The photos above provide an in-depth look at one corner of a typical Woolco store from the mid-1960’s. Pictured is the “Auto Center” portion of the brand new Woolco at the Southroads Mall in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which opened in 1966. This, of course, was during the peak of the American car culture.
Auto Centers, then as now, typically consisted of an auto accessories section and a service department, where tires, batteries and tune-ups (required much more frequently by the cars of that era) were the main standbys. By the early 1960’s, auto centers were part of the normal discount store package, a standard feature in all Woolco stores and for most of their competition , including E.J. Korvette, Zayre and K-Mart. The ability to offer these departments was one of the many advantages that the Woolco discount store format had over the much smaller Woolworth’s variety stores. Auto centers weren’t the sole province of the discounters, however, but were staples of full-line department stores as well. Some of the larger (“Class A”-type) Sears stores had offered auto service as far back as the late 1930’s, and it was near-universal at Sears by the early 50’s. Montgomery Ward began to open auto centers in 1958 when they began to open large mall-based stores, and J.C. Penney opened its first one in Melbourne, Florida in 1963 as part of a major push to expand outside of their traditional soft goods arena.
Although I didn’t start driving until the very end of the 70’s and to my recollection never set foot in the auto center section of a Woolco, these photos bring back memories. For many of us who drove less-than-stellar cars in our youth, frequent trips to buy STP Oil Treatment or some other magic potion (or gas tank antifreeze in those Chicago winters) to keep the old beaters running were mandatory. In my case, it was usually K-Mart for auto supplies or the JCPenney Auto Center (which was later bought out by Firestone) for tires.
The photos are self-explanatory, but a few things are worth noting:
· This store has one of the last examples of the “I-beam grid” tower sign with the block-lettered Woolco logo. Some of Woolco’s second generation design elements were already in place on this store – the “zig-zag” awning had already been ditched in favor of something more modern-looking, and the silver painted script Woolco logo on glass had replaced the backlit plastic signs above the entrance doors.
· The chain’s standard 1960’s in-store signage can be clearly seen.
· The “TapeDek” display, featuring a brand new product at the time – the legendary 8-track tape, where an album’s songs were divided between four “channels”. If you’re over 35, chances are you have direct experience with those. I especially remember the “ker-chunk” sound our 8-track player would make when changing between the four channels on the tape. On several 8-track albums we had, the channel breaks were actually in the middle of a song, complete with a fade-out and fade-in at the break. Yikes!
· The huge accessory headrests, sold because headrests weren’t standard in every car at the time. Looks like they would have been somewhat uncomfortable.
· The cool-looking auxiliary gauge sets.
· “Station Wagon Pads.” Eh?
· The ceiling-hung lighting display near the motor oil.
· The circa 1961 Ford Falcon in the service bay. Guess Linus and Lucy’s folks must have shopped at Woolco.
· Lastly, the shop labor price sign, featuring several free services, wheel alignment for five bucks, and an oil change for under three bucks (98 cents labor plus five quarts of Havoline at 37 cents each). Wow!
One side note that you might find interesting –the location of this store, Tulsa, had a unique connection to the “American car culture” mentioned above. The city was home to the famous “Buried Plymouth”. Back in the mid-90’s or so, I bought a copy of the July 1, 1957 issue of Life magazine at an antique store. Inside was a fascinating article about the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of Oklahoma’s statehood that had just taken place. The “main event” was the burial of a brand-new black and gold 1957 Plymouth Belvedere in a specially constructed vault beneath a Tulsa city park. The vault was designed to keep moisture out, hopefully preserving the car well enough to drive after all of those years underground. Tulsa residents were asked to guess what the population of their city would be at the time of the state’s centennial celebration in June 2007. The person with the closest guess (or their heirs) would win the car at the time it was exhumed, 50 years hence. The guesses were sealed within a metal container and buried along with the car.
I forgot all about the story until a few years ago, when I came across the magazine after storing it for years. Curious, I looked it up on the web, and by that time several websites had sprung up, fanning the flames of excitement about the soon-to-be revealed Plymouth. By the time June of ’07 rolled around, my oldest son and I had strongly considered driving out to Tulsa for the official unveiling. We ended up having a schedule conflict, so we decided to watch it on a live webcast instead. We were heartbroken (along with most Tulsans, I’m sure) to learn that the doggone vault had leaked and had been full of water for years, and the car was ruined. Even a trip to the Woolco Auto Center wouldn’t have helped it.
Thanks to the Beryl Ford Collection/Rotary Club of Tulsa, Tulsa City-County Library and Tulsa Historical Society for use of these fine photos.