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The History of the Car Cup Holder

It wasn't too long ago that car cup holders were hard to come by. Here's how they became such an important automotive feature.

car cup holder

The beauty of automotive design is that it has evolved in lockstep with societal changes. License plates were needed to keep track of all the cars that filled the road in the early 1900s. Bumper stickers were the product of wartime technologies. The humble car cup holder is no different. If you follow its lifespan, you get a glimpse into how changes in the way we live gave rise to this new feature. It’s less about a circular indentation in your console and more about societal shifts.

Overreaching? Maybe. But some have even gone as far as suggesting that the inclusion of cup holders in cars make us feel safe by allowing us to drive next to warm liquid, which reminds us of mother’s milk.

Whatever the reason, this feature is clearly important to us. In 2007, PriceWaterhouseCoopers reported that the number of cup holders was more important to new car buyers than fuel economy.

So, how did the ubiquitous car cup holder come about? Let’s dig in.

The Early Days of Cars and Beverages

Although automobiles were much different in the early 20th century than they are today, food was clearly still on the minds of passengers back then. Some early cars came with picnic baskets and kitchenette sets in the trunk or attached to the sideboards. In “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald describes Gatsby’s Rolls Royce as having “supper-boxes.”

But the idea of eating or drinking while the car was in motion was still far away. Cars didn’t run very smoothly and most roads were anything but pristine. Traveling by automobile was not conducive to eating a meal or sipping on a drink.

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The Origin of Car Cup Holders

The history of the car cup holder can be traced back to the 1950s and ’60s when it became popular to eat in your car as drive-in restaurants were having their heyday. But in this case, customers were stationary when eating and drinking. Any beverage could be placed on the dashboard or floor, or secured between the knees.

However, it wasn’t completely uncommon to see rudimentary cup holders incorporated into snack trays. A newspaper image from 1950 shows a snack tray hanging from the dashboard with two holes cut out to put beverages.

In 1953, the Automobile Seat Article Holder received a patent. This device consisted of a metal plate wedged between two seat cushions. Three years later, a slightly enhanced version emerged in the Refreshment Tray for Automobile Instrument Panel, which had wells better able to hold beverages upright.

Glove Compartment Cup Holders

Starting in the late 1950s, car designers began incorporating cup holders into the backside of glove compartment doors. For one reason or another, these were usually a miss. In 1957, Cadillac devised a magnetic glove compartment for its Eldorado Brougham. But it was designed to be used with the four metal tumblers that came with the vehicle, not just any beverage you had on hand.

As we moved into the 1960s, manufacturers continued to look to the glove compartment in an attempt to accommodate beverages. These early iterations, however, were usually a pair of very shallow circular indentations that would never be able to keep a beverage standing upright if the vehicle was in motion.

Dodge Caravan

The 1984 Dodge Caravan

The Minivan Arrives

Car cup holders as we know them today can trace their origins back to 1983. That’s when Chrysler invented the minivan. The manufacturer’s Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager were the first two mass-produced cars to have built-in cup holders.

Although they still were not a standard feature, more and more manufacturers added cupholders throughout the 1980s and into the ’90s. These times were marked by a steep increase in the number of women, particularly mothers, entering the workforce. Some have suggested that rise of dual income households led to a surge in popularity of drive-thru restaurants. Families could drive up to a window a receive an inexpensive meal in mere minutes. But they needed a place to put their drinks.

Car cup holders quickly became a necessity instead of luxury, at least in the United States. By the mid-1990s, built-in cup holders were a standard feature among manufacturers around the world.

Hot Coffee and the Modern Car Cup Holder

It seems strange, but many of the innocuous components of an automobile have found their way into the center of a major court case. The car cup holder is no different. In what became a national headline in 1994, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck sued McDonald’s after spilling on her lap the 180-degree coffee she just ordered at the drive-thru. She was sitting in her grandson’s car at the time, opened the lid to add sugar and cream, and spilled the hot coffee, which burned her skin. The jury awarded Liebeck $640,000 at the conclusion of the trial. The whole ordeal may have been avoided had the Ford Probe not been devoid of even a single cup holder.

car cup holder

If manufacturers were hesitant to include cup holders in vehicle design, the hot coffee incident helped push them over the threshold. Even European companies, which had long resisted adding the feature, began building cars with cup holders when U.S. sales started to drop. We’ve gotten to a point that if cars don’t include a place to store your beverage, or don’t include enough places, they will face the wrath of the public.

Car cup holders continue to evolve in design as beverage containers change in size and shape. Other features, like LED-lighted cup holders, have also been introduced into the market. But maybe the most telling sign of how times have changed is the number of cup holders you’ll find in vehicles. While 20 years ago, you’d be lucky to find a handful, many cars today have more than a dozen. The Subaru Ascent, in fact, has 19 cup holders.

How important are car cup holders to you? Do you take them into consideration when purchasing a new vehicle? Let us know in the comments below!

Comments
  • First thing I look for! ….and it has to hold a large size soft drink. My old BMW cupholder kept breaking…I forced the dealer to replace it—$300! It broke again. They replaced it again. I was SOOOO careful…broke again. Got rid of the car. I think BMW finally got the message after about the year 2000. Now… won’t even look further without at least two GOOD cupholders in the front.

  • Dorothy S.

    Great article. Ford changed the layout of the cupholder, from the Edge in 2007 to the 2017 Edge. It is at an awkward angle now. The rear seatbelts are also user-unfriendly. Change is not always an improvement. Since I’m in my 70s this will probably be my last car purchase.

  • Cheryll B.

    I’ve covered thousands of miles in my lifetime and the cup holder is definitely one of the most important features of my car. I remember I once had a car which had a cup holder too small for my now larger travel mug and it really irritated me. Lol. For every vehicle after that, I made sure that “large cup holder” was in my desired features list.

  • Megan P.

    I had a 91 Volvo 240 DL Wagon – no cupholders… except for the indent for a cup on the inside of the glove compartment. I had that car for 20 years and precariously held many beverages between my legs while driving. I remember being sad at finally getting rid of the car but was always excited that the next car I got would definitely have cupholders. It’s the little things.

  • Yes, cup holders are convenient but it is safe to eat or drink while driving? NO, just as it is not safe to talk on the phone, even hands-free, while driving. People can’t multitask as much as they think and the main consideration while driving is concentrating on the careful operation of a 3000 pound or more potential weapon.

    Pull over if you need to eat or drink, or tank up before beginning the trip.

    There is an ad for a cupholder that says it allows your cell phone to be positioned so that it is easy to see, while driving. It should not be bought since looking at a phone while driving is very dangerous as is talking, even hands-free, since your concentration on the road is compromised by having a conversation and dealing with a lost signal, static, or other interference in the reception, aside from now dealing with the caller and responding, all of which take concentration away from driving.

    I know it may disturb people with this message but it is valid. If someone calls me while driving, I ask them to call me back when they are no longer driving. Some of these people, even doctors and other highly educated ones, may balk at my not wanting to engage (even when “it is Sunday morning and no one is on the road.”). Invariably, another car appears and you need all of your concentration on driving.

    So, be careful driving, and, and don’t forget to wear a good and well-fitting mask when outside. Even if no one else is around, someone, possibly unmasked, may suddenly appear and threaten you if you removed your mask.

    Stay well and safe.

  • Morton J.

    About 30 years ago i remember the SAAB hadheater in glove compartment to keep coffee hot.Am i right?If so where was the coffee cup held?

  • Kenneth B.

    That woman you mentioned that spilled a hot coffee she got from McDonald’s on herself, I heard the case was retried and monitory value was handed out, is that true?

    • Andrew S.

      Hi Kenneth, thanks for reading! There was only on trial. The jury awarded the woman roughly $3 million but the judge lowered that to about $600,000. Both sides appealed but before the case could be retried, the parties settled for an undisclosed amount.

  • My 2006 Toyota Highlander has NO cup holders in the front seat, but has FOUR of them in the back seat – so I am guessing the driver is not supposed to drink and drive? It was quite a shock after I purchased this car used to find out there is no place to put my cup! Since the middle console has a holder for cassette tapes, I used dense foam and cut a square to fill it, and then cut holes to hold my drinks upright! Evidentially, music was more important to the designers of the car than having a drink while driving!

  • Agreed! Must have good cupholders front AND rear seats. Poor design often places them too close together – cups rub each other and can dislodge tops of take-out containers. I have 61 Ford Falcon and am adapting the pull-out ashtray (very solid metal construction) with a dual cupholder!

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