Well oiled: Drilling into New Zealand's Europa story

by Paul Little / 23 January, 2017
Photo by Ken Downie.
The Europa station in Wellington, known as “The Big E”, 1985.
So accustomed are we to the fact that many of our bedrock resources and industries are overseas-owned – banks, insurance, print publishing, much of retail and, increasingly, farms – it will come as a shock to younger readers to discover New Zealand once had its own oil company.

It wasn’t blessed with a locally inspired name, such as Silver Fern or Southern Cross. It was called Europa, because back then you didn’t really care if a company was New Zealand-owned. You still looked to those other Antipodes as the location of all that was good. Early Europa bowsers (petrol pumps) were emblazoned with both the Union Jack and the New Zealand flag.

Europa was founded by the Todd family of industrialists in 1931. Charles Todd got his petrol from the Soviet Union (not a hammer and sickle to be seen anywhere) and dispensed it nationally. According to a Todd Energy company history, the initiative was sparked when a local price war cut off petrol supplies to a Todd car dealership in Christchurch.

Firsts claimed by the company include the introduction of electric petrol pumps, the first articulated road tankers and “the sale of consumer products in service station forecourts”. These were also days when governments protected local industry, and fierce price competition from Europa’s overseas rivals saw price controls introduced after the company had been in business for just a couple of years.

BP (British Petroleum) acquired a controlling interest in the Europa brand in 1972, at which time Europa had a healthy 17 per cent of the market. BP phased out the brand in 1988.

Europa’s advertising reflected its times, with jingles that were in a class of their own:

“Clean-burning Europa/The petrol with pep./Keeps your engine sweeter/Makes your engine step./All along the way/Wise motorists say/‘It’s clean-burning Europa for me’!”

The words were written by legendary polymath Gordon Dryden at a time when he was involved with both the Communist Party and the advertising industry.

In perhaps sly acknowledgment to the oft-noted similarity of bowsers to Daleks and other forms of automaton, in the late 70s the company introduced a mascot with an uncanny resemblance to Star Wars’ R2-D2 that appeared in TV commercials and print ads. According to the Star Wars New Zealand fan page, although the robot was not officially licensed, “life-size” models were built and made personal appearances at gas stations around the country.

Sheets of stickers featuring the little critter are apparently much sought after by collectors: “The sheet was 90 x 148mm in size, with the individual stickers being 75mm and 62mm in width respectively.” Well, we did say this comes from a Star Wars fan page.

Nostalgists of all sorts are suckers for Europa. One enthusiast picked up an authentic bowser – “some internals removed” – on Trade Me for $605 not so long ago. However, it was a later model, with none of the charm of the old versions with the circular banjo shape on top. It was these designs that inspired the company to record and release a single (authorship unknown):

“It’s the sign you’ll see at service stations/With Europa fuel and lubrications/Call it a banjo, though it’s got no strings/Because Europa products make your motor sing./Drive – with the Europa banjo./Do the right thing – remember this line/Stipulate ‘Europa’ every time.”

Although it is almost certainly the only 45 rpm single ever to include “stipulate” in its lyrics, “The Europa Banjo” – so far as we can discern – failed to storm the charts.         

This article first appeared in the May 2016 issue of North & South.
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