Capitalism is latest trial for Hungary entrepreneur

Thu Feb 4, 2010 10:52am EST
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By Marton Dunai

BUDAPEST (Reuters Life) - When Taszilo Landthaller's father opened his petrol station just west of the Hungarian capital Budapest, cars still ran on an alcohol mix and used the left side of the road. It was 1936.

"There wasn't too much traffic, we could play football on the road all day," said Landthaller, who is now 81 years old and goes by the name Uncle Taszilo, but still sits at the roadside counter every day, selling gasoline.

His is one of the handful of independent petrol stations left in Hungary, having survived the Nazis, the Red Army, four decades of communist rule behind the Iron Curtain and the latest pestilential trial: capitalism.

Most of the independent petrol businesses which made it through World War Two were nationalized by the communists and nearly all the rest have succumbed to 20 years of capitalism, which brought the world's most formidable competitors: big oil. "They built this Shell station right on top of me," Landthaller pointed down the road. "They may have thought I would just close down. That was 15 years ago. If you know how to pinch a penny, you can still make ends meet in this business."

The skeletal building which serves as his office is a testimony to his thrift. Barely bigger than a garden shed, it is heated by an iron stove that burns wood refuse. Framed photos of the glory days of motoring adorn the worn walls.

The petrol station opened during the early years of car culture. The Landthaller family's land was dissected by the new asphalt road to Lake Balaton, Hungary's main tourist resort. Rich men drove past and Landthaller senior sensed opportunity.

Fuel, in nominal terms anyway, cost one thousandth of its current price - but business was good, as petrol stations were even scarcer than cars, and fuel efficiency was unheard of.

"These days, you have cars that run for 100 km (62.14 miles) on 4 or 5 liters (1.1-0.88 Imp gallons)," Landthaller said. "What a shame. Back in the day, they wouldn't stop below 16, or more like 20 liters."   Continued...