Memories : London, 1973

If you’re going to queue for fuel, you may as well do it in style…

It’s 5 December 1973, and we’re heading down the Holloway Road towards Islington and ultimately into the City of London. It’s cold and, as you can see, it’s all kicking off at the local petrol station as drivers patiently wait to fill up their cars and vans at 33p per gallon. This, when £25 a week is a decent working wage. So, why is the scene so busy?

Well, back in October, the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) had imposed an oil embargo on a number of countries which were seen to have supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War. The United Kingdom was in the first wave of embargoes (alongside Canada, Holland, Japan and the USA) and the effects on the UK’s petrol supplies had been swift and extremely damaging. Petrol’s now getting expensive and people are queueing – sometimes for hours – to get even a couple of quids’ worth of the stuff.

And now, in the lead-up to Christmas, with the supply of petrol slashed and price rises already hitting hard, it’s proving to be a tough winter for anyone relying on their cars to get by. This price shock comes on the back of rising food prices caused by global shortages, and an inflation rate rapidly heading towards 20%. And it looks like things are going to get worse before they get better, with car manufacturers already struggling with their profitability in light of falling sales of larger, more profitable, cars.

So, tell us about the cars

On Holloway Road, the mix of cars is interesting, as it looks like Londoners are already decently well-equipped to deal with the Energy Crisis. The Fiat 128 nearest to us, and behind the Bedford CA van, should average almost 40mpg at the 50mph limit that would be temporarily introduced. The Mini and Morris Minor up ahead were also pretty effective, too. There’s a Toyota Corona in front of the Mini and next to the kiosk on the left-hand side – that would make an interesting comparison with the Ford Cortina Mk3 ahead of that on the right.

It’s not much better out in the suburbs, below, with even longer queues. And with drivers limited to £5’s worth of fuel at this station it’s bad news for some of the drivers patiently waiting. At the head of the queue, just leaving the shot, is a Fiat 130 Coupe, followed by a Ford Cortina, a Rover 3500 (P6), and indeterminate BMC/BL 1100/1300 (ADO16), a Toyota Crown, a Ford Capri, a Toyota 1000, a Rover P6, a Singer Vogue (Rootes Arrow-flavoured), a Ford Cortina, and another Rover P6…

If you enjoyed this, let us know in the comments and, if you have any pictures you’d like featuring, drop me a line via any of the links below.

December 1973 - London

Keith Adams
Latest posts by Keith Adams (see all)


  1. The poor old Bedford CA van looks like its lead a hard life. But, what a great van they were. Of course, the modern driver would be appalled at sitting on a short backed hard and very narrow seat with oceans of ribbed rubber matting around him, a column gear change, switches you have to almost leave your seat for, no seat belts and doors that slide – and decapitate you if your not careful. But we mostly were – careful I mean. And they were as hard working as anything you could wish for!

    • My grandad had a CA van when my dad was a kid. My dad loved driving round in the summer with the doors open, though my nan hated it.

      • As a young lad we were fanatical about all vehicles. I lived in Ward End Birmingham a short distance from the Drews Lane Factory, At one time Wolseley and making Nuffield Tractors, the Morris Commercial were making Morris Minor Post Office Vans and the J2 Van and its successors.
        The Bedford CA was always characteristic being heard as it approached as the front bumpers would rattle if they went over an uneven surface.
        Sliding Front doors? Wonderful for delivery drivers, What would have been the last year vans had them?

        • The last of the Sherpas (before they were renamed as 200/400) seems to be about right to me. I think it was probably a Health & Safety thing.

          • UPS still runs a number of those big Mercedes Vario vans with coachbuilt bodies and sliding front doors.

  2. 4 days after I was born so a nice and nostalgic look at the grim Winter of fuel crisis we had entered.
    I would have gone home from the hospital in an Austin 1300 Countryman my parents had recently bought to replace the Morris 1000 they had inherited from my late Grandad in 1971.

  3. What a beauty the FIAT 130 Coupe was,one of Pininfarina’s best designs,it was the last big car to carry the company’s badge,after that Lancia carried the banner for executive cars for the FIAT group,

    • I’ve been taking my time off work while furloghed to scan some magazines, brochures & books on cars I’ve collected up.

      I have both a Fiat brochure and a collection of Motor road tests with the 130 saloon and couple in.

      Pininfarina essayed some other designs based on the 130, including an sporting estate and a reskinned saloon, but they never got into production.

    • The Fiat 130 is YET another Italian car of the 60s and 70s where the saloon was fairly dull looking, whereas the coupe was really desirable! I imagine the number of coupes in preservation is vastly higher than the saloon

  4. You didn’t mention the music of the day, Keith! The Band on the Run LP by Paul Mc and Wings was still in the number one spot. Those petrol queues of 1973 were going to quickly lead to the end of most bigger cars on the road–except for the rich– and usher in a new era of small Japanese cars worldwide.

    • Talking of music, 1973 was the year of Merry Xmas Everybody by Slade.
      Was played to death at school Xmas disco that year. Still my favourite!!

  5. I remember this time so well. I had recently taken delivery of my new MGB GT V8 in fact I was the first on the road with one of these having bought it from University Motors Hanwell. I was working very near this spot where the photo was taken at Kings Cross. Remember also that there was a blanket 50 MPH speed limit imposed as well. I remember I went for a drive to West Wittering West Sussex and this was the only time I had ever been stopped by the police they used 1800 MGB GTs and all they wanted was to have a look at the new V8.

  6. At the time of that oil crisis I was at college in South London and travelled every day by bus from Streatham to Elephant & Castle. I remember seeing this sight every morning for several weeks. I wasn’t old enough to be an owner/driver so it didn’t really bother me.

  7. Classic shots, and petrol at 33pm a gallon – that’s about 7p a litre! Is the Holloway Road location the site that became Warwick Wright , a Peugeot/Talbot dealer in the 80s?

  8. Worse was to come at the start of 1974, with the three day week starting, which would restrict most workplaces to a three day week, leading to a big drop in pay for most people, energy shortages, and restrictions on broadcasting hours and sporting events. .Also most pubs decided to close down during the crisis. Until the coronavirus this year, the winter of 1973/74 was probably the grimmest period in our post war history, and when it was lifted in March 1974, the sense of relief was enormous.

    • Glenn: I wasn’t born yet, but don’t forget the 1956 Suez Crisis and the massive misery it brought to the nation. Eisenhower disapproved of British and French “colonialism” in Egypt as he saw it, and sunk the pound…leading to austerity galore and even a wave of emigration out of the country. It was so bad that for a while the importing and manufacture of pathetic little three-wheelers powered by motorbike engines, became ubiquitous. I don’t know if the ’56 Suez Crisis was worse than ’73-’74, but it was noteworthy. Maybe someone who lived through that era could tell us some more.

      • The after effects weren’t as severe as in 1973/74, as the economy entered a short recession that it soon recovered from, the trend to bubble cars was shortlived, and petrol shortages only lasted a month. One big bonus was BMC developed their most successful car ever due to the Suez crisis.
        The 1974 crisis had longer lasting effects. Petrol prices remained high for the rest of the seventies, the 1974/75 recession was the most severe since the war, and the country struggled with double digit inflation and rising unemployment. For the car industry, a trend began where smaller cars became more luxurious as buyers downsized, hence cars like the Ford Escort Ghia and Vauxhall Chevette GLS. Also the Japanese saw a surge in sales for their economical, well equipped and reliable cars.

  9. I made pocket money (about 12/- a day) delivering milk at weekends when I was in my early teens in the 1950s. The local dairy – Hill’s Dairy, at Buckfastleigh, Devon – had a prewar or 1940s van (possibly a Commer) 12 cwt van which had seen better times. Then Majorie Hill bought a Bedford CA. My stepfather also worked for Marjorie, and there were two rounds: the daily town round and the every-other-day country round. I loved both. Sitting on the CA’s passenger seat, with the sliding door open, I’d reach behind me for the bottles from the nearest crate, then leap out and run to the doorstep. Leaving the full bottles, I’d stuff my fingers into the necks of the empties and run back to the van, dropping them into an empty crate before my stepfather would promptly put the steering-column change into first and we’d drive on to the next customer’s house. No wasting time with seat belts, or opening and closing the door. Then we had ‘ordinary’ milk (7d a pint), TT (tuberculin-tested a 7 1/2d) and ‘gold top’ (Channel Island, Guernsey or Jersey with all that extra cream, 8d (3.3p). My ‘little extra’ was a half pint of gold top half way along the round. When did Asda ever sell Channel Island milk? In today’s ‘white water’ culture, it is probably banned.

    In the wintertime, with the sliding door slammed shut, the ‘in-cab’ engine gave welcome warmth.

    As for the 1973 33p petrol price, two competing Esso fuel stations in Bournemouth now have unleaded at 108.9p a litre. Will it drop to under a £1 a litre?

    And in 1973, I was driving Series IIA Land-Rovers around the mountains of Lesotho for a living. Petrol courtesy of the government Roads Department!

  10. In the lower picture, the fully visible Cortina is a GXL 2-door – rare, even when new. The Capri is a GT XLR, going by the black bonnet; while the 11/1300 must be an Austin or Morris, due to the flat bonnet. My dad found to his cost that his MG radiator grille projected beyond the bumper; he hit a Morris Oxford, which was one of the strongest cars on the road in those days – hence their popularity as banger racers for many years.

    • I never knew the Cortina GXL could be bought as a two door, I thought only the basic models came as two doors, as happened with the Mark 4 Cortina. Ford probably thought there was a market for a sportier looking Cortina with GXL trim and a vinyl roof, and if this was a 2 litre, would have been quite a powerful car for the time.
      Odd there isn’t a Vauxhall Viva in these photos as they seemed to be everywhere in the seventies, unless there isn’t a dealer locally, and interesting how the queue in Enflield has two Toyotas, when these weren’t common in 1973, possibly a dealer nearby.

  11. That Cortina does look pretty sharp, but then the 2 door Mk3 is a stylish looking car, the coke bottle styling making it look more like a coupe than a saloon

    • I have to agree about the GXL, but if you saw an L it was naff, and made a base 1.3 L Capri look interesting. I always liked the look of the GXL on the outside, but hated the interior thinking it was cheap and tacky. My dad’s mate had one, a Daytona yellow 4 door, but I always preferred the interior of my Grandads XL (which was a spit for the Blue squad car in the Sweeney – we use to take the mikey out of him thinking he was Regan with the put me down SHUTIT) and later my Dad’s 2000E.

      • Forgot to say that in Germany the Ford Taunus had a two door coupe which we didn’t get in the Cortina range. Looking at it I don’t think that was a bad thing as it was not really a looker compared to the Capri.

        • I didn’t think it was bad, you could see the resemblance to the Granada coupe. Less swoopy than a Capri, but a lot roomier I’d imagine

  12. The Cortina had a swoopier shape than the German Taunus so the two door version was almost coupe shaped as it was, rendering a separate version unnecessary (and the Capri filled the coupe perfectly anyway).
    Corgi produced a model of the two door Mk.III, complete with Graham Hill figure, and that was in GXL trim.

  13. 19732/74 saw the issue of petrol ration books to drivers, I did not have a car, but I can recall the conversations with motorists. Does anyone have their 1973/74 ration book today? From memory they were very old, probably printed and then stored in reserve during the early 1950s

  14. By 1973, the Mark 3 Cortina had matured into a good car and early quality and supply issues had been beaten. A slight restyle in the autumn of 1973 saw the Americanised dashboard with its concave instruments replaced by a more conventional design and the GXL was replaced by the more desirable 2000 E with velour seats, vinyl roof and wood dashboard. Possibly launching this luxury Cortina just before the energy crisis was a master stoke as it offered the same level of luxury as the thirsty Granada 3000 GXL.

  15. Plenty of comparisons with the current situation going on at the moment. In 1973 it was a global problem caused by the fall out from the Yom Kippur War and OPEC cutting oil production. This time its a home grown problem. Grant Shapps was talking this morning saying there is no fuel shortage and that refinerys are stocked full of fuel. Problem is most of us dont live near one and I doubt that they would fill you up if you turned up at their gates. Another deluded idiot of a politician with no concept of the real world

    • Totally agree, although it has been revealed this morning that Esser UK which run the biggest oil refinery in the UK could be on the brink of going under as they owe £225 million to the HMRC.

  16. @ daveh… that’s some Tax bill for Esser! The current situation with energy prices & queues at Filling stations shows history repeating itself. I’m old enough to remember the early 70s.

    Regards the MKIII Cortina, my company had both the earlier versions and later 1974 ones with the much better dashboard and trim. Nice cars in 1600 L trim and above, the 2000E was the jewel in the crown back then.

  17. I wonder if in 40 years people will look back at photos of the current petrol queues and look at all the exotic cars on display, but when cars still had engines!

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