February 4, 2010 / 3:50 PM / 7 years ago

Capitalism is latest trial for Hungary entrepreneur

5 Min Read

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."

Aside from a few years of rationing, World War Two bypassed the petrol station. Set a safe distance from the city center, it even survived aerial bombardment. Then came the Russians.

"When my father saw that they took every last moveable stick, he couldn't bear it," Landthaller said. "He killed himself."

Four Decades in Communist Hands

Left to his own devices, the young Landthaller fought to save his business from nationalization. But his luck ran out in 1949.

Once the communists took over in Hungary, the petrol station was nationalized and Landthaller promptly fired.

"They made me empty my pockets before they kicked me out," he said. "Then they jailed me, then they enrolled me in the military. I didn't get back home until four years later."

Disenfranchised but determined, he pulled a number of tricks to keep the buildings, as well as the land beneath them. He rented it out to the state oil company AFOR.

Even as he rose through the ranks of a local metallurgy cooperative he was forced to work at, Landthaller kept a firm grip on his property. In 1970, he sued AFOR for back rent - and won. Emboldened, he sued again for land use fees. And won again.

But it wasn't until 1989 that he could claim back the business he had lost 40 years before. After communism fell, he heard AFOR was going to be privatized. He walked into the State Holdings Agency with a stack of yellowed documents.

"The officer told me he hadn't seen a property title that solid since God knows when," he said, pulling the stack out from a drawer. "I didn't collect these for no reason, you see."

He fixed up the place, filled the gasoline tanks, and re-opened for business in 1992.

Eighteen years on, Landthaller is still going strong. The one regret he has - besides fuel-efficient cars - is that his son, an engineer, would not take over the business from him.

Not that Taszilo Landthaller takes no for an answer.

"I told him he would have to continue this work one day," he said, grinning broadly. "If he doesn't, I will kick his butt."

Reporting by Marton Dunai, editing by Paul Casciato

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