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The longest-standing private filling station

This petrol station had only one owner in the last 77 years

22/07/2013 06:59 |  Comments: 

Editor-in-chief

The guy behind the idea of the English-language Totalcar site, the totalcarmagazine.com, also serving as an editor at the Hungarian totalcar.hu , our mother site. Serial collector of sorry old things that have internal combustion engines in them, as a newfound religion, Zsolt is keeping a family under the terror of rust. Being in the business for the best part of the last 19 years, he landed at Totalcar after serving at a huge round of printed automotive magazines. Has a wife, two small(ish) children and a pet rabbit.

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It wasn’t too easy to be a private entrepreneur in the 50’s and 60’s in Hungary, especially if you had some business making real money. But there were some incredible exceptions.

You leave Budapest on the old national route no. 7, having been renamed to no. 70 some time ago. You throw back a gear with the stick, battle the steep incline, turn right and there, you have reached the plateau. From then on you leave the shiny new Shell station to the right, and just before you'd drive into the sleeping town of Diósd you'll see a low-built service building to your right again, with an old-fashioned petrol station at its first corner.

Before the M7 motorway was built in the early 70's, long queues lined up here. Anybody heading to the popular holiday area of Lake Balaton, some 100 kms from this spot, filled up at these pumps. In those times an ÁFOR sign (the name of the national oil company) used to hang on the façade of the building. This station, however, had never been officially owned by the state. In those years even the mighty heads of the government did not know that the ownership papers to this small station had only one name on them all the while: that of Tasziló Landthaller.

Anybody buying petrol here today might run into an old man at the cashier's desk. He is Mr. Landthaller whose name appears in the ownership papers and it was his father who founded the station in 1936 on this very spot. It was that year that the government laid the foundations of the new no. 7 speedway to Lake Balaton (albeit, still only with one lane to and one back). That road unfortunately cut the property of the Landthaller family in half and there was no way for them to stop the workers. So the elder Landthaller decided to make the best of the situation and he planted a 5000-litre petrol tank in the ground that he connected with a state-of-the-art Rocco pump.

There were hardly any petrol stations along the new road. The nearest one was located in Székesfehérvár, a good 50 kms away and the next one was already at Lake Balaton, in Siófok. By the beginning of the 40's there were only six stations erected by the road, so business was running fine. The first group of the buildings standing on the site today were raised by 1938, four years later the second part was finished, too. A two-room apartment, a post for the gendarme, a first-aid room, a welder's shop and a car wash all became part of the complex. Today's Taszi Sr. was Taszi Jr. at that time, already thirteen years old and helping out his father with the work going around the station. But the boring success story took a downward turn in 1944.

At the end of that year the war front had reached the outskirts of the capital and both the car wash and the kitchen of the station got hit by bombs. There was no harm done to human lives, but when the news started spreading that all private businesses were to be taken over by the Communists in 1945, Tasziló Landthaller Sr. committed suicide. His son was only sixteen at the time. But you bet his son was ready to take over the operations.

They had a Studebaker truck that was dismantled completely earlier to prevent it from being enrolled into army service during the war. He quickly put that one together using it with Hungarian-Soviet licence papers. To fend off the state taking control of the petrol station, he loaned its usage to the Chinese government on paper – the price of this was the six-cylinder Fiat 1500 he got from his father in 1941. According to the agreement between the Four Powers the area now was under Chinese authority, so the Hungarian government could not claim any rights to it. Although the local council issued a decree in March, 1945 to have the station's rights taken from Mr. Landthaller, they couldn't put the decree into force, due to the owner's untimely death a month earlier. The Communists had no chance against witty guys like the Landthallers.

The Chinese protection lasted fine until 1949. In those comparatively languid years business started rolling again. There had been other tricks up the pump owners' sleeves too. When Landthaller Sr. first heard about the Russians moving in, he took off the wheels of all the private and company cars they had and hid them in a 15-metre-deep well located under the lathe in the workshop.

To be on the safe side, he also had a concrete slab put above these wheels, and had the hole filled up with water, so that it looked like a perfectly normal well to anybody uninformed. Although the mason doing the job later spilled the secret to the Russian troops, all they took from the Landthaller family was their weapons, clothes, and mobile values. Oh, and of course, the carburettors from the cars.

But young Landthaller had some good acquaintances in breakers' circles. In no time he had the cars up and running with parts modified from other vehicles, and soon the whole fleet was back in use. But when Ferenc Katona was appointed as director of the ÁFORT – the national oil company – the Chinese protection proved too weak. They confiscated the cars first, and some time later the keys to the station were taken away too.

“Some of my friends told me a few days earlier that they had heard rumours about something being planned against the station. I quickly registered the area under four topographical numbers at the Land Registry and at the same time had the members of my family registered as owners,” laughs Mr. Landthaller as he's remembering that summer of'49. “According to the law the four separate parts proved to be too small to be confiscated by the government, so ÁFORT could only get the rights for operating the pumps. The jury even declared that the company had to pay a rental fee,” he revealed.

The area and the buildings thus stayed in the family's hands, but Tasziló Landthaller himself lost his pumps, his income and was even sentenced to prison for 1.5 years. When he was released in May, 1951 (this was a normal procedure in those times), he had to serve another 27 months in labour camps first in Domoszló, then in Budapest. Freedom came only in 1954 when he managed to start working again as a shopper at a company making – guess what – pumps. Due to his technical and trade experience he was soon promoted to become a sales manager. He stayed in that job until his retirement in 1991.

The petrol station – the biggest of its kind until the middle of the 60's - in turn, was being operated by ÁFORT (later renamed ÁFOR). The Landthallers continued to live on in the buildings of the station and some of the members of the family worked as attendants at the pumps. All the while Mr. Landthaller was a witness when the four Rocco pumps that his father set up in 1942 were first replaced by two Carbox pumps in 1955, then those in turn were changed to volumetric pumps in the 60's, and later to Adast pumps in the 70's.

In 1970, when he learned from Hungarian Gazette (the paper publishing all the laws, decrees and whatever official in Hungary) how much money the oil company should have to pay as a rental fee, Mr. Landthaller sued ÁFOR. Mind you, there weren't many stations out there which ÁFOR had to care about as a tenant in those times... The oil company appealed to the court against the decision, but at the Court of Appeal Mr. Landthaller presented evidence that all the buildings on the site had already existed on the very original documents. ÁFOR lost the suit at two levels and from then on it also had to pay for the usage of the service buildings in addition to an increased rental fee.

Hungary became a free democratic country in 1989. In the following years lots of state-owned companies and properties were sold to private vendors – this was called privatization. When the naïve management of ÁFOR wanted to do the same to the petrol station in 1991, Mr. Landthaller broke up the leasing agreement and asked for being reinstated as the owner. The oil company made a feeble move to prove that it was them setting up the petrol station at the site. But when Mr. Landthaller produced all the old plans, the trade license from 1936, the ownership deeds that were believed to have been lost and the 50 year-old pictures to them, they gave up. Did they have a chance? Of course, not!

“All in all the recovery of the ownership cost me 60 thousand forints (about 200 Euros today) for the office tools, but I asked for a payment scheme of five-month instalments. Just for the fun of it, you know...,” he laughs. “Since then I had the Adast pumps replaced and now the newest type of environmentally friendly pumps are operating, you know, the type with fume recirculation. I had two new tanks installed in 1993, but the diesel oil is still kept in the original tank from 77 years before, embedded in ash, having a bitumen sealing. I have that one checked each year – according to the last ultrasonic measurement it still has an even wall thickness of 5.4 millimetres, thus it is still perfect. You know, those old craftsmen knew their trade well...”

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