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World War Two: Rationing and Shortages other than for food


Fuel rationing and petrol coupons in the UK

petrol rationing coupon book

This page explains why there was fuel rationing - also known as petrol rationing - in the UK throughout WW2 and into 1950; then in 1956/7 and then again in 1973. It shows images of 1939, 1946, 1956 and 1973 petrol coupons.


By the webmaster: her recollections with further research and contributions from others who lived at the time

Petrol rationing in World War Two

War was declared on 3rd September 1939 and the Government was ready by the 8th of September with its coupons for rationing petrol which it called 'motor spirit'. Coupons were dated the 15th of September. However, they could not be used until the 16th of September when the rationing was to come into force. Only two coupons were available at this time. They are identical in every respect apart from an AA at the top right hand side of one and an AB at the top right hand side of the other.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, petrol was the first commodity to be rationed as all petrol had to come from overseas. Then in 1942 petrol for private use was withdrawn completely. It was only available for work deemed essential, and a special permit was needed to obtain it. Cars were therefore absent from the roads. All large cars were confiscated and converted into vans and ambulances.

The outcome for children like me was that, as there were no private cars on the roads, the streets were our playgrounds. My friends and I would play on the streets without any concern about traffic. We knew nothing else. My husband tells the story of regularly skidding down a long, steep road on a trolley-cum-sledge without ever seeing a vehicle of any sort.

Thumbnails of petrol coupons, first edition, September 1939.
Images and text courtesy of Harold Kroll who is a collector of UK petrol coupons. Tap/click for larger legible images.

Both the AA and AB coupons were cancelled on the same day with date stamps: 15th September 1939 and

How petrol coupons were obtained and used in WW2

Applicants for petrol coupons were required to produce their car or motor cycle registration book at a Post Office, whereupon they received two ration books one marked 'first month' and one marked 'second month'. The books contained coupons for the quantity of 'motor spirit' allowed them according to the rating of the vehicle as shown in the registration book.

Each coupon represented one unit. At the time, a unit represented one gallon, although that was open to change. (Later coupons - see below - could be for more than one unit.)

The ration books were only valid during the period for which they were issued with no rollover. So they couldn't be hoarded. It was use them or lose them.

The coupons had to be presented to the petrol station wherupon an assistant would fill the vehicle. There was no self service.

The petrol stations at this time were known as garages, and the petrol pumps were very different from those of today.

Petrol rationing immediately after WW2

In 1945, after the war finished, petrol for private use did become available, although it remained rationed until 1950. The coupons were of a new style as shown in the following pictures.

The coupons were not obviously date cancelled. They can be dated with a date stamp from the Ministry of Fuel and Power London Region that limited their validity. The first for 2 units is stamped 'Valid only for the four months ending 30 June 1946' and the second stamp for 3 units is identical apart from the date of 30 April 1948.

1946 petrol coupons, courtesy of Francis Duck. Tap/click for larger, legible images.

Petrol rationing in 1956/7

Petrol rationing was re-introduced for five months as a result of the Suez crisis of 1956, and again there is a new style as shown in the following pictures. The cover is date-stamped 23rd March 1957.

Cover and coupons of a 1957 book of petrol coupons. The cover is narrower than the coupons, so when closed shows the page underneath.

Both courtesy of Francis Duck.

Inside the cover reads:

This book contains coupons to the value of 39 "N" units and 18 "L" units for the six months period. If the vehicle is transferred, this book with all unused valid coupons should be transferred to the person acquiring the vehicle.


Petrol rationing following the oil crisis of 1973

There was a scare during the oil crisis of 1973 that petrol would have to go back on ration. Petrol coupons were produced as part of contingency plans although, in the event, only relatively few were distributed to who were regarded as those in significant work, and in the event, petrol did not go back on ration.

The paper is of the cheap unbleached type on which the reddish-brown text hardly shows up.

The N and L designations on petrol coupons

You will notice in the enlarged images that some coupons are designated with the letters N or L and the WW2 coupons with the letter S which probably looked part of the design These letters indicated the amount of petrol allowed according to the size of a vehicle's engine. It was necessary to desiginate this by a code of some sort rather than as an amount, because the amount changed week by week according to how much petrol managed to arrive in the UK in view of the Germans sinking the Merchant Navy ships . I have been unable to find any examples of actual amounts for N or L. If you can help, I would be grateful if you would contact me.

The following coupons were supplied to me by Ian Webb, John Warren and Simon Robinson. The first two are for a car, the next two for a motor cycle or small car up to 1100 cc engine size, but I have no confirmation of why the last three are different. Do you know?

front cover of book of 1973 petrol coupons, thumbnail

Front cover of book of 1973 petrol coupons for a car

1973 UK petrol coupon for a lambretta motor bike, thumbnail

Cover of book of 1973 petrol coupons for a motor cycle

inside front cover and first page of book of 1973 petrol coupons, thumbnail

Inside front cover and first page of book of 1973 petrol coupons (for a motor cycle?). Why the mix of N and L tokens needs explanation from someone more informed than me.

1973 UK petrol coupon thumbnail

Cover of book of 1973 petrol coupons for a motor cycle

1973 UK petrol coupon N thumbnail

1973 petrol coupon code N

1973 UK petrol coupon L thumbnail

1973 petrol coupon code L

The following sample images are for cars over 1100cc, courtesy of Chris Wood. Tap/click to enlarge.

1973 petrol front coupon cover

1973 petrol front coupon cover

1973 petrol inside back coupon cover

1973 petrol inside back coupon cover

1973 petrol coupon L first month

1973 petrol coupon L first month

1973 petrol coupon N first month

1973 petrol coupon N first month

1973 petrol coupon L sixth month

1973 petrol coupon L sixth month

Text is copyright

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

sources: early 20th century material      sources: ww2 home front and other material     contact
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