Thursday 9th August 1973
The UK government began stockpiling petrol-rationing coupons amid fears of an oil crisis. The crisis began with the Yom Kippur war between Israel and a number of states in the Middle East, which erupted on 6 October 1973. The Arab members of the Organisation of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) implemented an oil embargo on 17 October 1973, initially applying to the United States but quickly expanded to Western Europe and Japan because of the perceived support which those countries were giving to Israel. The embargo was accompanied by significant increases in the price of oil, which went up from around US$3 per barrel before the war to over US$11 per barrel by January 1974 and around US$15 per barrel by November 1974.
From the very beginning of the crisis, motorists were asked to economize in the use of fuel. Peter Walker, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and cabinet
minister responsible for the energy sector, asked on 24 October 1973 that “motorists should endeavour to cut down on petrol consumption and to use public transport to a greater extent where that is available.” By 19 November, the government introduced a 10% reduction in all oil supplies and appealed for voluntary avoidance of driving at weekends and a voluntary reduction in maximum speeds to 50 miles per hour (mph). Significant shortages at the pumps and long queues were the immediate face of the oil crisis and there was soon a clamour for petrol rationing. Ration books were distributed to all motorists with effect from 29 November 1973.
Petrol rationing had been imposed during the Suez crisis of 1956 and, as shortages persisted, there was considerable pressure for rationing to be introduced on this occasion. However, this was resisted as an immediate measure by both Conservative and Labour ministers and by the end of March 1974 the short term
threat of rationing had been effectively lifted as the supply situation eased. But government then considered a further rationing proposal called two tier petrol pricing.
It was planned that motorists would receive a small basic allowance of petrol at one price with further purchases being at a significantly higher price. This proposal was the subject of intense speculation at the beginning of 1975 but was eventually rejected on grounds of administrative complexity and the cost impact on motorists. Motorists were however encouraged to retain their ration books in case of deterioration in the supply situation and a change of heart by government. The threat
of rationing finally disappeared in July 1975 when motorists were told they could destroy the ration books.