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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 February 2006, 13:08 GMT
Can we have our balls back, please?
By Chris Vallance
BBC News

Union 76 garage
The 76 Union ball has become an American icon
All over the west coast of America, giant orange balls have been disappearing.

The so-called "76 Balls" are the distinctive signs of Union 76 petrol stations, but the historic spheres are under threat, prompting a web-based plea for their preservation reminiscent of the effort to save London's double-decker Routemaster buses.

The www.savethe76ball.com campaign, brainchild of Los Angeles-based bloggers Kim Cooper and Nathan Marsak, criticises ConocoPhillips, the new Texan owners of the Union 76 gas stations, for removing the iconic spheres and replacing them with more conservative flat signs.

In spite of repeated requests, ConocoPhillips have not commented on the bloggers' campaign.

Now Kim and Nathan have appealed to consumers to boycott the chain in an effort to get the balls back.

"We want them to stop pulling down the balls and replace those that have been removed," Kim told the BBC News website.

"We would be mortified if by Halloween - when traditionally the station owners decorate their balls as smiling pumpkins - they're all gone."

West Coast favourite

The campaign has attracted at least one key supporter.

The designer of the 76 Ball, Ray Pedersen, has taken up the cause with a plea to "Save My Ball". Mr Pedersen created the design in 1955 for the Seattle World's fair.

His prototype ball was made out of hand-blown glass.

"He conceived of the 76 Ball and spent $50,000 to have one crafted, then hand-painted the numbers," Kim said.

"His boss fired him over the phone when he heard what he'd spent! But then the boss and Fred Hartley, the head of Union Oil, came up to have a look. Ray heard them coming up the fairgrounds and Fred yelling 'Goddammit, we're gonna put one on every station we own!'

"Needless to say, Ray was not really fired. And it's been a favourite of West Coast folks ever since."

Vintage Americana

Since then, the 76 Ball has become a key part of the American roadside.

The distinctive orange logo with bold blue numerals was a feature of Nascar races, which Union 76 formerly sponsored.

Smaller versions of the ball designed to adorn car aerials have sold in their millions, and the balls have even had cameo appearances in Hollywood movies: One was knocked down by a rampaging T. rex in the film Jurassic Park: The Lost World.

Removal of 76 ball
The spheres are being replaced by flat signs. Photo: FranklinAvenue.net

Yet one mystery remains: Where are the missing balls?

"I have a fantasy that there's some kind of ball repository," campaigner and neon sign historian Nathan Marsak said in an interview with BBC Radio Five Live.

Las Vegas already has a dump for old neon signs, the so-called Yesco graveyard.

But Nathan hopes that there won't be similar necropolis filled with 76 Balls, and he is clearly ready for a protracted battle.

"It's almost like you're carving out part of our body or soul. You've got to get on the battlements and fight the good fights."

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