Motorway Services Online

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Locations:up to 5
Removed:3 April 1973
Esso's minimum-effort automatic catering experiment

In the 1950s and 1960s, at the dawn of a motoring age, petrol filling stations started to become more exciting. Along with unsuccessful efforts from Regent Oil, Blue Star and Mobil, Esso eventually decided they wanted their own chain of service stations - for which they used the name Taverna.

Luck Gave Them A Service Area

After Esso lost Port TRSA on the A1 to roadworks, they were offered the chance to build Washington MSA instead. This unusual process was an effort to tackle the lack of interest received when prospective operators had been invited to bid for the site.

Esso had a knack at building services: their designs were both brave and fresh. But they had no experience in running them. Compared to a normal filling station, a service area had additional demands in the form of high catering expectations, which they simply weren't cut out for.

Initially, their apathy led to ingenuity. For Washington, they developed a complicated and pioneering catering system which used automated vending machines and microwaves, which were new to the motorway network at the time. Their agreement with the concerned Ministry was that they would be removed if they were unpopular with the public - and they were very unpopular.

Washington, Birch and Woolley Edge were the first services to open with only one brand of fuel available, reducing costs.

Fall From Grace

Where Esso began to fall down is that they didn't know what to do next. The grand facilities at Washington were left in a state of half-automatic half-waitress service mess. Meanwhile, four more approved sites were about to open, and their plan to fit them all with automated catering had just fallen apart. Those services opened with delays, and with more half-hearted catering arrangements.

Esso's owners were not helping their panicked company, and refused to put any more money into the venture. This left them looking for a buyer - and fast - the first time the motorway network had seen such a crisis. 5 years prior, the government had seen exactly this coming.

Esso blamed government regulations for the failure of their venture, and the government's rigid incompatibility with Esso's style certainly contributed. However, the government blamed Esso's failure to properly manage their sites. An example they gave is that the government repeatedly told Esso they expected one member of staff from each MSA to be act as a manager for the whole site. Esso gave the government a list of those people, but when the government arranged a meeting with them, all five of them said they had no responsibility for their MSA's petrol station.

In summary, while Esso's buildings were described as "excellent" and "very high order", inspectors also used the terms "wretched state", "grossly underused" and "very poor service".

Sale Of Services

Granada and Rank were noted to be interesting in buying the architecturally interesting services and kitting them out in their own style. A stumbling point for Rank was that they wouldn't be allowed Leigh Delamere as it would give them a monopoly. At the other end of the scale, Granada had absolutely no interest in the isolated and poorly-reputed Washington, and were willing to do anything not to end up with it.

Granada did eventually agree to purchase all five sites, Washington included, for £2.1million (1973, £24.7million in 2016), making them the largest operator on the motorway network.


The following services were owned by Taverna:

Unbuilt services

The following services were planned by Taverna but they were never built.