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Despite the Change, the Meatball Lives On

Call it the power of the meatball.


Meatball is the name insiders gave to the distinctive orange-and-blue ball the Union 76 icon that was once emblematic of gasoline retailing on the West Coast.


Like an aging AMC Hornet, the Union 76 brand will continue to live on in California, long after its former parent, Unocal Corp., is gone likely swallowed up in the next few months by Chevron Corp. now that the Chinese oil company, CNOOC Ltd., has dropped out of the bidding.


“Everyone referred to the round ball with the 76 on it as the meatball it was slang, like a marketing term,” said Barry Lane, a spokesman for Unocal, which sold the stations long ago. Today, chances are that your neighborhood 76 station isn’t owned by an oil company at all, but by a mom-and-pop retailer whose sales get an octane boost from putting a familiar brand above the pumps.


At its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, Union Oil of California boasted as many as 4,000 Union 76 gas stations from San Diego to Seattle.


By 1985, the company decided to change its name and trademark after thwarting a takeover attempt by corporate raider T. Boone Pickens. It formed a Delaware-based holding company, Unocal Corp., and changed the name on its gas stations to “Unocal 76.”


Fast forward a decade and Unocal agreed to sell its refining and marketing operations to another energy giant, Tosco Corp. In exchange, Tosco received the exclusive right to use the “Union 76,” “76,” and popular orange logo for marketing purposes. But it couldn’t use the Unocal name, so most gas stations shortened the name to 76.


“That was part of the agreement, that Tosco had the rights to the meatball,” said Jeffrey Callender, a spokesman for Houston-based ConocoPhillips, which purchased Tosco in 2001.


Like other large oil and gas companies, ConocoPhillips has been selling off its retail operations to focus exclusively on exploration. It now licenses the 76 name to hundreds of independent gas retailers and still owns about 300 stations under three brands: Conoco, Philips 66 and 76

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