It’s 13 September 2000, and right now something very strange and quite frightening is happening in the UK. Queues are building up at petrol stations, as drivers panic buy from dwindling stocks of fuel. The cause of the shortages and subsequent panic buying is down to fuel protests across the country.
The situation has been building for some time. Ever since the Government’s fuel price escalator had been introduced in 1993, in the interests of discouraging frivolous car use, the above-inflation price rises had been hitting motorists hard. Following the election of Tony Blair’s New Labour Government in 1997, this had been raised to a crippling annual rise in petrol duty of 6% above the inflation rate.
This really began to bite in early September when the price of crude oil jumped to more than $35 a barrel, resulting in the price of a litre of fuel passing 80p for the first time. On 7 September, and inspired by the successful protests in France a week earlier, around 100 farmers and lorry drivers blockaded the Stanlow Shell Oil Refinery in Cheshire, led by Farmers for Action Chairman David Handley.
Protests and panic start to spread
The following day, and the effects of the blockade begin to spread. More than 100 lorries stage a go-slow protest on the A1 on their way to blockading the Texaco refinery in Pembroke. By the weekend, similar blockades are happening across the country and, although they are peaceful, many tanker drivers refuse to leave refineries, unwilling to cross picket line – just as the oil companies tell them not to cross the lines.
However, it isn’t until Monday morning that people start panic buying fuel, as the story makes the front pages as well as lead stories across TV news programmes, causing petrol stations to rapidly run out of supplies. That, in turn, sparks more panic buying, and a real sense that the country’s infrastructure is breaking down. By and large, the public supports the fuel protests, even as petrol stations begin to ration fuel, often to as little as £5 per car, with the return of 1973-style petrol station queues. Key workers are prioritised, and police are called in to manage fuel queues across the country.
Today, though, and the crisis is at its peak. As well as petrol station queues, shops begin to report dwindling stocks, and panic buying of food begins in earnest. The NHS is put on red alert, meaning that, at a moment’s notice, all hospitals must be ready to cancel all but emergency cases, and public transport organisations begin to rein in services for fear of not having enough fuel. Towards the end of the week, the roads are emptying as people find themselves unable to travel for lack of fuel.
The Privy Council and the Queen sanction the use of emergency powers to control the distribution of fuel. And following a series of Government crisis meetings on getting fuel supplies moving again, oil companies are ordered to designate petrol stations to supply emergency and essential services only. That sparks further rapid action – within two days, the protests would be called off, and after a week or so life slowly returns to normal. If nothing else, the protests have proven how tissue thin the strength of the national infrastructure can be.
So, tell us about the cars
In 2000, the spectre of fuel queues was long forgotten, and that might explain why so many people were caught out by the situation and felt the need to panic buy. Whether that was the case of all of these London drivers in this image, we’ll never know. I know I’d stockpiled fuel in the weekend before the story made it to the front pages, so I was clearly part of the problem and not the solution…
The cars in queue are a fairly typical selection of what was on the UK’s roads around the millennium. They seem to be mainly made up of small hatchbacks and superminis, with just one SUV and a single BMW 3 Series (E36) on view. If nothing else, here’s evidence that 2000 really was a very long time ago now, and the fabric of our roads has changed significantly. The Ford Sierra and Vauxhall Cavalier Mk3 are nice to see, as is the Astra Mk3 in the foreground. Not because the Astra Mk3 was any good – it wasn’t – but because they’re so damned rare today.
A couple of other rarities among the Micras and Fiestas that are worth commenting on – the Hyundai Lantra. Again, another one of those ‘where are they now?’ cars that are slowly gaining a cult following among Korean car fans. And the pair of 1989-1994 Subaru Legacys (below) nearest the camera. They were rare when new, and pretty much extinct now – but these brilliant four-wheel-drive family cars were still a cut above in 2000… as they are now.
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Main picture credit: Asadour Guzelian