Hess trucks roll out every winter, bringing joy to collectors

Rexford’s Dick Tullock never pumped Hess gasoline at his Schenectady service station.
Dick Tullock of Rexford holds a Hess toy rig above the Hess police and race cars. Tullock has about 25 Hess models in his collection. (Jeff wilkin/Gazette reporter)
Dick Tullock of Rexford holds a Hess toy rig above the Hess police and race cars. Tullock has about 25 Hess models in his collection. (Jeff wilkin/Gazette reporter)

Categories: Life & Arts

Rexford’s Dick Tullock never pumped Hess gasoline at his Schenectady service station.

He was with Arco when he began leasing the corner spot at Union and McClellan streets in 1971. The longtime mechanic bought the station in 1983, and had Citgo, Mobil and Sunoco on tap over the years.

Tullock threw Hess a little business every Christmas. When the company began selling its green-and-white fire trucks, police cars, fuel tankers and transport rigs, Dick was ready to spend a few bucks and step back in time.

Tullock still shifts into reverse when the new Hess shows up. This year it was the 50th anniversary special, a transport truck with sleek space cruiser and miniature scout ship, for $29.99. The money also buys sound effects, lights and six Energizer batteries.

The company offered two vehicles for 2014. The “collector’s edition” truck, a long, dark green fuel truck that came with a small replica of the first toy, the ‘64 fuel tanker, was priced at $45.99 and sold out around Thanksgiving.

“I can remember being a kid and looking at toys after I grew up and saying, ‘Why didn’t I keep one of those.’” said Tullock, 75, who sold his business and retired last summer.

He started collecting in 1991. In 1998, he started buying two trucks, one for his grandson Calvin Cleworth. “They just bring back childhood, I guess,” Tullock said. “And you really got a lot for your money when you bought a Hess truck.”

Good value and good advertising — the trucks were a great way to put the Hess name in the market in a time when other gasoline dealers had colorful mascots and spirited ad campaigns. During the 1960s, people knew Esso’s striped feline, and the pitch to “put a tiger in your tank.” A familiar TV serenade was “You can trust your car to the man who wears the star, the big red Texaco star.” Mobil had the flying horse, Pegasus; the red and white “Flying A” sign showed off a capital “A” with large, giant wings.

According to Hess, the first trucks were sold with just newspaper ads and signs in front of gas stations. Early models sold for as little as $1.39. During the 1980s, television advertisement began; in 2012, the Hess online store opened.

Early models were tankers. The first fire truck appeared in 1970, the first police patrol car in 1993. There have been rescue trucks, helicopters, race cars space shuttles.

Tullock recently put part of his collection in his wife Kirsten’s china cabinet. Kirsten said the display would only be temporary; the Hess gang would be towed out and plates, cups and saucers would reclaim their familiar parking places.

Justin Mayer, who runs the Hess toy truck program in Woodbridge, New Jersey, said more than 1 million Hess trucks have been sold this Christmas season. He said people who begin buying for a son, daughter or grandchild will generally keep up the tradition.

Mayer wouldn’t say whether the company makes a profit on the program.

“The role of this has always remained the same, which is to really bring holiday cheer to families and really thank the customers and the communities in which we do business,” he said.

Mayer said collectors will pay as much as $3,000 for the early 1960s toys. He knows people will often buy two, one to light up under the tree and another one that will stay dark in the original package.

The company has no plans to shut down the program. If Christmas keeps coming, so will Hess trucks.

Kristie Dobbins, curator of the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures in Kansas City, Missouri, says the Hess trucks, cars and flying machines appeal to both kids and adults. “There were lights and sirens, and they were better than any of the vehicles I had for my dolls,” Dobbins said. “My Barbies ran around on Hess trucks.”

Hess didn’t come up with the idea. Dobbins said gasoline trucks and toy service stations have been under Christmas trees as far back as the 1930s. The Ertl Company, known for die-cast replicas of farm vehicles, produced Texaco toys. So did Buddy L.

“Mobil had some items during the 1990s for several years,” Dobbins said. “I’ve seen some Pennzoil items as well. But they were very limited. It seemed there were very few created.”

Tullock knows all about the Mobil trucks. He had them in stock on Union Street.

“They were a hard sell,” he said. “They didn’t go over like Hess. I’ve got cases left over in the cellar.”

Elizabeth Kulkus of Cranesville, near Amsterdam, used to buy Hess trucks for her late father, Joseph Kulkus. “My dad always collected cars, so we always had the Hess truck collection going,” Kulkus said.

The ritual lasted nearly 15 years. Kulkus later learned her father, who died in 2008, appreciated Hess products enough to double down every December. “We found out he was buying the same trucks for himself every year, so he had one to play with and one to keep,” she said.

One year, the family pulled out every truck in the Hess collection and lit them up. “We had them all going,” Kulkus said. “It was the best Christmas. They were on the hearth in front of the fireplace and we had all the lights and sirens going.”

Kulkus thinks of her father when she sees advertisements for the new Hess models. And now that her sister Emily Kulkus of Syracuse has a 2-year-old daughter — Violet Powers — grandmother Ann Kulkus has already planned a Hess revival. Violet will have a gas this Christmas.

“We’re going to start the collection with the next generation, kind of a memory of Dad and Grandpa,” Elizabeth Kulkus said.

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected]

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