How to make money from petrol station memorabilia
Classic cars are a regular feature among passion investors, but many petrolheads are collecting more than the vehicles of a particular era: they are building the whole garage too.
The value of classic cars increased by 8% over the year to June 2016 and 151% over five years, according to Knight Frank’s latest Luxury Investment Index. Now it seems another motor-inspired craze is following the same route, collecting old petrol pumps, oil cans, enamel signs and globes, known as ‘petroliana’.
Collectors are snapping up old petrol station signage, such as branded globes, for as little as £5 and seeing them sell for around £300 at auction. Bigger items, such as enamel signs, can fetch up to £2,000 and old-style, hand-cranked pumps can get even more.
Nowadays, most petrol stations are mini-supermarkets run either by brands such as Asda or Tesco, or by big oil companies such as BP or Shell. But petrol stations looked markedly different before the days when you could fill up your car with petrol and do your shopping at the same time.
Early pre-war petrol stations were linked to the local mechanic or car garage. The well-lit glossy aisles of today were instead filled with rustic enamel signs and branded oil cans. Plus forecourts housed illuminated branded petrol globes on top of pumps that lit up for drivers at night and showed the brand of oil being sold.
Up until the 1950s, independent garages sold petrol from more than one supplier and would often have a different pump and enamel sign or globe from each one.
Gradually, the oil companies took over and imposed exclusive contracts on independent garages and began to take over the market themselves in the late 1970s, dominating until supermarkets came along in the 1990s.
Some baby boomers are now harking back to the old days before oil companies and supermarkets took over the forecourt.
Italian collector Guido Fisogni even set up his own museum in 1966 in Milan dedicated to petrol pumps and other related items from around the world. It has more than 5,000 pieces and was awarded a Guinness World Record in 2000 for the largest collection of petroliana.
Enthusiasts are driven by nostalgia of those times and are snapping up items to rekindle their memories and complete the classic car experience, with some matching the decade of their car to the type of petroliana.
“I wanted my van to look more genuine”
Raymond Walls, 71, of Ballygowan in Northern Ireland (above), has built up a collection of 280 globes and more than 500 enamel signs, oil bottles, and petrol tins over 36 years.
A former builder, he started collecting petrol globes and oil cans to complement the vintage 1949 AEC Matador ex-army lorry he drove as part of the business.
He helped build a classic vans and lorry club and eventually caught the bug, building up a collection of signs, globes and cans by advertising in local papers, going to auctions and fairs.
“A few of my friends had classic lorries and buses, but there was no club so we all got together,” Raymond says.
“Gradually I met people and learned about petroliana and I wanted my van to look more genuine.” Another trick was to buy postcards that featured old petrol station signage.
”Every Saturday I would go around old garages and buy postcards where I could see a petrol pump,” he adds. “I would then find the garage and go and buy something, and then usually start a conversation about the old pumps.
“Often the owner would say they had some old globes in the loft, and I would buy them for around £5. Nowadays they would sell for £350 to £500.
“It is getting harder to find original items which haven’t been altered and the real bargains are difficult to come by.”
“I turned my passion into a profession”
Stewart Imber, 65, from Hertfordshire (above), starting collecting garage signs and petrol pumps as a hobby more than 20 years ago before turning it into a fully-fledged business.
He used to work in the fashion trade, but took a sabbatical, aged 40, that he says has now lasted 20 years. Stewart now runs Themed Garages that builds sets of old garages for films and at the Goodwood Revival car show using pieces from his 4,000 strong collection.
“I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, and the garage signs and petrol pumps brought back great childhood moments,” says Stewart.
“When I decided to leave the fashion business, I thought I would get some of those memories back for a bit. Suddenly, a hobby turned into a passion and then into a business.
“I created my own garages and showrooms to bring back some of those memories and soon found myself building sets for others.
“People have the passion for the cars, now they want everything that goes with it from that era, such as the petrol pumps and the imagery. It is almost like art, it’s nice to have something you can just sit and look at.”
How to buy petroliana
Much of the market works on word of mouth when an old-style petrol station or garage is closing or someone is known to be selling items. But there are key dates in the petroliana calendar.
There are very few old-style garages now, but collectors instead head to Beaulieu in Hampshire, the site of the National Motor Museum, for the annual International or Spring Autojumble.
These events, taking place this year in May and September respectively, offer thousands of stalls selling motoring items.
Many collectors use websites such as Petroliana.co.uk to buy and sell online and auction houses also often have pumps and signs under the hammer.
Some auctioneers, such as Richard Edmonds Auctions, specialise in automobile and petroliana auctions. Other bigger players, such as Cheffins, regularly hold vintage sales that feature petroliana.
Cheffins sold £32,000 worth of petroliana last year, with more than £3,500 worth under the hammer at a vintage auction last October such as an old Raleigh bikes sign for £1,600. The auctioneer has also previously sold Shell glass petrol globes for around £300. It is expecting to see more go under the hammer at a vintage auction this month.
Jeremy Curzon, a director at Cheffins, says coveted post-war rarities such as the Theo Multiple pump, that could pass different fuels through the same nozzle, can fetch five figure sums.
“The joy of most of this petroliana is that each piece is in its way unique. It is unusual to see the same item twice, that is the joy of collecting it,” says Mr Curzon.
“There is a huge variety of items in this collecting class such as vintage petrol pumps, some of which can make up to £10,000, petrol pump glass globes which can make tens of thousands, clocks, thermometers, and enamel signs bearing names such as Shell, Bedfords or National Benzole.
“Enamel signs seem to be particularly hot at the moment,” says Mr Curzon. “We are regularly seeing at least £2,000 paid per item at auction and sold on for vast figures in antiques shops across the country.
”Many buyers look to restore these vintage items, but some require them fully restored and ready to display.”
But he warns it is not as easy to get started these days. “In general, the cost of collecting these items such as enamel signs which have both collector and interior design interest have increased,” he says.
“At the lower end of the market, you used to be able to pick up a sign two or three years ago for £20 or £30, now you won’t find anything for much less than £100.
”At the top end, while there is the odd anomaly, items are likely to be around £2,000 to £3,000. They have a much broader appeal now and attract a younger demographic, often people in their 30s who see an item from the ’70s and ’80s as a real slice of history.”
Other memorabilia to collect
A signature or item relating to a well-known politician can reap decent returns. The more historically significant leaders tend to have the best investment potential for collectors. For example, in 2012 Cheffins sold a Land Rover that had belonged to Winston Churchill for £129,000.
Plus items related to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher generate a lot of interest. In 2015, a Kaiser biscuit model of an American bald eagle, given to her by President Reagan in 1984, sold for £266,500 at a Christie’s auction.
Many older readers will remember wandering the school playground trying to swap football stickers. They are experiencing a resurgence, and there is high demand for World Cup albums first released by Panini in the 1970s.
A copy of the Mexico World Cup 1970 album, the first released by Panini, sold on eBay in 2014, complete with all the stickers, for £5,050.
It may be time to get those old Barbies or Transformers out of your parents’ loft. Some of the old toys you had as a child are now thought to be worth a pretty penny.
However, it is those you didn’t play with and were kept in pristine condition in the box that will be of most value.
In 2015, Newcastle auctioneers Anderson & Garland sold an early brunette Barbie, one of the first released in the 1950s, for £1,300.
Online auction site Thesaleroom.com also reported toys such as Barbies and unopened Star Wars figures fetching thousands of pounds under the hammer during 2016.
Most people may go for a selfie if they met a celebrity nowadays, but you could actually make some money by getting an autograph.
The Just Collecting PFC40 Autograph Index, which tracks the value of the most sought after signatures, found the most valuable in 2016 was the now deceased Fidel Castro at £3,950.
But there are plenty of living legends that attract collector interest with a Paul McCartney autograph thought to be worth £2,500 and Prince William going for £2,500. A scribble from Harry Potter author JK Rowling can also fetch £1,950.
Superman and Batman are now better known for their film franchises, but the early comic books that they appeared in can fetch almost £1 million.
Copies of Action Comics #1 from 1938, which featured the Superman character for the first time, have sold at auction for around £8,000 in the odd-time they have come up for sale.
Even British-based comics have attracted value. In 2004, a rare first edition of the Beano sold for £12,100.