Photograph by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

With Gas Lines and Rationing, a Return to the Crazy 1970s

  1. Hurricane Sandy Slams Motorists
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    Hurricane Sandy Slams Motorists

    Starting on Nov. 9, New York City and Long Island will join New Jersey in rationing gasoline to reduce the blocks-long wait motorists have faced since Hurricane Sandy shut stations and disrupted supplies. Drivers with license plates ending in an odd number or a letter or other character can buy on odd-numbered days; those whose plates end in an even number or zero, on even-numbered days. For some, gas rationing is a painful reminder of the 1970s gas crises. But as the following slides show, those gas shortages led to even stronger government intervention—and some truly bizarre behavior.

    Photograph by Andrew Burton/Getty Images
  2. Odd and Even Days
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    Odd and Even Days

    President Richard M. Nixon enacted sweeping price and allocation controls in response to the 1973 oil boycott. Oil could be sold at different prices, depending on when it had been found. States were allocated oil in 1974 based on what they had used in 1972. Colored flags indicated if rationing was in effect or if no gas was available. Most memorable, though, were the odd-even gas days: Drivers with an odd number as the last digit of their license plate could buy gas one day, those with an even-numbered plate on the next. Vanity plates counted as odd.

    Carmine Donofrio/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
  3. Endless Waiting
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    Endless Waiting

    A driver's day had to be wholly planned around gas availability. Gas was deemed so precious that people bought cap locks to keep others from siphoning it out of their car. The cost of waiting in gas lines added as much as 67 percent to the price of a gallon in March 1974, according to one economics paper. The American Automobile Association estimated that a fifth of all gas stations had no gas at all by the last week of February 1974. The gas-line routine even worked its way into a McDonalds [MCD] commercial.

    David Falconer/NARA
  4. 55 MPH Speed Limit
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    55 MPH Speed Limit

    In 1974, at President Nixon's request, Congress imposed a national speed limit for the first time. The goal was to conserve gasoline. The 55 mph limit would stay in place for 21 years, justified more for the tens of thousands of lives that proponents claimed it saved than to preserve fuel. In 1995, Congress returned to states the power to set speed limits, much to the satisfaction of some Western states, where 70-75 mph state or local limits are the norm today.

    David Falconer/NARA
  5. The CB Radio Craze
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    The CB Radio Craze

    One of the oddest artifacts of the oil crisis was the phenomenon of Citizens Band, or CB, radios. These ultra-high frequency devices were fairly esoteric until truck drivers were turned into quasi-outlaws by the 55 mph national speed limit. Suddenly truckers were using CB radios to find gas and evade cops. Their lingo became the stuff of song (C.W. McCall's Convoy) and screen (Smokey and the Bandit).

    Steven L. Raymer/National Geographic/Getty Images
  6. John Denver's Storage Tanks
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    John Denver's Storage Tanks

    When gas got scarce, things got nasty. In 1979 news leaked that singer John Denver was installing a 4,000-gallon underground tank on his Aspen, Colo., property. Denver, a dedicated environmentalist, pilot, and dirt biker whose songs included Rocky Mountain High and Sunshine on My Shoulders, was quickly branded a gas-hoarding hypocrite. Denver, who later sold the tank, died in a 1997 plane crash that authorities blamed in part on low fuel tanks.

    Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
  7. Racing Hits the Curb
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    Racing Hits the Curb

    With amateurs forced to scramble for gas and drive 55, it wasn't long before car racing had to slam on the brakes. Nascar cut the length of races by 10 percent and changed its rules to shrink engines and reduce the number of cars. (Race names kept to the advertised distances, so that the first lap of the Daytona 500 was recorded as Lap 21.) The 24 Hours of Daytona, a daylong endurance contest, was cancelled altogether.

    ISC Archives via Getty Images
  8. Daylight Savings Time Extended
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    Daylight Savings Time Extended

    President Nixon signed the Emergency Daylight Saving Time Energy Conservation Act on Jan. 4, 1974. Two days later, the nation turned its clocks ahead by an hour. And there they stayed, preserving an extra hour of sunlight until Oct. 27 of that year. Did the two-month extension work? The Department of Transportation found that DST cut energy use by 1 percent a day. Doubtful critics contend that it just got people out of the house and into their cars.

    Danny Lyon/NARA
  9. Alternative Fuels Get a Look
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    Alternative Fuels Get a Look

    Skyrocketing oil prices were an incentive to investigate new energy sources. The government and oil companies pumped money into oil-shale development. Big automakers and hobbyists experimented with electric cars. (That's the Sundancer, left.) One of the most popular electrics, the Vanguard-Sebring CitiCar, was more of an enclosed golf cart that could go 40 miles on a charge.

    Frank Lodge/NARA
  10. The Levittown Gas Riot
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    The Levittown Gas Riot

    On June 24, 1979, a handful of independent truckers upset with fuel shortages set out to stage a small, peaceful protest at the Five Points intersection of Levittown, a Philadelphia suburb. Somehow it turned into a riot, with cars burned, gas stations ransacked, and police streaming in from all corners of Bucks County. One eyewitness said the violence was "unrelated to the price of gasoline," beginning with a milling crowd and a fight over a girl, and escalating when police moved in to break things up. But with tensions high, the "gas riot" became national news.

    Suzanne Plunket/Trenton Times/AP Photo
  11. Japan's Big Break
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    Japan's Big Break

    Japanese cars in the 1960s were dismissed by many Americans as cheap and not up to the standards of a Buick or Ford. Then gas prices jumped and those econo-boxes looked pretty good. The Datsun 1200 "Sunny" topped the Environmental Protection Agency's 1973 gas-mileage ratings at 28.7 mpg. Detroit responded with lame, downsized vehicles such as the Chevy Vega and Cadillac Cimarron, beginning the industry's long, slow decline. Between 1970 and 1980, Japan's share of the U.S. car market grew from 3 percent to 20 percent.

    AP Photos
  12. 'Energy War'
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    'Energy War'

    On July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter went on national television and declared that America was engaged in an "energy war." In what became known as his "malaise" speech, Carter sought mandatory conservation measures and asked Americans to cut back on driving, use car pools and public transportation, and to lower thermostats.

    David Falconer/NARA
  13. The Great Toilet Paper Shortage
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    The Great Toilet Paper Shortage

    Rattled by gas lines and other disruptions, consumers were ready to believe anything. On Dec. 19, 1973, Johnny Carson made a joke on his late-night show about a toilet paper shortage (the conceit being that paper makers couldn't get enough fuel). It wasn't true, but it quickly became true. As Angel Soft says on its Toilet Tissue Through the Ages history page: "The next morning, 20 million viewers bought up all the toilet paper they could find. By noon that day, most stores were out of toilet paper."

    Everett Collection