An English military officer who pulled into Don Youngman's Alexandria Exxon station the other day shook his head when he saw the prices on the pumps.
"You're going to have the same problem we had in England when prices went sky-high," he said with a smile. "The little gears on the 'Price' dials wear out."
Youngman's station is on the left as you drive into town on Washington Street. Amoco, Sunoco, Gulf and Shell stations are nearby: a small competitive world, a five-pool oasis for commuters.
In a day of talking with a reporter, the dealers and their customers sketch a future shaped roughly like this:
Prices will continue to rise as dealers pass through increases from their suppliers. Dealers will then tack on increases of their own because they have fewer gallons to sell. Some dealers plan to close their cheap self-service pumps because of the lower profit per gallon at these pumps. One dealer predicted that unleaded gasoline will cost $1 a gallon in a few months.
Supplies will be sharply limited from now on. Virtually all the major oil companies are curtailing supplies to the 1,500 stations in the Washington area. Taken as a group, the five Alexandria dealers will have 11 percent less gas to sell each month than they say they could sell, according to the statistics they supplied.
Because of the shortage, three of the stations are already closing Sundays or plan to start soon. And the dealers say weekday hours will be curtailed, too.
The Sunoco dealer, Rich DuBrueler, said he will try to maintain his 24-hour-a-day schedule. His 5 percent supply cutback "won't hurt us that much, but we may have trouble in April...."
"My self-serve is going down the drain," said Youngman. "It has to because my rent went up $1,000 this year." His 13 employes, many who work in his profitable repair bays, will have to scramble harder to man the pumps.
Next door at Amoco, manager Jerry Spaulding said Sunday closings will begin soon because the station will receive only 56,000 gallons this month -- 10,000 less than he could sell.
"There are so many people out there just wasting gas," said Spaulding. "They're out there just driving around all day -- women particularly, visiting their girlfriends, going from one shopping center to another."
Outside, Alfred Lester was pumping Amoco's premium lead-free gasoline into his Grand Prix at 84.9 cents a gallon. The full-serve price was 86.9 cents.
"It would cost me $22 to fill it up," said Lester, explaining why he was buying only $5 worth. "I'm gonna work hard and get rich so I can afford it."
Across the street at Gulf, Patrick Doyle, the owner's son, said many customers are angry at the high prices and they shout obscenities at attendants.
"Nobody believes there's an actual shortage," said Doyle. "They think there's something between the oil companies and OPEC to get the prices up -- I wouldn't doubt it."
Outside, Dorothy Cochrane was pumping $5 worth of Gulf No-nox (supreme) into her Ford Country Squire wagon at 75.9 cents a gallon (79.9 cents full serve). She said she was "embarrassed" to be driving a car that gets only 12 miles a gallon and is thinking of trading it for a smaller car.
"It has occured to me in the last couple of weeks to make some friends (among dealers) so when I pull up they'll give me a dollar or two's worth," said Cochrane.
Doyle confirmed the wisdom of this. "Our regular customers are going to have priority" in a shortage, he said. He said a previous owner of the station sold gas to steady cutomers during the 1973 embargo before regular hours.
Dealer James Mallard has had the Shell across the street for two years. An Englishman, he has seen prices in Great Britain soar to the equivalent to $2 a gallon.
"People still buy it there no matter what the price," he said, "and America isn't set up for pedestrians." He said that in England everything is centralized so cars aren't needed for shopping and commuting to the extent that they are here.
Prices are a painful subject for the dealers. In the middle of an interview with a reporter last week, the Shell dealer received a telephone call telling him his wholesale price -- called the "tank-wagon price" for the big tank trucks that deliver to stations in 8,000-gallon lots -- was up another penny a gallon.
The Gulf dealer had a similar call the day before, and Youngman got his call -- a penny and a half across-the-board rise -- the day after the reporter's visit.
On Thursday last week you could buy a gallon of gas along Washington Street for as little as 66.9 cents (the self-serve price for regular at three of the five stations), or as much as 86.9 cents -- Amoco's price for its premium unleaded, a popular product that only that station among the five carries.
Sunoco's cheapest was its "190 Economy Regular" at 73.9 cents a gallon, and prices for its five other brands ranged up to 83.9 cents a gallon. Sunoco had no self-serve, and its attraction for customers lies not in low prices but in the "custom blending" of various octanes that customers can do for themselves at the pumps.
Each station, in fact, has its own special attractions to keep customers coming back. Price is only one of them. Each dealer is an independent businessman, leasing his property and obtaining his supplies from a major oil company. Each sets his own price independently, and this explains how prices for virtually the same products can vary widely among five stations located so close to one another.
Amoco's price for leaded regular, for example, was 67.9 cents a gallon -- a penny higher than the price at Exxon, Shell or Gulf. But no matter, since the station's drawing power is in its unique premium unleaded that accounts for half its sales.
Increases in tank-wagon prices are coming fast and furious now, the dealers report. And they are passed directly through to the customers. "It's gone up 5 or 6 cents since Christmas," said Mallard. "The (oil) companies get it, we don't."
Under federal law, each of the roughly 1,500 to 2,000 stations in the Washington area and 287,000 stations in the country are required to post on each and every pump the maximum price they are allowed to charge per gallon for the type of gas coming from that pump.
Dealers are responsible for making the computations -- but as last week's interviews in Alexandria indicated, the law is so complex and the price changes so rapid that few if any dealers actually comply with the law.
"I don't know what they are," said one dealer of the maximum allowable prices. "I'm so damned confused over this whole thing, I need to get a lawyer on it. I may even be illegal."
As he spoke, he stood near a pump that had a faded sticker on it saying its maximum price was 72.9 -- a penny less than the 73.9 cents a gallon that gas actually cost at that pump.
Dealers either had no maximums posted on their pumps, or the stickers were faded and out of date. At one station, the dealer had clearly made a valiant effort to keep up, but he had had to change the maximum figure so frequently that at least one sticker was heavily corrected and illegible.
Basically, a dealer's maximum price per gallon equals his tank-wagon price plus his profit margin as of May 15, 1973, plus 3.85 cents that federal authorities have allowed for increased rent and over- head.
Youngman said he is bumping up against his maximum price for regular at his full service pumps. His tank-wagon price for regular is 61.2. Add to that the allowable 3.85 plus his May 15, 1973, profit spread of 9.15 and you have 74.2 cents for a gallon of regular -- the maximum he can charge under federal law.
He is already charging 73.9 cents for regular at his full-serve pumps. To maintain his overall profits in a time of shortage, he must either raise prices, possibly illegally, at his full-serve pumps or change his self-serve pumps -- with their lower profit margins -- to full-serve.
In the days ahead, many dealers in the nation may be tempted to raise prices above the legal limits -- and the federal Department of Energy has little means for enforcing its complex price ceilings.
Youngman and other dealers on Washington Street said the repair parts of their businesses were important because it is difficult to make a living pumping gas alone.
The supply outlook for the five stations is this: taken together, the dealers say they could pump about 317,000 gallons this month. Since their companies have curtailed supplies, they will have only about 281,000 gallons to pump.
This affects some of the stations more than others -- Youngman, for example, said that he could pump 100,000 gallons this month but will be allocated only 81,000 gallons by Exxon. Mallard, the Shell man, thinks he can pump about 37,000 gallons this month -- about 2,000 gallons more than he will be allocated. Under the allocation rules -- a way of splitting up the gasoline pie among dealers when there is a shortage -- the oil companies must give each dealer this March a portion of what he pumped in March a year ago.
Exxon is giving dealers 100 percent of what they pumped a year ago, but since Youngman's gas sales have grown dramatically, he will be caught nearly 20 percent short of what he could sell.
Shell is giving dealers 95 percent. These percentages are at the discretion of the oil companies, but also controlled to an extent by federal rules. The gas side of Mallard's business hasn't grown in a year -- he continues to pump about 37,000 gallons a month -- so he will be only 5 percent short.
Taken as a group, the five stations will be about 11 percent short this month -- and this is the important statistic for the commuters who make a total of about 8,000 stops for gas each week at them.
If one station runs out, customers will go to another one nearby, and so on until all five are out. Then the customers will have to change their buying pattern, searching for a station in another area.
But since stations in other areas are likely to be similarly affected, customers will ultimately have to cut down on consumption.
Youngman was scrambling yesterday trying to get an increased allocation. He said he will claim that a nearby Exxon station's recent closing has upped demand at his station, and that he should be given a share of the closed station's allocation.
It's a logical argument, but there's red tape ahead. Youngman said it took 70 phone calls to get the seven-page DOE form he must submit to increase his allocation. DOE action may take four to six weeks, he thinks.
And the form is so complex, Youngman said, that, "I've got to go hire a lawyer to fill out the damn thing."