/ Travel & Leisure

Fuel costs are same as in ’80s – shouldn’t we be happy?

Black and white picture of the last Ford Cortina

The price of petrol might be escalating, but are we really paying more for fuel than ever before? Our research found fuel costs are almost on par with 30 years ago, so should we be complaining?

The Which? Car team investigated the cost of fuel and found that the annual cost for the average motorist has risen only by just over £100 since 1980.

That’s because the vehicles we drive today are more efficient than ever before, meaning the amount of fuel we pump into our cars on the forecourt goes a lot further than it did 30 years ago. So are we really justified in being outraged by the recent peak in petrol prices?

How we compared and contrasted

You’ll probably be asking how we conducted our research, so here’s the lowdown:

  • We compared the 1980 Ford Cortina 2.0-litre petrol with a 2011 Ford Mondeo 2.0-litre petrol – two family car favourites separated by three decades.
  • The Cortina, averaging 27 mile per gallon (mpg), with petrol costs at 28p a litre in 1980, would cost a motorist £1,889 a year to fuel, when adjusted for inflation and based on the UK average of 12,000 miles a year.
  • The modern-day Mondeo 2.0-litre averaged 34.9mpg in the Which? Car test, resulting in an annual fuel spend of £1,915. That’s based on petrol costing £1.29 a litre, as it did when we crunched the numbers in mid-February – but even at today’s average of £1.33, the annual spend is £2,081.

So ultimately, the difference in yearly fuel bills is somewhere between £100 and £200.

Shop around to save

Coincidentally, we also found that you can save more than £200 a year if you choose to fill up at the cheapest locations.

‘Shopping around’ is a term widely used when it comes to money saving, but our investigation found that it really does make a big difference to your annual fuel bills. We found that supermarket brands are generally cheapest, especially Asda, while, on average, BP was the most expensive place to fill up. That certainly tallies with my experiences – how about you?

Should we accept rising fuel prices?

Bearing all of this in mind, will the results of our research ease motorists’ frustrations at high fuel costs? Of course not – if anything, we know it will stick in the craw of hard-pressed drivers.

So what do we want to happen as a result?

Which? is backing the AA’s call for the government to publish a price tracker comparing wholesale and pump prices. Offering transparency on retailers’ pump pricing should promote more local competition, and help drivers to shop around for the best deals. It’ll help all of us know when forecourt prices aren’t responding to drops in wholesale oil prices.

It could be easy to look at the results of our investigation and think the recent spike in fuel prices may not be as bad as we first presumed – but it is.

The only saving grace is the improved fuel economy of today’s cars, which is helping to offset rising oil prices. The question is, how long have we got before the rising oil price really outstrips the pace of technological advances?


Sorry – the vast vast vast majority ever compare any price with what it was 30 years ago – they only compare what it was a week or a year ago. (I did a simple study comparing 1970s prices to 1930s and found many prices had not risen that much different from inflation – though the perception of consumers was the opposite) – The reason for the study was because of a heated discussion with my fifth form students.

Before Suez petrol was around 1/11d a gallon (under 10p) – after Suez it effectively doubled to around 20p or 4.5 p a litre – to me it was a ripoff – because my income didn’t increase to compensate.instantly.

As far as I’m concerned – it could be good only because battery driven cars should be cheaper to produce due to economies of scale. At the moment the only reason I won’t buy an electric car is the expense at three times the cost of an ICE car

Jonny says:
1 April 2011

Yes – stop moaning, drivers!

Those of us who are trying to do our bit for the environment by using public transport are paying about 1/3 more!

Fat Sam, Glos says:
4 April 2011

Yes, good old public transport, eh?

For me that would mean 3 buses, 2 changes, a 2 hour trip including waiting times, including a stop with no shelter, often only to sit on a dirty, sweaty seat often next to an equally dirty smelly passenger and running my hectic work and private life according to a timetable not often adhered to and on top of that paying for the privilege.

Er, no thanks (but well done to all those that brave it and soldier on with public transport, I salute you, as I drive past in air-conditioned comfort in my 4×4)

(waits for all the thumbs-downs)

(before anyone asks, I get 42mpg out of mine – I’d like to know how that compares to a bus/train with how many passengers on average (including those almost empty)?)

Fat Sam, Glos says:
4 April 2011

Though I would like to add if people disagree with my comment I’d like to know what they are they disagreeing with?! The number of buses and changes and my mpg claim? How would they know what this is to disagree?!

Very amusing.

Thank you to those who passed the Muppet Test.

‘Trying to do our bit for the environment by using public transport’

It might interest you to know then that Buses pollute more than Cars. Buses put out nox gases such as particulates which are very dangerous and the average Bus puts out over 60 times more of it per mile than a small modern petrol car. Some of the high speed trains use more fuel for a 100 mile trip than some flights which go alot further. Public Transport is NOT environmentally efficient.

I dont mind people putting well informed views across but the idea of ‘im using a bus to save the environment’ is quite simply laughable. Especially as only 20% of the UK’s emissions is from road transport in total. And the UK only causes 2% of global man made emissions, so to focus on cars (less polluting than your bus) and attack car drivers on that basis is pretty laughable and stupid. The small petrol car is the cleanest form of travel with an engine.

I take it you will now stop using the bus for environmental reasons and buy a car instead.

Hari says:
1 April 2011

Our Guardian cartoon today is about your really eye-opening research! Thanks.

The official fuel economy figures of modern cars do not reflect reality. e.g. The tests do not include hills, which are quite common in my experience.

Fat Sam, Glos says:
4 April 2011

The tests are meant to be under ‘lab conditions’ which provide an equal test bed for all vehicles. The actual figure will be affected by many factors – but what the tests allow us to do is make relative comparisons between vehicles.

Diddydo says:
24 April 2013

The fuel economy tests are a joke!!!

The figures are unattainable and as for being able to use the figures to make a relative comparison with other vehicles – this is also nonsense!!!

For example, my last car had a official combined figure of 45mpg, yet I only averaged 32mpg, 29% less than expected. My new car has a official combined figure of 31mpg, yet it averages 28mpg on the same commute into London, that’s only 10% down on the official figures.

We need these tests to be looked at again, because at the moment they are of no use to anyone.

David, the fuel spend figures are based on Which? fuel economy test results, not official (manufacturer) figures.

The point you raise is a good one though – official figures are often difficult to achieve, and the EU test does not include a motorway element.

Over the past 15 or so years my fuel cost per mile remained pretty consistent at about 9-10p per mile until the latest price increases, thanks to two upgrades to more efficient (although not necessarily more comfortable ! ) cars. That is a real world comparison, hills and weather conditions included. On a longer time-scale, I remember paying £1 for 4 gallons when I was earning £8 a week, so in relation to my current pension, fuel is more affordable now. However I did have a bit of career progression in between !
What I do find disturbing is that most of today’s really efficient cars have such poor 0-62 acceleration that I would be wary of driving one down a slip onto a busy main road. Only the relatively expensive hybrids (or the LEAF?) aren’t such a compromise.

John Evans says:
1 April 2011

Sorry to carp but isn’t it a bit of a contradiction to compare with inflation adjusted prices? After all fuel is part of the shopping basket whose cost has increased over the decades! Surely a more relevant comparison would be with the average earnings index. Given that until recently average earnings have normally outstripped RPI I guess this would bear out your results even more strongly – but at least it would be on a more valid basis.

Alan Springall says:
1 April 2011

Despite car fuel economy improvements, when compared to the mid-sixties when I first started buying petrol it still works out slightly cheaper today. I paid 25p a gallon and a good salary was £1000 p.a or £20 per week. Therefore a gallon was one eightieth of gross weekly wage. Today the average wage appears to be £500 per week and unleaded is £1.30 per litre or £5.85 per gallon, one eightieth of £500 is £6.25. So if you also take in the better mpg we are all better off. Hooray.

To someone who has stayed in the same job for the last 20 years yes perhaps petrol does seem astronomically high. But for those who progress and moved on to higher earning jobs as their experience increases, will not notice the difference too much as their wages have increased more than inflation.

Basically it’s all relative. Yes it seems crazy at the moment, but we have more disposable income than ever.
I chose to use the train this weekend over a long journey as the petrol cost for a full tank is now more than the train fare. But I have a 2l turbo engine and so it’s never going to be that economical, but I would rather have that power when I need it, rather than having a dangerous eco box which cannot accelerate away from danger.

Good acceleration is as good at preventing accidents as having good brakes.

Hang on, I don’t think comparisons like this mean anything.
I was around in the 80’s and I ran a Cortina 2.0 litre. I don’t remember fuel costs being as big an issue as it is today. So I’d suggest that in the overall scale of things fuel was in real terms much cheaper, or it took a smaller part of my disposible income than it does today.
I think many other factors relative to cost of living need to be considered to make an effective comparison. This is not included in the calculation.

Jonny says:
19 April 2011

Chris – that could be because people in the 80s didn’t drive anywhere near as often or as far as they do today. I remember, for example, the roads being noticeably quieter on a Sunday because nobody “got the car out” on a Sunday and people would get the bus to work even if they owned a car. Nowadays many people never leave their homes without the car. Also, few households had two cars back then.

Also, back in the 80s, the memory of the 70s fuel crisis was still fresh, so people would not have been anywhere near as sensitive over fuel price rises. The problem today is that we’ve had it too good for too long.

The problem Jonny is that 63% of the pump price of petrol is Tax. Not oil costs. VAT is added onto the Fuel Duty (tax upon tax) and not purely applied to the product itself. Even at over $100 a barrel the true price of our fuel is around 54p a litre.

Fuel Duty now brings in more than Council Tax in the name of ‘saving the environment’ when Buses which pollute FAR MORE than cars get a 43p a litre duty rebate.

Buses may pollute far more, but they also carry far more people so the pollution per person is less. Also, in my city many buses are now running on biofuel.

The simple fact is that cities are crowded places, and cars take up a lot of room. It’s simple physics – there isn’t room for everyone to have their own little metal box. And anyway, it’s nice to share!

James Cole says:
28 May 2011

It probably is cheaper to run a car today as you don’t have to keep taking it back to the garage for repairs as often as you did in the 60s and 70s when you had Red Robbo at British Leyland along with “Monday morning” and “Friday afternoon” cars rolling off the production line with so many faults. I don’t know about European cars nowadays but with Japanese ones, the only time you have to open the bonnet is to top up your screen wash. You send it to the garage once a year for it’s MOT and service and so long as you pour fuel into the tank, it will start every day and take you where you want to go to with no hassle.

I suppose we have to take it on the chin as far as increases in fuel tax are concerned, as they have now virtually outlawed smoking therefore, have killed the taxpaying goose that laid the golden egg.

It’s an interesting point. What has changed for the worse in recent years is the price of spares. Even a low tech vacuum pump for my Nissan is priced at £500 plus VAT and a cam gear £77.60 +VAT. Parts tend to last well, but these prices are utterly unrealistic and are a total rip-off. Fortunately I got a used one for £132, which is about the right price for a new one! Breakers are learning how to charge too, most wanted around £250 for this item.

simply taking average MPG per car model is an incomplete picture. What about the cost of the the new car, and servicing, which is increasingly expensive, and out of the hands of the home mechanic.

What about someone who cannot afford a replacement car. Public transport? In this area a bus is increasingly becoming an extinct species. Only recently, the main route Southampton – Lyndhurst – Lymington reduced from every 30 minutes to hourly.

Agree with Tim re spares

While clearing out some unused junk I discovered a Reader’s Digest metric converter/motorists converter. It covers a range of 25 to 50 pence per litre, which is not a lot of use these days.

Interestingly, it also converts mpg to miles per £, and the mpg range is from 15 to 50 mpg. Thankfully, many modern cars will average more than 50 mpg, and hopefully fuel economy will continue to rise.

Melvyn Smith says:
15 August 2019

The maths don’t add up. With the cortina doing 12000 miles at 27 mpg, using approx 444 gallons with a cost of around £1.30 a gallon is a cost of about £570.
The Mondeo being correct.
Just saying 😀

It might be right: “The Cortina, averaging 27 mile per gallon (mpg), with petrol costs at 28p a litre in 1980, would cost a motorist £1,889 a year to fuel, when adjusted for inflation and based on the UK average of 12,000 miles a year.”

If we update this to 2019 then a Mondeo 2000 would cost around 83% in fuel compared to the Cortina. In 2011 it would have been101.3%. So we should be still happier?

My first car barely averaged 30 mpg but my present one, a diesel, was averaging 60 mpg over about three months, helped by some warm weather. I have not done any longer journeys recently and the average has dropped to 56 mpg over the past month. Whatever the cost of fuel, it’s worth having a car that is reasonably economical.

Mark Willis says:
21 October 2021

These figures don’t add up it’s costing fours times as much to run a car today 27mpg at 0.28 pence per litre over 12000 miles is about £560 total rip off and we’ve all got further and further to travel to work

This article was published over ten years ago, Frank.