|By Larry LeMasters
If you are a petroliana collector, a car enthusiast, or as old as Methuselah, you probably are familiar with Bardahl Manufacturing Corporation. Bardahl collectible items fall under the category of petroliana, which is the category of collectibles related to gas stations or petroleum products. Petroliana memorabilia includes old gas pumps, gasoline advertisements, enamel or metal signs, oil cans, tins, and road maps.
In Bardahl’s case, motor and fuel additives, especially lubricants, are what most people remember. The company still produces more than 250 products for sale in over 90 countries. While that gives petroliana collectors a lot to look for and collect, some collectors limit their collections to Bardahl advertising signs.
Ole Bardahl, an industrious Norwegian, immigrated to the United States in 1922 with just $22 in his pocket and a dream to make it rich in America. Bardahl settled in Seattle, Washington, and became a general contractor, building homes throughout the Seattle area. By age 39, Bardahl was a millionaire.
In 1939, Bardahl purchased a small chemical company in Ballard, a suburb of Seattle, where he developed a unique formula for oil additives that revolutionized the automotive petroleum market. His new business, the Bardahl Oil Company, rapidly grew, becoming the leading manufacturer of petroleum additives in the United States.
In the 1950s, as America took to the highways in ever increasing numbers, Bardahl was there to service America’s cars. Every gas station and service station carried Bardahl Motor Oil and oil additives, and service stations were decorated with metal Bardahl advertising signs.
Bardahl became a house hold name, as its advertising spread, appearing on television, in magazines, and on billboards and signs. Animated television commercials showed Bardahl additives as a “Super Hero” mechanics and detectives combating engine problems such as “Sticky Valves,” Blackie Carbon, Gummy Rings,” and “Dirty Sludge.” The commercials psychologically played on car owner’s emotions by anthropomorphizing (giving non-human things, such as “Sticky Valves” human traits and emotions) each of these dreaded engine problems.
Die-hard Bardahl collectors may have some of these TV advertisements saved on CDs, but, for the most part, they are lost to time and history. But one form of Bardahl advertising that has remained both popular and in high demand is Bardahl advertising signs.
The anthropomorphized engine troubles became prominent on Bardahl signs. These signs show a mechanic Super Hero knocking out some of the comic book-looking engine problems with a boxing glove. A KO was awarded to the Bardahl Mechanic as Blackie Carbon bounced off the ropes and hit the canvas!
In the 1950s and ’60s, the Bardahl Detective became the company’s mascot. Based on a cross between Dick Tracy and James Bond, the Bardahl Detective drove sporty convertibles, associated with cleavage-bearing women, wore a trench coat with creased fedora, and battled the destructive elements found in the Grime Gang, such as Gummy Rings and Dirty Sludge.
Official Bardahl Detective badges, made of tin with a bend over pin tab, were given to boys as promotional advertising items at service stations where parents purchased Bardahl products. These old, advertising badges are as popular with collectors today as they were with little boys a half century ago.
Bardahl also issued “Miss Bardahl” pinback buttons in the 1960s, advertising the company’s sponsorship of racing boats. These pinback buttons, depicting Detective Bardahl racing a hydroplane boat, were made of brass with tin litho designs and are valued at $30 on today’s secondary markets.
In 1959, Bardahl also issued an electric Bardahl wall clock. Made by the Pam Clock Company of New Rochelle, New York, these clocks depicted Detective Bardahl showing a can of Bardahl additive hidden under his coat and advising, “Bardahl Makes Cars Run Better.” In working condition, these clocks are valued at $250 and make wonderful additions to Bardahl advertising collections.
Bardahl collectible signs date from the 1960s and ’70s; although, some Bardahl “for the farm” tractor signs date to the late 1940s and early to mid-1950s. The most desired Bardahl signs depict Detective Bardahl in some fashion, but the truly sought after signs show Detective Bardahl fighting the Grime Gang. The graphics on these signs are appealing.
The Stout Sign Company of St. Louis, Missouri made many Bardahl metal signs. Established in 1886, and still operating today, Stout Sign specialized in highway signs and gas station signs. According to the company, Stout established its reputation “by utilizing the highest quality processes and materials which resulted in some of the most durable signs ever made.” The truth of this statement is found in the number of metal Bardahl signs still found today.
With its Super Hero Mechanic and Bardahl Detective, vintage Bardahl signs are the perfect collectible for a father and son team. Bardahl signs is a fun way to raise up a boy to be both a collector and a Grime fighter.