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The cost of gasoline the year you started driving

  • The cost of gasoline the year you started driving

    Since the introduction of Henry Ford’s Model T in the early 20th century, cars and driving have become synonymous with American industry and culture. Our wheels have become more than just a way to get from A to B—they're a way to shape and define our identity.

    Gasoline prices have been relatively reasonable as of late, but it wasn’t long ago that Americans were trading in their H2 Hummers to avoid paying exorbitantly high gas prices, let alone waiting in line for hours at the pump in times of severe shortages. But for nearly every mile driven, American consumers find themselves inextricably linked to a complex global commodity that can have a major impact on the cost of cruising: fuel.

    Most of the time, both the highs and the lows are out of drivers’ hands. During the Arab-Israeli War in 1973, Arab oil manufacturers banned exports to the U.S. due to their support of Israel, leading to a gas shortage and sky-high prices. In recent years, an increase in demand for oil in developing economies alongside an expansion in production from countries (like the U.S.) that once imported most of their oil, led to a sharp drop in oil prices. In the early months of of the COVID-19 pandemic, stay-at-home orders caused oil prices to crater as demand for oil bottomed out.

    To find out more about how has the price of gas changed throughout the years, Stacker ran the numbers on the cost of a gallon of gasoline for each of the last 84 years. Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (released in May 2020), we analyzed the average price for a gallon of unleaded regular gasoline from 1976 to 2020 along with the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for unleaded regular gasoline from 1937 to 1976, including the absolute and inflation-adjusted prices for each year.

    Read on to explore the cost of gas over time and rediscover just how much a gallon was when you first started driving.

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  • 1937

    - Absolute gas price: $0.19
    - Inflation-adjusted price: $3.41 (#10 most expensive year in 84-year span)

    After President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, the economic state of the country seemed hopeful: Americans were beginning to emerge from the financial wreckage of the Great Depression, and unemployment rates dropped more than 10% in just a few years. In 1937, the nation was hit by yet another period of economic downturn, during which unemployment spiked once more. A number of federal economic decisions, such as switching to a contractionary monetary policy, impacted inflation and led to relatively high gas prices.

  • 1938

    - Absolute gas price: $0.18
    - Inflation-adjusted price: $3.30 (#13 most expensive year in 84-year span)

    In an effort to protect smaller gas station operators from the aggressive pricing of bigger companies, the state of New Jersey instituted a law in 1938 that prevented gas stations from raising prices more than once a day. In 2005, this law was put to the test when civil action was taken against 20 gas stations for doing exactly that. 1938 also brought about a recovery of the economic downturn that had begun in 1937.

  • 1939

    - Absolute gas price: $0.17
    - Inflation-adjusted price: $3.16 (#16 most expensive year in 84-year span)

    1939 marked the official end of the Great Depression, and therefore the beginning of America’s return to a more stable economy. This year also marked the beginning of World War II; entering the war two years later, though devastating, would greatly invigorate the American economy and workforce. Gas prices began to drop at this time, as the U.S. teetered on the edge of a period of revitalization.

  • 1940

    - Absolute gas price: $0.16
    - Inflation-adjusted price: $2.95 (#20 most expensive year in 84-year span)

    In 1940, development in the world of automobiles changed the American car permanently: The Oldsmobile became the first car to offer the Hydra-matic, at an additional cost of $57, illustrating a move away from manual driving. This early version of an automatic car offered no setting for “park”; instead, the driver was supposed to put the car in reverse and then turn it off. Gas prices fell again this year, fairly substantially, and though the U.S. had not yet joined World War II, the nation was in a period of rearmament and providing aid to Great Britain.

  • 1941

    - Absolute gas price: $0.17
    - Inflation-adjusted price: $2.99 (#19 most expensive year in 84-year span)

    Between 1940 and 1941, absolute gas prices rose by a cent, but inflation-adjusted prices dropped by 2 cents. This is due to the fact that at this moment in history, inflation was rising faster than actual prices; in fact, the inflation rate in 1941 was nearly 10%. At the tail end of the year, the United States finally entered World War II, thereby igniting a shift in global politics and economics.

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  • 1942

    - Absolute gas price: $0.18
    - Inflation-adjusted price: $2.85 (#23 most expensive year in 84-year span)

    The United States was now a player in World War II, which meant the introduction of gas rationing. Gas rationing had little to do with a shortage; what the United States armed forces needed was rubber, so nonessential rubber usage (like car tires) had to go. In order to stop people from wearing out their tires and needing rubber that could have gone to military efforts, the U.S. decided to ration gas, limiting the number of gallons various driver classes could purchase per week.

  • 1943

    - Absolute gas price: $0.19
    - Inflation-adjusted price: $2.84 (#26 most expensive year in 84-year span)

    While World War II succeeded in reinvigorating the American economy, it also brought multiple industries to a complete stop. Over the course of the war, only 139 cars were produced in the United States. Instead of making cars, key players like Chrysler and General Motors were busy producing things like guns, tanks, and aircraft components. Therefore, the gas prices in 1943 applied only to American-made cars that were already in existence, as getting a new domestically produced set of wheels at this time was not an option.

  • 1944

    - Absolute gas price: $0.19
    - Inflation-adjusted price: $2.79 (#33 most expensive year in 84-year span)

    Between 1943 and 1944, though the absolute price of gas remained steady at $0.19 a gallon, the inflation-adjusted price dropped by several cents. This has to do with a strengthening American economic state: the war necessitated such a high degree of productivity that real wages rose by 50% between 1939 and 1944, allowing Americans to save and spend more. The war created new industries, pulled women and African Americans into the workforce, increased overtime pay, and encouraged Americans to participate in their own economy from an ideological standpoint.

  • 1945

    - Absolute gas price: $0.19
    - Inflation-adjusted price: $2.73 (#39 most expensive year in 84-year span)

    After years of conflict and a global loss of 70 to 85 million lives, World War II came to an end. Consequently, the end of the war also brought about the end of gas rationing in August of 1945, as well as the removal of limitations on automobile production. Many automobile companies announced plans to expand their facilities, and begin producing at rates far higher than before the war in order to meet the pent-up demand of American consumers.

  • 1946

    - Absolute gas price: $0.19
    - Inflation-adjusted price: $2.52 (#26 least expensive year in 84-year span)

    The postwar era brought both relief and complications for the automobile industry. Big names were ready to return to production and capitalize on an American public that suddenly had money to spend, but workers were also demanding more rights; an early 1946 steelworker strike brought production to a halt. Once matters were resolved (steel companies settled after pressure from President Harry Truman), cars began to roll out, including new models from Ford and a Chrysler convertible.

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