‘to put a tiger in one’s tank’: meaning and origin

It is generally—and erroneously—said 1 that the phrase to put a tiger in one’s tank, which means to invest one with energy, originated in the slogan for a 1965 advertising campaign for Esso Petroleum Company.

1 In particular by the Oxford English Dictionary (online edition, June 2022).

It was in fact earlier that to put a tiger in one’s tank was used as an advertising slogan and became a popular catchphrase.

1952

A similar metaphor, Tiger Power in your tank, was used in an advertising campaign for Flying “A” Ethyl Gasoline, published in several U.S. newspapers in June and July 1952—for example in the Albany Democrat-Herald (Albany, Oregon) of Monday 30th June 1952:

Extra Quick Pickup with today’s EXTRA TIGER POWER
Extra quick pickup . . . smooth gliding getaway. Both are yours to enjoy with Tiger Power in your tank. And today’s Flying “A” Ethyl has extra Tiger Power!

Note: The advertisements for Flying “A” Ethyl Gasoline were illustrated with a drawing of a speeding motor car, driven by a smiling man, escaping a pouncing tiger.

1959 & 1960

In 1959 and 1960, the slogan for an advertising campaign for Oklahoma Oil Company’s High-Q Extra was Put a tiger in your tank. The following, for example, is from The Indianapolis Star (Indianapolis, Indiana) of Friday 3rd April 1959:

Put a tiger in your tank!
OKLAHOMA ANNOUNCES A FABULOUS NEW GASOLINE:
HIGH-Q EXTRA WITH HP!
Now! A completely new Super Premium Gasoline . . . the greatest gasoline sold in this area! HP Compound in new HIGH-Q EXTRA actually brings back the power and pep your car had when it was new! You get more power because HP drastically cuts down misfiring caused by short-circuited spark plugs. You get smoother performance because HP controls the pre-ignition that makes cylinders fire at the wrong time. And you get better gasoline mileage because HP reduces gasoline waste resulting from misfiring and pre-ignition. Put this Tiger in your tank today! Start your car on a new life with Oklahoma’s sensational new HIGH-Q EXTRAenjoy “Happy Motoring” . . . once again!

Note: The advertisements for High-Q Extra were illustrated with a drawing of a tiger’s tail being used as a petrol-pump hose.

Jack Mabley used a tiger in your tank as a phrase in his column, Jack Mabley’s Story, published in the Chicago Daily News (Chicago, Illinois) of Wednesday 21st October 1959:

Wow! 400 Miles To the Gallon?
What a Tiger In Your Tank!

“THE automobile industry changes so rapidly that it is hardly safe to make predictions of a definite nature. But our engineers know that there is enough energy in a gallon of gasoline to drive a small car 400 miles, provided the fuel is fully utilized.”—Alfred P. Sloan Jr., president, General Motors, September, 1934.
(25 years later: How’s YOUR mileage?)

1960

In 1960, the slogan for an advertising campaign for Humble Oil & Refining Company’s Vitane was Put a tiger in your tank. The following, for example, is from The Billings Gazette (Billings, Montana) of Friday 15th April 1960:

Put a tiger in your tank with VITANE
bring power back alive!
New VITANE gives you surging power. Snarling energy. The kind of vital power your engine needs to overcome and end any drag from misfire deposits. That’s why new VITANE in Carter Extra was created by the world’s largest petroleum research laboratory. New VITANE does indeed put a tiger in your tank . . . lets your engine run free and clean; eliminates “deposit drag” that can steal as much as 25% of your car’s power. Remember VITANE, the amazing new power additive. VITANE is the tiger in Carter Extra gasoline.
Carter
DIVISION OF HUMBLE OIL & REFINING COMPANY.

Notes:
1) The advertisements for Vitane were illustrated with a drawing of a pouncing tiger.
2) Oklahoma Oil Company and Humble Oil & Refining Company used the advertising slogan Put a tiger in your tank concurrently in 1960.

This advertising slogan soon became a popular catchphrase. The earliest occurrences that I have found are as follows:

1-: From this advertisement, published in The Rapid City Daily Journal (Rapid City, South Dakota) of Monday 20th June 1960:

Tiger In Your Tank

Or kitten in your garage. Blonde or brunette. Either will be happy in this deluxe home at 2032 Juniper. 1008 square feet of truly gracious living. Glistening oak floors, artistically decorated. Enhancingly landscaped. Large attached garage. A bargain at $13,800.

2-: From Ivy Alumni Plan Family Picnic, by Filomena Gould, published in The Indianapolis News (Indianapolis, Indiana) of Wednesday 22nd June 1960:

The picnic announcement received by local Princetonians borrowed the slogan from the petroleum people, “Put a tiger in your tank,” and jaunty little tigers served as decoration.

3-: From the Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) of Thursday 25th August 1960:

AND NOW A WORD FROM OUR SPONSORS

Messrs. Nixon and Kennedy 2 have agreed to meet each other in debate on television. Two questions remain. Shall these debates have commercial sponsors? If so, what corporations will pick up the check?
We think commercial sponsorship should be encouraged, provided the candidates do the plugging themselves. We should like to hear Mr. Nixon interrupt his discussion of medical care for the aged to extol a beer fit for a senior citizen to drink. Then Mr. Kennedy might pause in his examination of federal fiscal policies to urge the listener to solve his personal financial problems by borrowing a little dough.
Mr. Nixon on deodorants and Mr. Kennedy on headache pills would add a note of seriousness to a campaign that seems likely to go frivolous long before November.
Maybe Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Nixon will join in demonstrating the capaciousness of a line of refrigerators. After which, Mr. Kennedy might say a word on putting a Tammany tiger 3 in your tank and Mr. Nixon might reply with a particularly eloquent rendition of the theme that you expect more of the Republicans and—who knows?—maybe you get it.

2 In the 1960 presidential election campaign, the Republican Party’s nominee was the incumbent Vice President Richard Milhous Nixon (1913-1994), and the Democratic Party’s nominee was John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963).
3 There is, in “putting a Tammany tiger in your tank”, a pun on Tammany tiger, which denotes the symbol of the New York Tammany Society, the central organisation of the Democratic party in the City of New York, located in Tammany Hall from the early 19th to the mid-20th centuries.

4-: From I Wanna Put a Tiger in Your Tank, a song written and composed by William Dixon (1915-1992), and recorded in 1960 by Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield – 1913-1983):

I like the way you look and I love your little car,
I try to console you, you know it don’t go very far,
I talk to you, baby, your mind’s all a blank,
I wanna put a tiger in your tank.

Everything you do, you know, you knocks me out,
I want to feel good while you can jump and shout,
I have no money, you know, in the bank,
I wanna put a tiger in your tank.

I can raise your hood, I can clean your coil,
Check your transmission, then even the oil,
I don’t care what the people think,
I wanna put a tiger, y’know, in your tank.

Your motor’s a puffin’, an’ a missin’ too,
One thing left for you to do,
You give it a push, and the car won’t crank,
I wanna put a tiger in your tank.

I wanna put a tiger in your tank,
I wanna put a tiger in your tank.

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