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War Economy

Petrol Rationing

Petrol Rationing

In 1939 the private motorist was using over half of all petrol consumed. On him the main brunt of rationing was to fall. For the first few weeks of war, licences were being issued to essential page 417 users, and at this stage no petrol was authorised for domestic or pleasure running. However, in the confusion before controls operated smoothly, considerable extra petrol was sold. In the week ended 9 September 1939, which contained five days of rationing, petrol issues were over a million gallons in excess of the average weekly consumption.

By 20 September the position had become a little clearer, and the regulations were amended to provide for the coupon system of rationing. This system enabled the private motor-car owner, by surrendering coupons, to obtain varying quantities of petrol for domestic and pleasure running. The Oil Fuel Controller, with power to specify the earliest date on which any of these numbered coupons could be used, could quickly adjust the amount of petrol allocated for non-essential purposes, in accordance with the supplies available. Essential industrial and commercial users were issued with licences to use petrol.

The system was most effective. Two months after the outbreak of war, stocks of petrol had accumulated to the extent that it was possible to remove all restrictions. This was done on 13 November.

In the following month the British Government asked New Zealand to reimpose oil fuel rationing, so as to conserve every possible dollar for the purchase of war materials which were urgently needed from the United States of America. Apart from this need to conserve dollar funds, the demands of war were beginning to tax the tanker fleets at Britain's disposal. In response to the British request, the New Zealand Government, not without some reluctance, reimposed rationing on 1 February 1940.1 From then on, rations, particularly to the private motorist, were to fluctuate from time to time as stocks in New Zealand changed.

By way of contrast, Australia did not introduce petrol rationing until October 1940, and even then there was no severity in the rations for the private motorist until April 1941. Actually, in February 1940, New Zealand was the only member of the Commonwealth, apart from Britain herself, in which petrol was rationed.

Before the war, stocks of petrol held in New Zealand had ranged between 25 million and 30 million gallons, and the rate of importing was moving up towards 100 million gallons a year, which level it passed in 1938.

Supplies fell rapidly in the first three years of war, and imports in 1942 were at their lowest for any year since 1933. The very low level of imports followed the entry of Japan into the war in December 1941. Many motorists, on Japan's entry, foresaw this

1 Weekly sales in this unrationed period were about a third higher than under rationing but most New Zealanders take their holidays around Christmas and the New Year.

page 418 reduction in the availability of petrol and there was an undignified scramble to forestall any possible official reaction. A local daily reported on the rush to redeem all available coupons:1

‘Petrol re-sellers in Wellington yesterday had their busiest period for many a long day. After the news of the outbreak of war in the Pacific became known motorists, evidently expecting restrictions in supply, made an unprecedented rush to petrol stations.

‘Califonts, kegs, kettles, demijohns, vinegar and whisky bottles, tins of all descriptions, and even a new dustbin, were produced to hold petrol as all available coupons were handed in. However, these activities were curbed to some extent in the afternoon when the Oil Fuel Controller, Mr G. L. Laurenson, banned the use of all receptacles other than vehicle tanks, and the use of numbers 12 and 13 coupons was cancelled….’

Chart 71 shows imports of petrol from 1934 to 1948.

chart of fuel statistics

Chart 71

By the middle of 1942 the supply position for road transport was critical. In June the Prime Minister made a statement warning

1 Dominion, 9 December 1941.

page 419 the people of the seriousness of the situation:1

‘The future prospective stock position of both petrol and tyres was very grave, said the Prime Minister (Mr Fraser) last night. There was a veritable famine in tyres, and petrol stocks were just sufficient to carry on the country on a very careful rationed basis. Nevertheless, whenever supplies of petrol and tyres could with due regard to national safety be released to private motorists a ration would be made available. It was, however, very difficult to make any forward estimate of the petrol and tyres position….’

1 Evening Post, 6 June 1942.