Drink Me

How Americans came to have cup holders in their cars.

Click on images for an expanded view.

The history of automobile interior design has been one of incorporating nonessential features that subsequently became indispensable. When broadcasting became commonplace, for example, the built-in radio was the feature few car owners wanted to be without. Today, that feature is the car cup holder—now considered to be so essential that many consumers wonder why it took so long to arrive.

Riding in the earliest automobiles must have been a bone-jarring experience. Not only were suspension systems crude by today’s standards, but also roads were much more unforgiving. The possibility of drinking from a cup while driving may never have entered the consciousness of early touring parties. Liquids were kept tightly corked in the thermos bottle, which was secured in the picnic basket until the car stopped and a blanket was spread out beside the road—on terra firma.

The inspiration for cup holders?

Eating and drinking in (parked) cars became popular with the rise of the drive-in restaurant and theater. In a sense, the tray that hooked on to the partially rolled-up window is the antecedent of the automobile cup holder. The tray was typically located on the driver’s door, and back-seat passengers had to put their cokes and malts down on the floor and remember not to kick them over. Eventually, the front-seat passenger was able to open the glove compartment door and sit a glass or cup or two on the door-cum-table. But leaving the drive-in with an unfinished drink usually meant holding the cup gingerly and hoping it didn’t spill. Early attempts by carmakers to add grooved depressions to the glove compartment door—like those on airplane tray tables—checked sliding but not bouncing and sloshing.

In the 1960s, during the heyday of the space race, coffee cups shaped like Mercury capsules—with their wider bottoms—provided some stability for drinks placed on the floor or dashboard. But the introduction of easy-open aluminum beverage cans posed a new dilemma for drivers: Where to place the light and slender can when shifting gears? (The American penchant for automatic transmissions is not independent of the national passion for cup holders.)

The first true cup holders were primitive and garish and non-integral to the car’s design. Mostly, they were plastic holsterlike devices that hooked on to the inside of the door, staying in place whether the window was up or down. Any cup holder attached to a car door is an invitation to disaster, of course: Doors are opened, closed, and sometimes slammed with gusto. In time, cup holders were built into the console between seats and other less mobile parts of vehicles. (In Europe, designers did not consider cup holders essential for driving pleasure or safety, and the basic car design left no room for the gauche American accessory.) Today, ingenious cup holder designs have been retrofitted into armrests and dashboards. Unfortunately, in many cases when deployed, these folding structures obstruct essential controls—like buttons operating radios, heaters, windows, and rearview mirrors.

Toyota 4Runner cup holders with console tray

In a recent New Yorker article on sport-utility vehicles and safety, Malcolm Gladwell quotes the French cultural anthropologist G. Clotaire Rapaille expressing amazement that the first thing educated car-buyers look at in a car is how many cup holders it has. My experience is that people shopping for a new car or truck are more discriminating. It is not so much the number of cup holders as their design that can tip the balance between choosing one vehicle over another. (I have repeatedly heard articulate people say that their family’s latest automobile purchase hinged on which cup holders worked best for them.)

Audi TT Roadster Quattro

So, on a recent book tour, I paid special attention to the cup holders in the cars driven by my “media escorts.” In Boston, the car was an Audi of recent vintage. It had a single-cup holder that opened out from the dashboard—closer to the passenger than to the driver’s seat. Every time I got in the car, I found my left knee perilously close to the device, which invariably held a bottle of water that listed toward me, like a kitschy model of the Tower of Pisa. I asked the driver how she liked the cup holder and noted that it seemed a bit too shallow for the job it was doing. She admitted that water bottles did sometimes tip out on tight turns. (This thought seemed to have reminded her to find the bottle top and screw it back on.)

It so happens that my wife and I had bought a new Audi just a few months earlier. In spite of our frustration with the cup holders on our previous car—a mid-1990s vintage Volvo—we had not paid much attention to the Audi cup holders. They are neat and inconspicuous when not being used, but we soon discovered that they are surprisingly inadequate. As with my Boston escort’s Audi, our new car has a cup holder that deploys from the dash on the passenger’s side. It appears to be a bit deeper and therefore capable of holding a (slender) water bottle more securely. It can also accommodate a small- or medium-size Styrofoam coffee cup. But the liquid tends to slosh around and out the drinking hole and so can drip onto and into the CD player, climate controls, and center console. We have taken to wrapping a napkin or two around the coffee cup before putting it into the cup holder. This ad-hoc consumer redesign keeps things dry but does so at the expense of aesthetics.

There’s also a second cup holder that deploys from the console and sits very close to the passenger seat. When in use, this cup holder sports a pair of spring-loaded fingerlike projections opposing a plastic flap, among all of which a slender plastic water bottle or aluminum can (but not much else) just about fits. This drink holder is so shallow and close to the seat that whatever is in it seems constantly to be knocked out of kilter. Indeed, our Audi’s cup holders seem to be perfect (bad) examples of what design-psychologist Donald Norman, in his new book Emotional Design,says “reflects the old-fashioned German automobile design culture, which proclaims that the engineer knows best, and considers studies of real people driving their vehicles irrelevant.”

There are better cup holders out there, but which ones are best is a highly subjective matter. Certainly none is perfect. But consumers can expect that cup holders will continue to be improved, like all made things. (One thing to look for is a spring-loaded flap that acts like the rubber ones found on so many cup holder designs: It keeps cups smaller than the holder from jiggling and rattling.) Meanwhile, drivers and passengers alike can still dream of one that will hold whatever size drink container they can buy at a roadside convenience store. This dream cup holder will not obstruct a single other thing in the car and will hold a cup steady on a rocky road. The future cup holder, one can further dream, will move under a cup being put down by a driver watching the road the way an outfielder moves under a fly ball. Truly visionary drivers might even fantasize of the robot cup holder that can move a cup into a hand groping in the dark.