Cupholders Are Everywhere

As people spent more and more time in cars, auto interiors transformed into living spaces, where food and drink became necessities. An Object Lesson.

An argyle-patterned cup in a center-console cupholder
David Aaron Troy / Getty

The 2019 Subaru Ascent will have 19 of them. Not airbags, but cupholders. That’s more than any mass-market vehicle ever produced, amounting to almost two-and-a-half cupholders for each passenger. There’s room for a Starbucks skinny latte, an unnaturally colored Big Gulp, a Yeti Rambler, and juice boxes galore. So many cupholders, in fact, that The Wall Street Journal recently declared: “We are approaching peak cupholder.”

Although it might be hard to imagine now, eating and drinking in cars was once next to impossible. Beyond a quick swig from a flask, rough roads and a lack of power steering and advanced suspension systems made it difficult and unpleasant to eat or drink on the road.

Cupholders began as an afterthought, mere circular indents on the inside of the door of the glove compartment, but they have become an absolute necessity and a key feature that shoppers evaluate when purchasing a new car, even for a time supplanting fuel efficiency as a consumer’s most sought-after attribute.

Cars like the Model T had accessories for eating, but they were intended for use when the car was parked. In 1936, for example, E. B. White waxed poetic in The New Yorker about the number of pages in the Sears catalogue once devoted to pimping out a Model T. Among the various items available for sale in those pages were small kitchenettes packed into trunks and attached to the sideboards of cars. They came complete with iceboxes and storage bins for pantry items like flour and sugar and a small foldout table. They were most likely used in auto camps, where early motorists stopped to enjoy the scenery, relax, and refuel.

On the luxury end of the spectrum, cars like the Rolls Royce came equipped with elaborate, monogrammed picnic baskets complete with silver utensils. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of Gatsby’s Rolls was characteristic: “It was a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hatboxes and supper-boxes and toolboxes.” But these lavish items were most definitely meant for a stylish roadside picnic, not for eating while motoring.

It didn’t become fashionable to eat in cars until the 1950s, when drive-in restaurants became popular. Waitresses on roller skates, called carhops, delivered milkshakes and burgers on trays whose crooked arms hooked over half-rolled-down car windows. Meals were enjoyed inside the car and the driver handed drinks to passengers who either nestled them between their legs or set them perilously on the floor.

Soon, however, more adventuresome travelers took advantage of increasingly better roads and smoother transmissions, adapting their automobiles so that it was possible to have a snack in a moving car. The November 1950 issue of Popular Mechanics shows a photo of a small snack tray that hangs from two cords attached to the dash with suction cups. It mentions that snacks can be enjoyed while moving and the tray has room for two small bottles of soda. The tray was designed to be stored in the glove compartment when not in use.

Three years later, in 1953, a patent for a car cupholder was granted to an inventor in Texas. The drawings look remarkably like the cupholders of today. They portray either a singular cylinder to hold a cup or a small console wedged between two seats in the back with two round holes for drinks. Still, it would take years for auto manufacturers to warm to these designs; the cupholder would continue to be an afterthought for manufacturers for two more decades.

Until then, production cupholders were prototypical at best—more like suggestions for a spot to put a drink than places to secure one. They were likely used for holding drinks purchased at newly popular drive-through restaurants like McDonald’s. And it seems clear from the precarious nature of their design that the car would have to be stopped while eating and drinking for these early cupholders to serve a purpose.

Things began to change during the late 1960s and 1970s. The suburbs grew, and the idea of sleeping in one community and working in another gave birth to the modern commute. The car, which had originally liberated rural folks from a social life confined to front porches and front parlors, became more than just a conveyance. In addition, it transformed into a place in its own right.

Manufacturers might have been slow to warm to the idea of cupholders in cars, but car owners were not. They first began to haul drinks via after-market add-ons. “The first widely available true cupholders,” writes the Duke University engineering and history professor Henry Petroski, “were holster-like plastic ones” that attached to the window.

Petroski says that these cupholders became popular just as the pop-top can replaced soda bottles in the mid-1960s. He describes them as having a “thin, flat, hooked extension that was inserted between the window and the inside door panel, squeezed in between the glass and the then commonly used, feltlike material that kept car windows from rattling.”

Seeing the popularity of the plastic cupholders, manufacturers adopted them as part of a new overall interior design starting in the mid-1980s. Chrysler reportedly put the first cupholders in mass-market vehicles in their popular 1984  Plymouth Voyager minivan. They were small depressions in the center consoles of the vans, intended to support a 12-ounce cup of coffee.

Minivans would eventually come to symbolize modern motherhood and become emblematic of a harried woman trying to do it all—suited up for work and still making it to soccer practice at the end of the day, feeding the brood in the back with sodas and snacks, all the while stoking herself with caffeine as she rushed through her day. And that’s likely the real origin of the cupholder as we know it—when the minivan became a living room, dining room, and study hall all in one, and the cupholder became a necessity more than a convenience.

In 2007, PricewaterhouseCoopers reported that, according to their surveys, the number of cupholders in a car was a more important factor for consumers purchasing a car than fuel efficiency. With so many vehicle models to choose from, drivers seem willing to allow the placement and quantity of cupholders to drive their purchasing decisions, at least in part. “Cupholders complete an interior,” one gearhead writes, “sometimes taking the whole car along for the ride.”

Meanwhile, the ride is getting longer and longer. Today, the average American spends about 50 minutes commuting each day. Eating in cars is so common that some models come equipped with built-in vacuums to clean up the crumbs. Food and drinks ingested in cars have become such an important category that fast-food companies now test their food items for spillability and leakage—what they call “one-handed convenience.”

A recent, successful Kickstarter campaign ups the ante by featuring the Saucemoto—an in-car dip clip for ketchup and dipping sauces—essentially a small ramekin holder designed especially to accompany chicken nuggets and french fries. More than 3,000 backers pledged over $60,000 for a chance at an early model of this design.

Long commutes and active, harried schedules contribute most to the rise of the cupholder. But one academic links the desire to travel with warm beverages back to humans’ earliest needs for warmth and succor. G. Clotaire Rapaille, a French-born cultural anthropologist, claims that sipping a warm liquid while speeding down the highway is an act akin to reaching for a mother’s breast. It is, Rapaille says, a necessary component for our view of the car as safe. “What was the key element of safety when you were a child?” he asks. “It was that your mother fed you, and there was warm liquid. That’s why cupholders are absolutely crucial.”

This must have been news to European auto manufacturers. Although thoroughly familiar with the appeal of an espresso, continental designers long resisted placing cupholders into their vehicles, relenting only when U.S. sales started to suffer. “For years, Mercedes was convinced we should teach Americans to drink their coffee at home,” Daimler AG’s CEO, Dieter Zetsche, told the Wall Street Journal. “Obviously, that didn’t work out so well.” To compete, European and Japanese carmakers studied the size and shape of U.S. beverages, even going as far as shipping empty containers back to headquarters, or 3D-printing models of Big Gulp cups.

It’s a complicated design problem. Various drink sizes must be accommodated, from thin Red Bull cans to giant fountain-drink cups to square juice boxes. The cupholders themselves must be located where there are already multiple competing demands for space—from heating controls to GPS screens to places to hold and charge phones. The design challenge is so great, and the puzzle-like dimensions of the interior so difficult, that some designers claim that the cupholders are among the first things to be situated when it comes to new interior designs.

Even a visionary like Elon Musk can fail to grasp the importance of the cupholder. Despite the enormous advances in technology and sustainability that the Tesla offers drivers, the company was faced with intense criticism because its original design for the Model S had no rear cupholders.

In the case of Tesla, an after-market industry arose, with companies offering LED-lighted cupholders that could be inserted into what some customers thought was a deficient rear console. Tesla responded rapidly and its cupholders in the Model X are now artful, curved, and customizable for any drink size.

In the decades since they were formally ensconced in the minivan, cupholders have become ubiquitous.  In 1999, for example, ABC’s Nightline asked the Palo Alto design firm IDEO to redesign the supermarket shopping cart—and that design somewhat famously included a cupholder for busy shoppers.

In addition to grocery carts, cupholders are now common on riding mowers, baby strollers, and the large institutional floor scrubbers used by nighttime cleaning crews in hospitals and airports. Everything must also offer a place to put a beverage.

If driverless cars become a reality, they might afford very different interiors. Some have imagined future autonomous vehicles as little offices or conference rooms. One design for a driverless car even has bank seats and a lounge-like atmosphere. Petroski imagines that in the future a cupholder might “move under a cup being put down by a driver watching the road the way an outfielder moves under a fly ball.”  Or, he says, “truly visionary drivers might even fantasize of the robot cupholder that can move a cup into a hand groping in the dark.” Ford envisions a more active future for the automobile, self-driving or not. Last year, the company filed a patent for a gyroscopic cupholder that aims to keep a drink upright even while the vehicle charges up steep terrain.

But some auto manufacturers preparing for the convergence of two important trends—ride sharing and driverless cars—have a decidedly less rosy view. In 2017, Investor’s Business Daily reported that manufacturers are reconsidering automotive design for the novel conditions of autonomy, and for services like Uber and Lyft. Among other things, their interiors will be smell-resistant and puke-proof. That’s a far cry from Gatsby’s romantic Rolls, or even the adventurous camper in a Model T, let alone the car interior as succor akin to a mother’s breast.

The car “moves on, but not on our lines,” wrote the English novelist E. M. Forster, who was astonished by the automobile’s power to shape human behaviors and therefore society. “[It] proceeds,” he wrote. “But not to our goals.”

After all, it was never a conscious choice to prefer a hot coffee and burrito slurped down at 60 miles per hour to a coffee sipped out of a china cup with the day’s newspaper at hand and a hot, cooked meal on the kitchen table. The cupholder is a tool that drivers and passengers adore and demand, but without ever considering why, or what alternatives they forgo in obsessing over drinks on the go.