the size of the forecourt. Work took four months and we only needed to close the site completely for two days. Unfortunately, when the work was finished Esso started a campaign called Price Watch to try and claw back business from the supermarkets (who were taking more of the fuel market at the expense mainly of independent retailers). This pushed the margins even tighter and made survival even tougher. Sites like ours were unable to match the competition and so fuel sales dropped. Supermarkets entering the fuel business have contributed to a big reduction in the number of sites. In 1973 there were 34000 filling stations, now there are around 8000 despite a significantly larger number of cars on the road.
The business has faced many other challenges over the years. The oil crisis of 1973 was extremely hard for retailers selling fuel who faced fuel rationing and the 3-day week. The fuel protest of 2000 was disruptive on supplies, and the 2007 floods saw the river Evenlode flowing over the forecourt. Now we have the coronavirus pandemic. At the start of lockdown, fuel sales were down around 75%. Our only option was to broaden our convenience range and concentrate more on the shop. This along with the new screen on the counter, social distancing signs on the floor, investing in glove dispensers on the pump nozzles, and a strict cleaning schedule has meant we’ve managed to keep trading and keep staff and customers safe.
Now looking to the future we have plans passed to extend the forecourt shop where we will be looking to offer a significantly wider range of groceries, fresh food and a bigger off licence, plus installing charging points for electric cars. However we think we will still be selling petrol and diesel for a few more years yet.
The coronavirus has been a challenging time for everyone, but it has been wonderful to see the increased support from local businesses and such great community spirit. On behalf of all of us at Station Road Garage we would like to thank our loyal customers.
Antony and the Johnsons
August – September 2020