MotorCities National Heritage Area
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Story of the Week

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian & Researcher
Images Courtesy of the Sinclair Oil Archives
Published 6.9.2021

Early Sinclair gas station RESIZED 2Early Sinclair gas station 

During the late 1960s, when I was a kid, I remember the Sinclair gas station in our neighborhood. Sinclair Oil was always the place that my mother would take her automobile for service and repairs. I remember the gas station attendant whose name was Harry. He would always come out and service my mother’s vehicle, checking the oil and tires and cleaning the windshield.

The history of the Sinclair Oil Company starts with Harry Ford Sinclair (1876-1956). The company was established on May 1, 1916 and would become a success story for over 100 years. Sinclair was an Independence, Kansas pharmacist who became involved with trading oil leases in 1901.

Cover of Sinclair Oil road map RESIZED 4Cover of Sinclair Oil road map

During the early part of his career, Harry Sinclair would launch one of the largest oil companies in the country. Sinclair products were used by many motorists, who had purchased new Ford Model Ts or other early automobiles.

In the early days of the company, Sinclair Oil made history. Harry Sinclair paid off his initial loans to start the company, and later, he would borrow $20 million to build a new pipeline between Kansas and Chicago. The pipeline became a huge success, becoming the second largest in the country and serving 90 percent of mid-America. The pipeline also made Sinclair Oil the 10th largest company in America.

Sinclair Oil and their signature green dinosaur logo RESIZED 3Sinclair Oil and their signature green dinosaur logo

The U.S. Government was so impressed with Harry Sinclair’s business acumen that he was appointed to the petroleum section of the War Service Committee during World War I. In 1918, the Oil City Derrick trade publication said this about Sinclair oil: “Probably no other company in all the history of oil has grown as rapidly in all the branches of the business as the Sinclair Oil & Refining Corporation has since it was organized less than two years ago.”

Sinclair gas station 1950s RESIZED 5Sinclair gas station, 1950s

During the Great Depression in the 1930s, Harry Sinclair introduced a remarkably successful advertising campaign -- a green dinosaur to promote Sinclair Pennsylvania Motor Oil and many other products. The campaign illustrated when dinosaurs roamed the earth and how they played a part in forming the fossil fuels brought from the earth. The campaign proved so popular that a huge Sinclair dinosaur was exhibited for the 1933-1934 Chicago World’s Fair. The exhibit drew 24,000 people daily. The dinosaur became so popular that Sinclair registered it as a trademark in 1932, and the campaign continued to be extraordinarily successful for many years to come.

Sinclair motor oil ad RESIZED 6Sinclair motor oil ad

As Sinclair Oil continued to thrive through the 1940s and 1950s, more new products were added. During the early 1940s, Sinclair issued many dinosaur stamps weekly at service stations across the country. In fact, the first printing of stamp albums sold out within 48 hours. During World War II, hundreds of women were trained as service aides in Sinclair’s gas stations while most men were away at war.

1950s Sinclair gas station attendant RESIZED 71950s Sinclair gas station attendant

By the end of the war in 1945, only six percent of Sinclair’s business was in war contracts. The 1950s and 1960s brought more great looking vehicles and more leisure time for traveling that Americans thoroughly enjoyed. Sinclair Oil’s assets in 1952 were over $1 billion. More emphasis at the company was now given to product research, and new laboratories were established. In 1955, Marvin L. Gosney became chairman, followed in 1964 by Orlando P. Thomas.

Sinclairs signature dinosaur on display 8Sinclairs signature dinosaur on display

By the 1960s, Sinclair began consolidating service stations and plants, along with other procedures as well. Prices and earnings were at a 15-year low during the 1960s. During 1964 and 1965, Sinclair once again was featured at the World’s Fair in New York -- this time with lifesize fiberglass dinosaurs featuring cutting-edge animatronics.

In conclusion, the Pan American Sulfur Company purchased the Sinclair Oil assets in 1972. Later, the company was sold to the Earl Holden Company. Over the decades since the 1970s oil crises, the United States has taken steps to grow more independent from foreign oil. In 2016, Sinclair Oil celebrated its centennial.

Bibliography

Sinclair America’s Journey 1916-2016. “Sinclair Oil & Refining Corporation was born to take on the giants.” 

Sinclair America’s Journey. “Sinclair shaped the industry as we know it.”  

Sinclair America’s Journey. “When the Great Depression hit, Mr. Sinclair made the boldest gamble of his life.”

Sinclair Oil History. “The Sinclair dinosaur is one of the most popular icons in American Petro liana”.              

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