Shell and Esso oil cans restored to their former glory by Littlehampton man

I first spoke with Littlehampton man Ian Wood-Ellis at a forties Honey Hush Jive Club themed Armed Forces Day dance where most of us turned out in uniforms bearing rank insignia we never actually attained '“ for example I promoted myself to an RAF sergeant when I was actually only a corporal.

Shell motor and aviation spirit cans
Shell motor and aviation spirit cans

Ian, however, arrived dressed as a tall, very lanky and outsized young London refugee complete with neatly trimmed and parted hair, typical of the youngsters of that period, obviously a man of some imagination.

During our conversation I learned he was getting into a rather unique hobby, that of collecting and restoring old oil and petrol cans.

The cans are mostly from the Littlehampton area although he will travel further afield for an absolute gem.

Shell motor and aviation spirit cans

A ‘gem’ of an oil can? Oh, yes, there are a few beautifully embossed, humbly branded cans out there and, much to his annoyance, being sold on eBay at grossly inflated prices.

Our town with its many garages must have used thousands of such cans over the early years of motoring.

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Ian’s grandfather was also a local man and although he may not have been an oil can hobbyist he was, fortunately for Ian, a hoarder.

Ian Wood-Ellis with some of his restored Esso and Shell oil cans, as well as his next project, a Mackintosh Toffee biscuit tin

Following his passing Ian discovered a shed full of old oil cans, some of them dating from way back before we had the planet-devouring nightmare of plastic to contend with.

Many of them, when the rust and old paint was removed, are rather unique and attractive in their own way.

Some of the names are still familiar today while others have long since drifted from our cluttered memories.

Easily recognised and remembered brands currently in use, with such familiar names as Esso and Shell, and some with less familiar names but equally attractive in appearance – Shell-Mex and Shell Motor Spirit and Aviation Spirit.

Restored Esso and Shell-Mex in original livery

Ian set about restoring them to their former glory – a tough, mucky and laborious job which, at the end of any such project, reveals a slightly musty memory of a once glorious past when things were made of steel not tin, to last, to be reused, recycled time and time again and not a one-off use disposable plastic container to end up contaminating our oceans and lovely beaches.

The petrol cans are challenge enough but after restoring the first one Ian was hooked.

Although always on the lookout for new projects he has several cans yet to prepare and, among the rusting petrol cans, a very attractive Mackintosh Toffee biscuit tin, the restoration of which is going to be a bit of a challenge.

But how do you go about restoring a rusty, smelly 70-year old tin can into something that does not look out of place in your living room or office?

Oil cans before their restoration

Well, not as straight forward as you might imagine.

Cleaning has to be inside as well as out.

Careful attention and considerable research have to be given to the original colour and whether or not the often quite attractive embossing was coloured differently from the rest of the can.

He assures me that it’s not all about elbow grease and emery paper, and that the historical research, although involved, adds another layer of interest to the project.

If you have any such old relics laying around and going rusty then contact me at [email protected] and I will pass them on to Ian for you.

The beautifully and tastefully restored Manor Road Garage in East Preston, now a block of flats