Thursday, August 11, 2016

“500” Platolene gasoline

Recently on an episode of the History Channel "reality" program 'American Pickers,' during a visit to Southern Indiana, one of the two protagonists bought a large old porcelain service station sign that read “500 Platolene” which used a checkered flag  The owner of the sign mumbled something about the people that ran the Indianapolis ‘500’ had owned this service station chain. Hearing that, the author had a new research project, namely where did that name come from?

Anton “Tony” Hulman Junior, who bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from Eddie Rickenbacker in 1945, was born in Terre Haute Indiana the only child of grocery magnate Anton Hulman and his second wife Ada Grace Smith Hulman.  Ada’s family owned the Princeton Mining Company and the Deep-Vein Coal Company both bituminous coal mining operation as well as Princeton Farms all in the vicinity of Princeton Indiana about 80 miles due south of Terre Haute.

Henry P. Smith Junior operated those businesses after the death of his father as well as the RJ Oil and Refining Company which in addition to its refinery RJ operated 100 service stations in Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. Henry’s cousin, Tony Hulman was a partner in RJ Oil and Henry’s son, Donald Smith (later a Hall of Fame racing promoter) was RJ Oil’s sales manager.

In 1953 RJ Oil undertook a one million dollar expansion of its refinery that was completed in August 1953. The refinery was the first such plant in the area that used a new process developed by Universal Oil Products of Des Plaines Illinois known as “platforming”

In an article published in the Terre Haute Tribune,  Smith promised motorists that the company '500' service stations  will have “the most powerful, cleanest burning, most economical gasoline that has even been refined” because of “the specially developed catalyst in this secret new process.” The process used “precious platinum, a metal more costly than gold;” in 1953 an ounce of platinum cost $70 compared to $40 for an ounce of gold.  The name of the new gasoline was “Platolene” - the “gasoline made with platinum.” The name and logo ‘500 Platolene’ was trademarked in 1953.   
A matchbook from the author's collection combines two
Tony Hulman businesses - 500 Platolene and the
Meadows Shopping Center (Terre Haute's first mall)
Today the Smith and Hulman family business interests remained intertwined. Tony George, Tony Hulman's only grandson, recently re-installed as chairman of Hulman & Company currently sits on the board of directors of First Financial Bank N.A. (once run by Don Smith), Deep Vein Coal Company, Princeton Mining Company, and R.J. Oil Company.  

There is one final racing connection to this story. In the early nineteen seventies Universal Oil Products (UOP) developed a new process known as ‘CCR platforming’ that allowed refineries to produce high-octane lead-free gasoline. To help promote their new process, in August 1971, UOP signed a sponsorship deal with Don Nichols’ Advanced Vehicle Systems.
The series of sinister black race cars in the SCCA Can-Am and Formula One series were known as “UOP Shadows.” The UOP Shadow DN4A driven by Jackie Oliver and powered by a 494-cubic inch Chevrolet engine powered by lead-free gasoline won the 1974 SCCA Can-Am championship.   

Postscript 2

Tony Hulman became a partner with RJ Smith in the Princeton Farms the primary product of which was popcorn. Around 1940 Smith and Hulman hired the former Vigo County Farm Bureau extension agent to run the Princeton Farms. The agent who ran the Farms for 12 years later became world-famous for marketing his own brand of popcorn: Orville Redenbacher.

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