Presumably when Henry Ford started cranking out the first Model Ts there weren't any gas stations yet. I mean there wasn't yet a large market to distribute gasoline to cars, so it seems like there wouldn't be any gas stations. Yet people did buy the cars and drove them, so they must have got gas from somewhere.

The only reason I mention the Model T is because it seems like after that point there would be enough consumers of gas to have a gas station. Before that, my vague impression is that cars were mainly used by hobbyists and inventors. Perhaps my reasoning is unsound.

Did they just buy fuel from the hardware store or something?

Model T

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    Presumably, you're asking about the situation in the US, because the Model T came out in 1908 which is 23 years after the first internal combustion-engine cars appeared in Europe.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 22:07
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    The only reason I mention the Model T is because it seems like at that point there would be a enough consumers of gas to have a gas station. Before that, my vague impression is that cars were mainly used by hobbyists and inventors. Perhaps my reasoning is unsound. Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 22:38
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    What do you doubt at eg en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filling_station#History about history of such places for Germany & USA? Commented Oct 15, 2021 at 10:21
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    @MarkRogers, please move all comments into the question body. The question should contain all you know. The longer the comment string, the less likely you are to get a good answer.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 15, 2021 at 10:27
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    According to this site: "early versions of the famous Model T ran on either ethanol or gasoline, utilizing a knob on the dashboard that allowed the driver to toggle the carburetor setting, depending on the predominate fuel mix within the tank." and says Ford's first vehicle was alcohol-only.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Oct 15, 2021 at 15:47

5 Answers 5


The first cross-country automobile journey was run by Bertha Benz in 1888.:

With no fuel tank and only a 4.5-litre supply of petrol in the carburetor, she had to find ligroin, the petroleum solvent needed for the car to run. The solvent was only available at apothecary shops, so she stopped in Wiesloch at the city pharmacy to purchase the fuel.

The mentioned Ligroin was a cleanser. Still today some variants of petrol are used to clean things. So I guess it was a similar situation in the US, you had to look for drug stores to get petrol.

The "first gas station" is mentioned in the German Wikipedia (including a picture of the pharmacy and a plate as first gas station.

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    So this raises more questions for me! Why did it not have a fuel tank? What was its mpg? I.e. how far could it go on those 4.5l?
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 15, 2021 at 13:34
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    Also when it says “cross country” I imagined it meant border to border. I think a more accurate description is “first intercity automobile journey”
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 15, 2021 at 13:36
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    @Tim At the time, a journey of a few dozen miles was remarkable. Early cars didn't carry much fuel because they only did short, round-trip journeys. It's the same reason a lawnmower doesn't carry more than a few liters of fuel. Commented Oct 15, 2021 at 17:15
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    @Tim Claims at the time were up to 21 mpg, I've read. One reason the Model T's top mpg is pretty similar to some modern values despite engine improvements is the weight. According to WIkipedia, the Model T (700kg) was about half of a Ford Focus (1400kg), or a third of an F-150 (2100kg). Tangentially, Vaclav Smil in Numbers Don't Lie points out that modern cars with a single driver have one of the worst weight-to-payload ratios of all modern transportation methods... Commented Oct 15, 2021 at 19:31
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    @LukeSawczak interesting. And also tangentially, but they’re also incredibly space inefficient - both when moving on the roads, but also at rest (which accounts for about 95% of their life). From an outsider’s perspective it must be so strange that so many cities have adopted it as the primary transportation system!
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 15, 2021 at 19:37

From Wikipedia:

The T engine was built as a gasoline engine. While not engineered specifically for multifuel ability, its simple, robust design allowed it to successfully run on a variety of combustible fuels including benzene, ethanol, or, with various available after-market attachments, kerosene.

Of these, distilled ethanol would have been commonly available for human consumption, disinfectant and lamps. Kerosene was a common fuel for lamps. Benzene was also commonly used for cleaning purposes until 1920s when it was discovered to be carcinogenic.


Referring to "The Complete Motorist", by AB Filson Young (1904 edition)

"Petrol and paraffin oil should be kept in a separate building; the roughest little cabin will do as long as it is thoroughly ventilated; but these storesshould on no account be kept in any building adjoining either motor-house, stables, harness-room, or the living quarters of the servants"

(presumably, in order of importance!)

If petrol is stored in the ordinary two-gallon tins, any rough outhouse that can be locked up will serve the purpose; but if it is desired to store petrol in bulk, special tanks will have to be constructed and a special licence obtained".

So, you generally filled up at home, and either re-filled your 2-gallon tanks at the dealer, or had a delivery to your specially built storage. But:

"But with the present facilities for obtaining petrol at short notice few motorists would find it necessary to store it in such large quantities"

So, even by 1904, this was going out of fashion in favour of filling up on the road. Even though valve seat grinding was something the driver was expected to do as routine maintenance.

As for who could afford a car, expenses are quoted as £84 a year, affordable by a country doctor, and indeed £50 cheaper than his previous horse and carriage! (Petrol was 1 shilling per gallon, for a 25mpg car, doing about 5000 miles a year on mainly local journeys)


Not to disagree with other answers, but to add:

They didn't.

The early adopter of automobiles (pre mass production) were all wealthy and almost always had a chauffeur on staff. This is more than a driver as we may think today, but someone who also knew and could work on the engine, and really, most any other part of the vehicle. These chauffeurs were also responsible for fuel. Although it may have been acquired by another servant responsible for purchasing in general.

Even if they want to drive themselves, the car would be prepared for them.

As for where the chauffeurs got it - see knut's answer (imo) although jpa's also adds useful/relevant info.

disclaimer: I'm sure there are exceptions, and maybe even a period of wider adoption prior to gas stations becoming commonplace that disproves my answer - but in general

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    Do you have evidence for this claim? Typically, the early adopters are the nerds who don't mind getting their literal (and now metaphorical) hands dirty tinkering with the internals of an unreliable contraption, while wealthy non-enthusiasts wait until the technology has stabilized enough to be confident they won't be sleeping in a barn. Commented Oct 15, 2021 at 22:25
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    @chrylis You're misinterpreting this in the context of modern tech which is within the buying power of most people. Cars back then were expensive - think of buying a brand-new 50-foot yacht today, and you're on the right lines. And then think of who buys brand-new 50-foot yachts today, and whether they do all their own maintenance or whether they pay someone else, and again you're on the right lines.
    – Graham
    Commented Oct 16, 2021 at 8:48
  • I have to imagine that the early adopters of cars comprised both rich people who hired a chauffeur, and rich people who preferred to get their hands dirty with the cars themselves. (I recently replaced my car's battery myself even though the store I bought it from would have done it for free.) But that's all conjecture on my part—some actual evidence would be nice to see. Commented Oct 16, 2021 at 11:25
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    I would further add that if you are a wealthy tinkerer and you do not need to go someplace then you can pay a horseman to haul fuel to your stuck car. If you have to go somewhere you can ride a train. Why would you care much about the lack of gas stations?
    – emory
    Commented Oct 16, 2021 at 13:34
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    By 1904 this was a long way for the mark (source : "The Complete Motorist", Filsom-Young, who recommends light cars for reasonably well off tradesmen, and steam cars for doctors making lots of short local journeys! ) Electric cars are great in town; but limited to 40-50 miles until better batteries are invented. Commented Oct 16, 2021 at 15:21

The first dedicated gas station is established in St. Louis in 1905. A year before the Ford Model T was introduced. Automobiles already existed before Ford, but they were largely rich people's playtoys. The first Service station in 1907 and the first drive in gas station in 1913. So more likely vehicles had gas brought to them like many delivered products.

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