Britain's first self-service petrol station was in Plymouth!

Some of you may remember Turnbull's Self-Service petrol station at Charles Cross, an imposing building that used to stand where the Staples (Office Outlet) building is now. Let's find out a bit more about its history.

In 1908, Mr. George Henry Turnbull opened a garage in Mill Street, Plymouth. He died in 1920, aged 42 years, and the family business was taken over by his son, also named George Henry Turnbull. The premises were totally destroyed during WWII and the firm moved first into a Nissen hut in Mill Street, then expanded into a car showroom in Princess Street, now known as Messrs Turnbull's Garage. A new service station at Breton Side, William Roseveare MInstRA, was inaugurated in 1958 by world champion racing driver, Stirling Moss. Built entirely of reinforced concrete in order to give unobstructed floor areas, the building featured a cantilevered canopy. The fuel pumps served British Petroleum (BP) petrol and all fittings were sourced locally.

The garage installed Britain's first self-service petrol pumps on 11 April 1963. Three of the pumps were Swedish, designed to blend five intermediate grades of petrol between Regular and Super, known as BP Supermix; the remaining six delivered the two standard grades. With no attendant required to fill tanks for customers, the garage was abled to sell petrol at a discount to local competitors.

On the 9th of September 1964, Stirling Moss opened the upper portion of the £200,000 development, opposite Charles Church. Designed by Peter Roseveare, this was Britain's most modern motor vehicle service station and saw freqent visits from oil industry executives. It was the first filling station in the country to be built on the outer edge of a roundabout ; George Turnbull had spent years convincing the Ministry of Transport that the location would not interfere with the flow of traffic.

The entrance and exit points required a circular layout; the nine pumps could handle some 76 cars an hour. The circular quick service bay was also unique to Britain, with the only other known example in Vienna; cars drove onto a turntable, then were rotated to an available bay and worked on from a platform on the floor below. Another rare element was the Crypton Heenan Rolling Road, which permited testing and diagnostics at speeds up to 193 kph (120 mph). A waiting room with a coffee bar allowed customers to watch the work being done. A ramp to the workshop floor below gave access to a semi-automatic car wash.

The site changed hands several time after George Turnbull in 1973, the majority now in use as a Staples stationery store, with a motorcycle dealer occupying using the original building.

Steve, from Devon said "Shown below are all that remains of the former site of Turnbulls Garage, Charles Cross, Plymouth City Centre. The rest was demolished in the late 1990s and the site is now occupied by a new 'Staples' building. The covered forecourt, with its distinctive round shape and roofline, was preserved because when it was built in 1960 it was the first self-service petrol station in the country. Back in the late 1970s I had a Mk4 Ford Zephyr and at over 15ft it was no easy job negotiating the tight circular forecourt when filling up (which was quite often in the thirsty Zephyr!). With its new glazed side walls, the building is now the Evans Cycle shop.

[Sources: Brian Mosely, Plymouth Data and]

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