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.
Follow North & South on on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and sign up to the weekly e-mail.

Latest

How NZ women won the right to vote first: The original disruptors & spiteful MPs
96463 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z History

How NZ women won the right to vote first: The orig…

by Vomle Springford

Is it right that while the loafer, the gambler, the drunkard, and even the wife-beater has a vote, earnest, educated and refined women are denied it?

Read more
Fémmina: The story of NZ's unsung suffrage provocateur Mary Ann Müller
96479 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z History

Fémmina: The story of NZ's unsung suffrage provoca…

by Cathie Bell

Mary Ann Müller was fighting for women’s rights before Kate Sheppard even arrived here, but her pioneering contribution to the cause is little known.

Read more
Ian McKellen charms his way through a documentary about his life
96472 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z Movies

Ian McKellen charms his way through a documentary …

by James Robins

Joe Stephenson’s tender documentary Playing the Part looks at McKellen's life as an actor, activist and perpetual wizard.

Read more
The Chosen Bun: A smart new burger joint opens in Stonefields
96507 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z Auckland Eats

The Chosen Bun: A smart new burger joint opens in …

by Alex Blackwood

Burgers, milkshakes and fries are not rare things to find in Auckland, so The Chosen Bun's owners were smart to be very picky about their ingredients.

Read more
The brutality experienced by the suffragettes
11636 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z Listener NZ 2015

The brutality experienced by the suffragettes

by Sally Blundell

As we mark 125 years since NZ women got the right to vote, we must remember it didn't come easily.

Read more
The case for closing prisons
96403 2018-09-18 00:00:00Z Social issues

The case for closing prisons

by Paul Little

If we want a prison system that does a better job than the current one, alternatives aren’t hard to find.

Read more
Jennifer Curtin: The feminist political scientist mixing rugby with politics
96422 2018-09-18 00:00:00Z Profiles

Jennifer Curtin: The feminist political scientist …

by Clare de Lore

Australian-New Zealander Jennifer Curtin says the lopsided nature of the Bledisloe Cup pales in comparison to the slump in transtasman relations.

Read more
Don McGlashan is out of the attic and taking flight
96439 2018-09-18 00:00:00Z Music

Don McGlashan is out of the attic and taking fligh…

by James Belfield

Don McGlashan is taking some old unloved songs on his New Zealand tour.

Read more