There is much more to the story of BP than Anglo-Iranian. The rich history of our heritage brands stretches far and wide
History of Amoco
Like most companies, Amoco started small. Unlike most companies, however, it had the backing of a big name in American industry: John D Rockefeller
Standard Oil of Indiana, as the company was officially known for many years, took shape in 1889. Initially it consisted of a single facility outside Whiting, Indiana, which refined oil intro products that people and business needed: axle grease for industrial machinery, paraffin wax for candles and kerosene for home lighting.
The company grew. By the early 1900s it was the leading provider of kerosene and gasoline in the Midwest. Kerosene sales would eventually falter. But with car ownership booming across the US, demand for gasoline would only go up and up.
A cracking discovery felt around the world
The first Amoco service station opened in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1912. Those were heady days for the company. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust had been broken up the previous year, meaning that Amoco had to stand on its own feet.
Two company scientists registered a patent for a process they had invented called thermal cracking. It doubled the amount of gasoline that could be made from a barrel of oil and also boosted the gasoline’s octane rating. The process became standard practice in the refining industry, and it was credited with averting a gasoline shortage during World War I.
In the 1920s, the company established an exploration and production business, Stanolind. In 1930, Stanolind crews found what they were looking for when they struck oil at a large field in east Texas.
Discoveries on land, in the labs and at sea
During the World War II, Amoco employees put much of their energy into supplying gasoline and other products to the American military. US warplanes flew on Amoco aviation fuel, while Amoco researchers made discoveries including an all-weather motor oil for trucks and tanks and a new way of making TNT.
War diverted attention away from oil and gas exploration, but by the mid-1940s the company was back on the trail. Off the coast of Louisiana, Amoco explorers found the first oil out of sight of land.
Meanwhile, Amoco scientists made a breakthrough that would boost the amount of oil and natural gas that would flow through those new wells. They introduced Hydrafrac, a hydraulic well fracturing process that increased industry production worldwide.
A decade later, Amoco chemicals scientists discovered PTA. To capitalize on the discovery, the company opened Amoco Fabrics and Fibers.
Global expansion, then a rather large merger
By the end of the century, Amoco was the largest natural gas producer in North America, with a reach that stretched well beyond its home continent: exploration in 20 countries, production in 14 countries. Amoco produced 13 million tonnes of chemicals a year and was the world’s largest producer of PTA.
In 1998, Amoco and BP announced that they had merged, combining their worldwide operations into a single organization. Overnight, the new company, BP Amoco, became the largest producer of both oil and natural gas in the US.
At the start of the new millennium, Amoco service stations in the US were rebranded as simply ‘BP’, although Amoco gasoline continued to flow from the pumps.
The Amoco brand returns
In October 2017, BP announced the reintroduction of its Amoco retail fuel brand as a complementary retail offering in cities with potential additional growth opportunities.
In light of BP consumer research – which found that the Amoco brand still resonates with many American consumers and that both it and the BP brand appeal to similar audiences – the two brands’ marketing strategy leverages the strengths of BP and the familiarity of the Amoco brand.
In addition to the reintroduction of the Amoco brand, strategic partnerships with Marks & Spencer in the UK and REWE in Germany support BP’s broader strategy of growing its differentiated and high-return fuels marketing business across the globe.
The first Amoco-branded stations are due to begin operating towards the end of 2017.
History of ARCO/ampm
The history of ARCO is really the story of two US companies, Atlantic Refining and Richfield Petroleum
Atlantic was founded in Pennsylvania in 1866. Initially Atlantic concentrated solely on shipping and storing oil, but within a few years it got into the refining business, where it would really make a name for itself.
Less than a decade after its founding John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust snapped up the company. With that backing, Atlantic’s motor oil, Polainne, became one of the best-known motor oils in the country.
Richfield Oil started business in 1905 on the West Coast. It grew quickly into one of the leading gasoline marketers there.
The Standard Oil empire crumbled in 1911, by order of the US Supreme Court, and Atlantic was its own company again. Atlantic’s president at the time, John Wesley Van Dyke, is said to have urged his employees to “go find the company some crude.” And they did, making significant discoveries in the American Southwest.
As of 1945, Richfield was a leading producer of high-octane fuels, while Atlantic used seismic technology techniques that it had developed in its own labs to find a large oil field in Crane County, Texas.
Atlantic Richfield, or ARCO for short
In 1966 the two companies merged, forming Atlantic Richfield, or ARCO for short.
Two years later a team that had been roaming remote northern parts of Alaska in search of oil there found it. Prudhoe Bay was the largest oil discovery in US history. Further along the slope, BP soon tapped into its share of the vast reservoir. In the eight years before oil flowed from Alaska, ARCO and BP worked together to assure the US government that environmental risks had been addressed.
ARCO’s chairman, Robert O. Anderson, and its president, Thornton F. Bradshaw, spoke out prominently on environmental issues and gained respect as corporate environmentalists.
A west coast company with international ambitions
Mergers and acquisitions fuelled ARCO’s growth over the years. But despite this growth, ARCO remained essentially a regional company within the US, strongest in the West.
Its corporate headquarters moved to Los Angeles from New York in 1972. The first ampm retail outlet opened nearby in 1978. Eventually the company pulled out of the US East Coast altogether, selling its stations and refineries.
It didn’t, however, limit its exploration activities to the same territory. In the 1980s ARCO’s international arm made the first commercial natural gas discovery off China’s coast and built a 700-kilometre subsea pipeline to pump the gas to Hong Kong. In 1996 ARCO announced a joint venture with LUKOIL, Russia’s largest oil company, to produce gas and oil in Russia and elsewhere.
In 2000, ARCO joined the BP group. All of the group’s US stations west of the Rocky Mountains took on ARCO branding, and the number of ampm outlets grew rapidly. In 2013, as part of a major divestment programme, BP sold the ARCO brand along with the Carson refinery.
History of Sohio
“January 10 marked the incorporation of the Standard Oil Company in Cleveland. The business was instituted with a full paid capital of $1,000,000”, reported an Ohio newspaper in 1870
That was the whole article. But then, almost nobody had yet heard of John D. Rockefeller, the 31-year-old financier of Standard Oil of Ohio, and his was far from the only new oil company in Cleveland.
The oil itself was spewing out of wells in Pennsylvania, 200 kilometres away, but Cleveland had emerged as a hub for the commodity’s refining and distribution. Rockefeller’s new company would do both.
History would reveal Standard (Ohio) as the cornerstone of a vast oil empire, the Standard Oil Trust, which would be dismantled in 1911 by order of the US Supreme Court, leaving the original Standard essentially where it had started, as a regional oil company with one Cleveland refinery and a compact marketing operation that sold, among other things, Perfection Oil and Eocene, two brands of kerosene for home heating and lighting.
Expansion, but quality service comes first
Fortunately for Standard this fork in the road came at a time when Americans were buying cars in astonishing numbers. On a corner in Cleveland, the first Standard “filling station” opened. It was a barn-like structure. Drivers pulled in one side, got their tank filled and drove out the other.
Soon Standard had stations throughout the area, with a strategy to make them as profitable as possible so the company could afford to expand in other areas. Service was the differentiator. It worked. In 1921 a new refinery opened at Toledo, Ohio, and was among the most advanced facilities of its kind.
By the 1930s, the company had adopted the trade name “Sohio” and painted its livery red, white and blue. In the 1950s Sohio chemists developed a one-step process for making acrylonitrile, a compound used in the manufacture of plastics and acrylic fibres. Chemicals companies worldwide adopted it.
From Alaska, oil for Sohio’s refineries
In the late 1960s, Sohio’s history dovetailed with BP’s. BP had found oil in Alaska but had no infrastructure in the United States to sell it through. Sohio had service stations and plenty of refining capacity but not a lot of crude oil. The two companies struck a deal.
BP initially took a 25 per cent stake in Sohio in exchange for the Alaskan crude, with the understanding that its shareholding in the company would rise with the production from Prudhoe Bay. The first oil flowed through the Trans-Alaska pipeline in 1977. The following year BP became the majority Sohio shareholder.
In 1987, BP acquired Sohio outright and made it the cornerstone of a new national operation, BP America.
History of Castrol
Charles “Cheers” Wakefield, Castrol’s founder, was an entrepreneur in the grandest sense of the word
In 1899, when he was 39, he left a job at Vacuum Oil to start a new business at Cheapside in London, selling lubricants for trains and heavy machinery. He was a persuasive man who could articulate a vision, clearly, and eight former colleagues followed him into the new company.
Early in the new century, Wakefield took a personal interest in two sporty new motorised contraptions – the automobile and the aeroplane. The company started developing lubricants especially for these new engines, which needed oils that were runny enough to work from cold at start-up and thick enough to keep working at very high temperatures.
Wakefield researchers found that adding a measure of castor oil, a vegetable oil made from castor beans, did the trick nicely. They called the new product “Castrol.”
Breaking the land speed record
Having helped pioneer a new kind of motor oil, now CC Wakefield pioneered a new method of getting customers to notice the product. Sponsorship. The Castrol name appeared on banners and flags at competitive aviation events, auto races and at competitive drivers’ attempts to break the speed record.
When a Castrol-sponsored event won, advertisements heralded the victory, mentioning that the winner had done it with Castrol. The world land speed record was broken 23 times in the 1920s and 30s, 18 of them with Castrol in the engine.
Wakefield extended the company’s increasingly profitable product line to include oils developed especially for car manufacturer’s individual engines.
Whatever you call them, they make a famous motor oil
By 1960, the name of the motor oil had all but eclipsed that of the company’s larger-than-life founder. CC Wakefield and Company became, simply, Castrol Ltd. Meanwhile, the company’s researchers delved ever deeper into the complexities of engine lubrication. A state-of-the-art research facility opened in Bracknell, England.
Then in 1966, The Burmah Oil Company bought Castrol. Burmah Oil, one of Britain’s oldest companies, had once effectively owned the company that became BP, before selling its majority holding to the British government at the start of World War I.
By the time Castrol GTX launched in 1968, to acclaim from drivers professional and otherwise, Castrol products were on sale at service stations and garages in more than 140 countries. Like the racers it sponsored, Castrol sales had momentum. In the 1970 London to Mexico rally, 16 of the 23 finishers were lubricated by Castrol.
Burmah Oil as a whole fared less well. The global oil crisis of the 1970s sent the company into financial free-fall. The Bank of England bailed it out, but only in exchange for the company’s remaining shares in BP.
New subsidiaries opening around the world in the 1980s signalled Burmah Oil’s recovery, and Castrol continued to introduce innovative, new products, including Castrol GTX Magnatec and Castrol SLX.
In 2000, Burmah Oil and Castrol became part of the BP group. Burmah Oil’s operations were folded into the group, while Castrol continued to lubricate engines under its own famous name.
History of Aral
You could say Aral started in a test tube. In the 1920s Rudolf Weller, chief engineer, and Walter Oswald, chief chemist of the German company Benzol-Verband, abbreviated BV, combined benzene and gasoline in the lab to create a new kind of motor fuel.
Oswald named the new product himself, taking the “Ar” from aromatic (benzene’s chemical grouping) and the “al” from aliphatic (gasoline’s group). “Aral.”
BV had been founded in 1898 as Westdeutsche Benzol-Verkaufs-Vereinigung specifically to find new ways of marketing and selling benzene, a byproduct from the production of coke. 26 years later, Oswald’s invention created a market for benzene that would leave most of its other uses in the dust.
By 1937, the company had 9,000 service stations and was market leader with a market share of about 25 %. Aral was a name synonymous in Germany with quality fuel for automobiles. Building on this success, 1939 BV scientists announced a new innovation. They had developed the first completely synthetic, multi-grade motor oil. It went on sale as Aral Kowal.
11,000 stations in bright blue and white
BV’s growth dipped during World War II as Germany’s government took the country’s fuel business under state control to stretch the resource as far as it would go. Like their British counterparts, during the war German citizens had only one choice at the pumps: unbranded, ‘standard’ gasoline.
In the course of the late 1940s the allied postwar administration gradually eased such restrictions, and the name Aral reappeared along the country’s motorways. With the formation of the BV-Aral AG in 1952 the word “Aral” also appeared in the corporate logo for about 20 years, in recognition of the profound effect Oswald’s invention had had on the company’s fortunes.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the Aral chain of service stations expanded rapidly. 1962 the company was renamed in Aral AG. By 1968 there were 11,000 stations. They all got a new look in 1971, with a new colour scheme that mirrored the blue and white of the sky above the forecourt canopies.
Cleaner fuels and ultramodern stations
Aral’s tradition of looking forward continued in the late 20th century with the introduction of new cleaner fuels to help protect the environment. These included Aral SuperPlus, with an octane rating of 98, and Aral SuperTronic, a completely synthetic, high-performance motor oil for highly developed engines.
After German reunification, Aral extended its service station network, opening new retail outlets in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. New Aral stations opened in Belgium, too. Ahead of the industry curve on service station design, Aral offered its customers an ultramodern experience at many of its stations, with an extensive range of products and small stand-up bistros, plus fax and telephone services.
In 2000, Veba Oel, a long-time shareholder in Aral, bought the company outright and assumed the Aral name. Then in 2002, BP acquired Veba Oel. Aral became a subsidiary of BP’s German business, and BP’s 630 stations in Germany took on the familiar Aral blue and white.
There’s much more to know about our history. Whether you’re a student, teacher, researcher or someone who’s simply curious about the history of energy and our company, here’s how to learn more.
The official history of BP includes three weighty volumes, with a fourth volume on the way. The series is published by Cambridge University Press and includes:
- 'The History of British Petroleum – Volume 1: The Developing Years, 1901-1932’, by RW Ferriert
- ‘The History of British Petroleum – Volume 2: The Anglo-Iranian Years, 1928 – 1954’, by James Bamberg
- ‘British Petroleum and global oil, 1950-1975: The Challenge of Nationalism’, by James Bamberg.
For more concise or specialized views of our history and the histories of some of our heritage companies, you might try these additional titles:
- ‘A History of the Burmah Oil Company, Volume 1, 1886-1924; Volume 2, 1924-1966, by TAB Corley (Heinemann, 1983-1988)
- ‘Challenge and Response, A Modern History of Standard Oil Company (Indiana)’, by Emmett Dedmon (Mobium Press, 1984)
- ‘Standard Oil Company (Indiana), Oil Pioneer of the Middle West’, by Paul H Giddens (Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1955)
- ‘Adventure in Oil, The Story of British Petroleum’, by Henry Longhurst (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1959)
- ‘Prelude to Merger: A History of Amoco Corporation, 1973-1998’, by Joseph Pratt (2000)
- ‘Portrait in Oil, An Illustrated History of BP’, by Berry Richie (James & James, 1995).
The BP archive
The BP archive is housed at the University of Warwick, in Coventry, England. It documents the history of our company, predecessors and subsidiaries through a collection of original materials, including company magazines, annual reports, photographs, advertisements and official documents.
If you have a research query relating to our history, please contact the archive team using the details below. Visits to the archive search room may be arranged by appointment only.
University of Warwick
tel:+ 44 (0) 24 7652 4522
fax: +44 (0)24 7652 4523