6 April 2011

Mike Mihkelson: The ultimate petroliana collector

Almost every collection of vintage gas and oil memorabilia has evolved as an extension of the owner’s car collection. After all, a cool early service station sign adds a period look to the garage and if one sign is good then a half a dozen is even better. Mike Mihkelson, however, states that his extensive collection evolved from lunch boxes. Mike was an avid collector of lunch boxes and says he has about 80 percent of the known early examples. About 18 years ago he was in Texas at an antique show searching for more when he found a vendor with a bunch of porcelain Power Gas signs. They were only $60 or so and Mike bought them all. Returning to California he quickly sold them and doubled his money. He kept one and the die was cast as he thought this was a lot more fun than lunch boxes.

Mike’s collection now fills a 2500 square foot building with signs on the walls and display cases full of oil cans, badges, early road maps and all sorts of other early gas station memorabilia. Being a California native his collecting focus is on west coast companies with Gilmore, Flying A, Seaside, Hancock, Signal and Sunset prominently featured. One wall is covered with pump plates which are the small porcelain signs that went on gas pumps and identified the particular brand sold. In addition there are two different versions of a Sunset No Smoking sign with the less colorful version being one of only a handful known.

The Gilmore wall includes a very rare and very pricey No Smoking porcelain sign along with an example of each of the four different quart oil cans that Gilmore offered. At one time, the Gilmore Oil Company  had 3500 independent dealers in Washington, Oregon and California. They were extremely creative with their marketing and sponsored racing on the west coast as well as cars at the Indianapolis 500 in the 1930’s. Aacquired by Mobil in 1940, the brand disappeared after the war. Their distinctive cream and red logo is coveted by gas and oil collectors and anything related to the company is very collectible and priced accordingly.

Asked why he collects Mike was quick to respond that it’s the thrill of the hunt and the stories behind each and every item in his collection. He knows where each piece came from and what he had to do to obtain it. He also enjoys the people who are involved with the hobby. He travels with three or four other collectors but communicates with a couple dozen others on a regular basis, keeping track of what has been recently discovered and what might be available.

Mike travels to Hershey and Iowa Gas to just name a couple of his favored haunts as he continues to look for additions to his collection. He does, however, keep a handful of early lunch boxes on display just as a reminder of how it all got started. 

Favored Piece

Mike’s favorite piece is not the most colorful or the most expensive just the most unusual. He bought it a number of years ago from a vintage gas pump dealer and it is a pump plate that proudly declares “Premium Powered.” No one knows what brand it is from although it does resemble the Sunset logo, but with different lettering. He has shown photos to numerous fellow collectors to no avail and noone has seen another.         


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