No longer the novelty ‘horseless carriages’ of old, cars flooded onto the streets of Europe and the United States in the 1920s and 30s. BP-labelled gasoline pumps appeared around Britain, often flying little Union Jacks as a patriotic flourish. There were 69 pumps in 1921, over 6,000 by 1925
On roadsides in mainland Europe the letters ‘BP’ became a familiar sight, too, as Anglo-Persian, which produced BP gasoline, entered these markets with gusto. A German magazine advertisement in 1936 depicted an aeroplane mechanic working heroically beneath a large BP shield.
Persia changed its name to Iran in 1935, and to stay modern the company followed suit. But the good times wouldn’t last much longer.
BP advertising posters from the 1930s. The adverts were displayed on the sides of delivery trucks
Supporting the war effort
Everything changed in the autumn of 1939, when Britain entered World War II. Suddenly gasoline was a rationed commodity, and BP, Shell and the other brands on sale in the UK were consolidated together into a generic fuel labelled ‘Pool’. Nationality trumped commercial viability, and BP’s growth on the continent abruptly stopped.
Winston Churchill once again called on Anglo-Iranian to support a war effort, and this time to give it everything they had. Ordinary employees lent their expertise to some curious and innovative schemes. They burned petrol at British airstrips to clear fog for take-offs and landings and helped engineer the giant, spooled gasoline pipeline that trailed Allied ships on their way to Normandy. All three British armed services used oils and lubricating equipment from BP heritage company Castrol.
Air power took on a new significance during World War II. American planes ran on aviation fuel from two BP heritage companies, Amoco and Sohio, among others. The British Air Force turned to Anglo-Iranian, which had recently found a way to improve aviation fuel’s efficiency. But the quantity of fuel needed could only be made with a major refit at the Abadan refinery in Iran. Three ships carrying those supplies were sunk. The open seas were dangerous. During the war, 44 of the company’s tankers would sink, killing 657 crew, with 260 others taken prisoner of war. Anguished by the risks of transporting oil to Britain from Iran, the British government asked Anglo-Iranian to find more oil on British soil than the trickle it had previously discovered. The company obliged, upping production at a field in Nottingham, England. Quantities were still relatively small, but they were large enough to help the country get by – and to count as one of the best-kept secrets of World War II.
Tough times in Persia, too
At the company’s facilities in Iran the war years were equally fraught. Japan’s entry into the war made the refinery at Abadan a prime target. When Allied troops moved in to secure the facility, three employees died in friendly fire. A severe wheat shortage made life miserable for the 200,000 people living at Abadan and for the 80,000 more spread out in remote camps and villages at the oil fields. At times, the line at Abadan bazaar stretched for a mile. Anglo-Iranian sent a representative from London to help with the crisis. Tankers brought food rations from India and Australia. Second-hand clothes arrived from England. But things would get worse before getting better. Smallpox and typhus swirled through the nearby countryside. Something close to hysteria gripped the community. In the malaise, at least one of the British women at Abadan planted her small provision of dehydrated mutton, mistaking it for nasturtium seeds.