Somewhere in London’s Docklands is an archive. It holds a lot of artefacts, documents, and images that tell the story of Sainsbury’s, a supermarket chain unknown to most of us but likely awful familiar to the Brits out there. But there’s more. There are cars. Well, pictures of them.
I found out about all this about two weeks ago when a tweet from the Sainsbury Archive found itself in my feed. It let me know that there were hundreds of photos of Sainsbury’s parking lots (or car parks, as they call them over there) in their collection. When I finally recovered from the shock of finding out that someone out there was so much nerdier than I am that they run an archive for a supermarket, I went digging for the Car Content and I was not disappointed.
For their part, the archivists have pulled together this collection of photos because they fit into the greater narrative of how grocery stores have changed the face of consumerism in the United Kingdom. Just like refrigeration, the barcode, and loyalty programs made their impacts on how people shop, the parking lot played its part as well.
But for us, the significance of these photos is what they can tell us about what regular people across Britain were driving. I wanted to know a little bit about how the chain developed its strategy to take advantage of increased mobility among Brits as the 20th Century brought more cars to more people, but the archivists didn’t have any direct answers there. Luckily, the photos more than speak for themselves.
Take this photo from the Sainsbury’s store in Peterborough from 1972. In the lot are Triumphs, MGs, Morrises, a whole host of Minis and more. It’s not just a rose-coloured image of what we imagine Brits were driving back then. It’s the real deal.
Or this one, from the chain’s store in Bath, where a train station’s shed became an impressive cover for the parking lot in a kind of poetic statement about how the country got around in the latter half of the 20th Century. Ten years after the photo below, tastes have clearly changed, but there’s still a Rover SD1 front and centre so you know at least some Brits are still buying local.
Those last two photos were in black and white, but one detail that stands out to me in some of the other photos is the palette of colours featured in the parking lots of old. This photo from 1983 of the parking lot of a store in Chester shows that British drivers weren’t afraid of picking something other than grey, blue, or silver. There are all sorts of hues out there.
As the decades wore on, the makeup of the collection of cars in Sainsbury’s parking lots changed quite a bit. Many of the British makes that occupied most of the spots in earlier pictures started to fade away, and in their place, more cars from the continent and Asia rolled in.
By 1995, Rovers and Austins had given way to Toyotas and Hondas but that didn’t mean that the cars were boring. At least, I think a mid-engined minivan like the Previa is worth a look.
Since that photo was taken nearly 25 years ago, the parking landscape has changed quite a bit. The chain has had a renewed focus on stores in urban areas without space for dedicated parking, and electric vehicle charging points have found their way into the car parks out there. I’m sure photos of them will find their way into the archive soon enough, and we’ll be able to draw a line through them to the rest of the Sainsbury’s parking lot legacy when they do.
If the photos above aren’t enough for you, I suggest you have a look at the whole collection of parking lot photos at the archive’s website. The collection is easy to navigate and I can imagine that some of you will find hours of entertainment looking through the photos contained within even if you’ve got no special interest in the history of British grocery stores.