When Petrol Was Motor Spirit

Which of these would you rather have: 20 litres of petrol? Or 20 litres of Motor Spirit?

We’ll, if you went back to the 1920’s, you’d be filling up your car with Motor Spirit.

A far more evocative term than the modern one, and a name that implies you’ll be flying along the road, full of the joys of life.

Of course that was back in the day when congestion and traffic jams were few and far between.

The word ‘petrol’ has a rather curious history and it wasn’t until we received the guest blog from The Shell Art Collection at The National Motor Museum that we found out ‘Motor Spirit’ was another name for it.

So we asked the manager, Nicky Balfour Penney, to tell us more…

The Spirit of Motoring

The term "Motor Spirit" was used to describe "petroleum spirit" for the "motor car". It was largely a British term used to describe petrol from the late 19th Century to the 1930s.

The word "petrol" was first used in reference to the refined substance in 1892, and was registered as a trade name by British wholesaler Carless, Capel & Leonard.

Shell Advertising

Carless, Capel & Leonard used "petrol" in its advertising as early as 1896, whereas their competitors used the term "motor spirit" until the 1930s.

Marcus Samuel formed The "Shell" Transport and Trading Company in 1897.

By 1904 the Shell name and pecten emblem were used to promote the company’s products, and in 1905 advertising for "Shell Motor Spirit" began.

Shell’s branding was so successful that it became a household name. "Shell Spirit" was used for all its petrol and appeared on the side of cans as either "Motor Spirit" or "Aviation Spirit".

The Magic of the Car

In the 1920s Shell began using petrol pumps and expanding its products.

Advertising Motor Spirit

Although "Motor Spirit" still appeared on the sides of petrol cans, "petrol" was being used more frequently in advertising and became a more modern and familiar term.

In 1926 Shell began a new advertising campaign to show the benefits of using both "Shell Petrol" and "Shell Oil".

The use of traditional term "Motor Spirit" in Shell’s advertising ceased – it was no longer part of the nostalgic horseless carriage mystique, the magic fluid that provided the power.


  • David Jeremiah (2007), Representations of British Motoring. Manchester University Press.
  • Stephen Howarth (1997), A Century in Oil, The "Shell" Transport and Trading Company, 1897 – 1997. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.
  • Wikipedia – Motor Spirit
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4 years ago

I have a shell motor spirit can , on the bottom is a number “E33” can you please tell me the age of my shell can , thank you