California’s gas pump picker lives in automobilia heaven

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Photo by Benjamin Preston

If Jay Leno’s actual garage, Rick Hendrick’s nostalgic warehouse full of Corvettes, or any of the other myriad automobilia collections demonstrate anything, it’s that antique gas pumps, signs, and service station relics have been popular for a good while now. Gone are the days when you could drive out into the desert and scoop up dry climate-preserved Magnolia signs and complete Sinclair pumps for a song. In the digital commerce era, old gas pumps and signs can fetch thousands of dollars.

On a rustic crossroads near the edge of Ojai, California, a hippie-surfer variety baby boomer named Tom Donahue has amassed a collection of filling and service station gems, old cars, Airstream trailers, and other antiques. His mounds of loot stand as proof that once upon a time, the pickings were good, and not all that expensive. All you needed was an old van or truck (he’s had both over the years, and several of them remain as fixer-uppers among odd fixer-upper pumps). An understanding family helps, too.

“Everything here reminds me of some trip I went on—some adventure,” Donahue said when I visited him last fall. “The travel was good, the people were interesting, the searching was fun.”

tom donahue stands in garage beside open car hood
Benjamin Preston

There’s not much to see from the road, but Donahue has curated his collection into a nature-trimmed wonderland. Ranks of colorful, glass globe-topped pumps stand at attention amid constellations of well-preserved signs. Inside the two houses on his property, vintage signs—both painted and neon-lit—plaster every interior wall, the bathroom included. One old Airstream holds a row of glass fuel pump globes. An old outhouse with a roof made from two Mobilgas signs serves as a mounting easel for still more signs.

Naturally, Donahue’s sign, pump, globe, and oil can collection sprang, like a tributary, from his interest in old cars.

“In the old days, people didn’t collect signs,” he said. “I’d talk with people in the Model A club or something at a swap meet, and gas station signs and such were always peripheral. When it came to signs, they’d be like, ‘Ah 40 bucks and it’s yours.'”

Times have changed. The stock of once-abundant treasures has dwindled.

vintage oil cans and signs on shelves
Benjamin Preston

“Back then you might have 100 signs or pumps, and only three people collecting them, whereas now, there will be three pieces that a lot of people will bid against one another to get hold of,” he said.

Even four-plus decades ago, Donahue was driving old Studebakers, Anglias and other off-beat marques when the world had already moved on to bigger, faster, less-imaginative stuff. He was always a bit of a collector. He recalled driving past then-empty Thousand Oaks, California, on his way up Highway 101 between Los Angeles and Ojai. Amid the chaparral, all that stood there in the early ’70s was an Airstream trailer visible from the highway. Today, sprawling suburbs have taken their place. The Airstream found its way into Donahue’s backyard.

“When I bought my first house, in 1975, I realized that if you have a lot of space, you can buy junk,” he said, noting that at the time, all he owned was an old VW van, a few surfboards and some other personal belongings. “So I started filling it up with cars and other stuff.”

vintage pennzoil pumps and signs
Benjamin Preston

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Donahue traveled all around the lower 48 states looking for stuff that interested him. He would drive whatever old van or truck was his go-to at the time, camp out next to creeks where he could wash up, and spend a week or so on the road. On one of his trips, he was keen on finding a ’53 Hudson Italia that he’d seen advertised for $2500. The place was hard to find, and the Hudson went to another buyer mere hours before he arrived. When his daughter asked where he’d been, he said, “On a wild goose chase.” She had some business cards made for him with “Wild Goose Chaser” printed on them.

“That’s all I have left from that experience,” he said. “The car is probably worth a quarter of a million dollars now.”

Donahue had practical reasons for collecting, too. He was a commercial art student for a while, and he used old signs, paper advertisements, and matchbook covers as templates.

“There was no internet back then, so if I wanted to do lettering, I would find an old sign or something with a font I liked and use it as a reference,” he said.

He never got into the commercial art line of work, but he still has file folders full of old ads tucked away. The signs posted around his property speak volumes about his affinity for their aesthetic quality.

“The other day I looked at a Dutch cleanser with a picture of an old woman on it, and the graphics are beautiful,” he said.

Although he likes trading with other collectors if he has a second or third of something he can part with, Donahue’s sales are limited. Some antique oil cans here, a globe or two there. He doesn’t tend to get rid of much, other than some of the old cars he had parked on the property over the years. He realized he wasn’t going to get around to fixing them. The pumps and signs and all their spare parts are layered in with other visual curiosities, like a white ball-top fire hydrant of the type seen around San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century, and an old Nissen hut full of antique radios.

“I really like having this stuff around me. It makes my imagination run.”

For more images of Donahue’s collection, he occasionally posts photos on his Instagram.

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