Paul Wilson: Hamilton's master gas jockey hangs up the hose
Keith Whitwell had a revelation not so long ago, just after his birthday. “I said to myself, ‘You’re 80 and you’re still working. You’ve got to be the stupidest guy in the city.” And then he retired from the service station that carries his name.
With Keith, gas came with a wipe of the windshield and a wisecrack or two. He is already missed. But he believes the enterprise is in good hands. He’s left it with the kid, Jamie Barker, around the place some 30 years.
Whitwell’s is on Upper Wellington, a couple of blocks from the Brow. It’s been there since 1956.
It’s an independent. They still buy their fuel from a supplier at the day’s price and hope to eke out a little profit. They don’t know anyone else in town who still does it that way. The competition is corporate.
The Whitwell name isn’t coming down. It still means plenty.
And there were plenty of Whitwells. James and Nettie Whitwell had a farm on Binbrook Road. And there they had some children. A daughter came first, then 11 boys.
Crowded kitchen table
They all fit around the kitchen table, and even in the hardest years there was something to eat. But to this day, Keith Whitwell never leaves a morsel on his plate.
Father lost the farm in the Depression and city life loomed. Keith had started school, but it wasn’t much fun. Then he contracted acute rheumatic fever and wasn’t in a classroom for more than two years. Grade 5 is all he got.
He did land a job at Firth Brothers, Hughson and Cannon, sewing waistbands and making pockets.
Then his big brother Ken, with a loan from mother, took over the gas station on Upper Wellington, which had opened a year or two before. Keith was pressed into service.
It was Imperial Oil back then, better known as Esso, the company that coaxed customers through the Sixties with the promise of “a tiger in your tank.” And the Whitwells served loyally.
But in the early Eighties, Esso announced the rent was going way up. The corporation had devised some new auto repair scheme and promised operators would make all kinds of money. Wasn’t so.
Whitwell brothers became owners
Whitwell’s went across the road, knocked down a few houses and prepared to build a station of their own under the Shell banner. Esso didn’t like the looks of that, and agreed to sell the Whitwell brothers the station they’d been operating for decades. Price, $450,000.
The business rolled on, Whitwell’s prospered. They had five mechanics on the go. Young Jamie Barker joined on, liked the quick pace of the place.
In the early Nineties, along came an offer, Far East money. The Whitwell brothers were looking to retire anyway and sold the station for $1.3 million, holding the mortgage on half that.
But the success had been all about service and trust and knowing your customers. The new owners didn’t take long to fail. The Whitwells had sold their business at full price and got it back at half price.
It was a diminished business, however. “About half the customers came back,” Barker says. “There are lots of good shops out there.” The rebuilding began.
Esso Googled them
Around 2000 Barker and Keith Whitwell bought out his brother Ken. A few years later, Esso gave them a nasty surprise.
“They Googled the station and we were a no,” Barker says. “They said, ‘You don’t fit our profile or image.’ We never asked for anything, never complained. And the reward for 50 years of devoted service was a pen.”
But the station was able to start working with Global Fuels and gets a fair shake with them.
You won’t find the cheapest gas at Whitwell’s. They try to stay within two cents a litre of the other guy. In return, somebody pumps your gas, cleans your windshield and, no charge, checks your oil and tires if you like. The air pump at Whitwell’s is rare indeed – it’s still free.
Keith Whitwell, whose brother Ken died a few years ago, still shows up around the place. He drives over in his owned-since-new ’91 Cadillac Brougham. “I don’t want to bother Jamie,” he says. “I sneak by when he’s not looking.”
Barker honours the history with a nice car of his own. When the weather’s right, he parks his mint all-original 1960 Buick Electra on the lot. “It’s to show where we came from,” he says. “This is what Whitwell’s was working on all those years ago.”