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A young Peter Cheney
A young Peter Cheney

Road Rush

A loving look back at the golden age of cheap gas Add to ...

I've never actually been mugged, but it can't feel much different than filling up our Honda did this week. $82? The pump handle might as well have been a Glock 9-millimetre held to my head - maybe I should just give Esso my wallet.

$1.41 a litre seemed brutal, but economics is a dismal, slippery science. Was I actually paying that much more once inflation was factored in? To find out, I excavated my dog-eared gasoline fill-up logs.

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Peter Cheney's gas fill up logbooks. He and his wife logged every filll up from March of 1984 until January 2005.

I started keeping these logs in 1984, and kept them up until January, 2005, when my wife finally mutinied, sick of recording every last litre and gas-stop location. Oh well, I had 21 years of data to work with. The pages of my logbooks were stained with coffee spills, raindrops and ballpoint pen leaks, but the words and numbers told an amazing story. I was an archeologist, journeying back through time to the golden age of cheap gas.

I made my first entry on March 9, 1984, as I prepared to graduate from journalism school and marry the woman who would later rebel against my automotive record-keeping. I pumped 35 litres into my Volkswagen, and paid $18, which works out to 51 cents a litre (or $1.93 per U.S. gallon). But even that seemed like a rip-off compared to some of the other 1980s fill-ups I found in my logbooks. In 1985, my wife and I paid 85 cents a gallon at a gas station in Tonawanda, N.Y. A year later, we paid $1.02 a gallon in Maine - about half what gas was going for in Canada at the time. (Even then, it cost more to be Canadian.) The best bargain of all was at Buddy's Texaco, on top of Lookout Mountain, Georgia - in March, 1987, I filled our Honda Civic there for $5.85 (7.7 gallons at 76 cents each.) Amazing. Or was it? To see if the price of gas had actually gone up in real terms, I fired up Microsoft Excel and got down to some home-made analysis.

I started by comparing Canadian fill-ups then and now. In 1984, I paid 51 cents a litre. Last week I paid $1.41. The increase: 276 per cent. Then I pulled out my old pay stubs. Between 1984 and 2011, my income rose by 188 per cent. In real terms, I'm paying nearly 90 per cent more than I used to for gasoline. It wasn't my imagination - the Glock really has been held to my head.

So, why?

I can't pretend to understand the dizzying array of taxes applied to gasoline, or the profits that flow to the oil companies and the oil princes of the Middle East. But I do get the distinct impression that a good chunk of my income has been diverted to causes that include corporate jet acquisition, palace construction and the installation of bulletproof windows and solid-gold cup holders in Rolls-Royce limousines.

Then there's the butterfly effect. Osama Bin Laden flapped his wings in Afghanistan 10 years ago, and the price of gas went up on Dupont Ave. last month. But there's more to it than that. Millions of Chinese are buying cars for the first time, increasing demand for gasoline. And somewhere in the Hamptons, a fund manager is probably working a complicated derivatives position, betting that the price of crude oil will go up, or maybe down. (Either way, you'll end up paying more.)

If only we could return to the good old days. But when were they? My logbooks and pay stubs tell me that I was better off in the 1980s, but even those halcyon days pale in comparison to the true golden age of fossil fuel - the decades after the Second World War.

I'm old enough to remember some of it. The 1960s were a bonanza. We got automatic washing machines, colour TV and the moon landing. Everyone moved to the suburbs, and low-cost gasoline fuelled an endless, country-club fantasy. I remember leafing through glossy Ford brochures and hoping that my dad would spring for a new Country Squire wagon with a V-8. I don't remember anyone talking about fuel economy. My granddad drove big, carbureted Fords that burned enough gas to run a freight train. Who cared? Fuel was like water, a commodity with endless supply and a price so low that it simply wasn't a factor.

Looking back, I realized that our lives were built on cheap oil. And now, we keep trying to live as if it was still cheap. Builders are still hawking suburbs even though they appear to be unsustainable. Detroit is still marketing trucks, because they make a lot of money. (I rolled around the floor laughing last week when I read about Ford's EcoBoost truck engine - it might be better than a V-8, but trucks are still part of the problem.) A friend of mine who lives in rural Georgia bought an SUV for his teenage daughter so she could get around. In less than a year and a half, she racked up 30,000 miles visiting friends, going to malls, and driving to a school that she liked better than the one down the road from her house.

When she started her sojourns a few years ago, gas cost about $1.50 a gallon where she lives. It costs more than twice that these days, and her parents wish she'd stop driving so much. But how do you change things? That girl grew up in a golden age of energy.

Buddy's Texaco, the mountaintop gas station where I long ago fuelled up for 76 cents a gallon, is across the street from her house. This was always my favourite station, and not because of the prices. The real selling point was Buddy, a slow-talking good old boy who filled my tank while smoking a Marlboro (he never did blow himself up). His station was a southern classic, with racks of chewing tobacco and beef jerky. Alabama Crimson Tide football coach Bear Bryant stared down from a poster behind the cash register, and the bathroom featured a Crimson Tide toilet seat.

The station is still there, but it's under new management. The Bear Bryant posters are gone. So is the Crimson Tide Toilet seat. This week, regular was selling for $3.72 a gallon. A golden age has ended.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

Peter Cheney with one of his grandfather's gas-guzzler cars in the late 1950s.

Follow on Twitter: @cheneydrive

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