Full service stations in the East Valley used to sport teams of mechanics, tire pressure gauge and squeegee in hand, to lure customers who needed help or demanded luxury.
But in recent months, some stations have shown a stark new image: Chain link fences and closed signs.
Two stations have shut down in Mesa since the spring, leaving so few full-service stations that many customers are unable to find another.
The closings are part of a decades-long trend toward self-service. But the pace of closings has ramped up in recent years, several East Valley owners said.
"All the independent gas station owners across America are getting shut down," said Lane Bridwell, who owns the Bridwell Automotive Center at 7171 E. Lincoln Drive, Scottsdale. The shop is believed to be Arizona’s only gas station to provide full service on all its pumps.
Bridwell and other owners said oil companies have ruthlessly edged out independent owners because the full serve market is so small that the giant corporations don’t want to deal with it.
The corporations refuse to renew leases, boost rent to unreasonable levels or refuse to sell fuel to independent owners, Bridwell said. The companies sell the land or open more lucrative, corporate owned convenience stores.
The latest gas station closing were in April at Brown and Gilbert roads, and a Chevron that closed in October at Main Street and Country Club Drive.
Sandro Menasci’s brother ran the Main Street station, the last in downtown Mesa with a full-service island. Menasci still runs an Exxon that provides full service at Broadway and Gilbert roads, which he said may be the last station of its kind in Mesa. He expects his business to survive.
"Mine has increased because of the other places closing up," Menasci said.
Full service is a small percent of receipts at gas stations. At the McClintock 76 at 8805 S. McClintock Drive in Tempe, sales manager Doug Bristow said about 5 percent of customers want full serve — a small enough group that employees know most of their names. The drivers come from miles around for the service.
"The bulk of our fullservice customers are ladies who are probably 60 or older," Bristow said. "They can’t take care of their cars and they depend on us to do it for them."
Though full-serve stations began their decline when the best cars of the day sported tail fins, owners said customer needs and demands can support a few in a market this large.
An afternoon at Bridwell’s shop shows why.
Elizabeth Ekstrom drove about 8 miles for a fill-up, passing countless self-serve operations along the way. The northeast Phoenix resident said at 85 years old, she has trouble using the pumps. And checking air pressure or fluid levels under the hood is impossible.
For seniors like Ekstrom, life would change without fullservice gas stations.
"I probably wouldn’t be able to drive," Ekstrom said. "It’s a necessity."
Bridwell’s location — in one of Arizona’s richest cities and next to even wealthier Paradise Valley — serves customers used to luxury.
"I like to be taken care of, feel pampered. It’s wonderful," said Ana Ratiu of Scottsdale as attendants checked the tires on her Lexus sport utility vehicle. "We all need love."
Yet the flow of cars into Bridwell’s included several decade-old sedans and inexpensive pickups, whose drivers wanted a knowledgable mechanic to make a quick check under the hood.
Amy Bacal stopped to prepare for a weekend trip to Payson.
"It is more expensive for the gas, but look at all these nice men I have around me right now," she said as uniformed employees with their names sewn on their shirts washed her windows and checked tires’ air pressure.
Bacal said she normally goes to self-serve stations for gas, but she laughed at the idea she would check her tires.
"It could be dangerous if I do it," she joked.
Too many customers don’t know how to care for their cars or neglect to do so, Bridwell said.
They think they save money with self-serve, but experience tells him otherwise. Bridwell has seen a decline in owner care since he started working on cars 33 years ago, when his father bought the station.
"You have people who have their cars wearing out way faster than they used to," Bridwell said. "Self-serve has hurt America. I am absolutely convinced of that."