Cup holder becomes vital car accessory

July 22, 2002|By Jen Dimascio | Jen Dimascio,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

It began so simply, almost as an afterthought. Back in the 1950s, the cup holder was nothing more than a slight indentation, barely discernible to the naked eye. Most of those early incarnations didn't even do a good job of actually holding the cup in place; if the car lurched suddenly, a dose of hot coffee would likely end up in the passenger's lap.

It was a far cry from today. Now, the cup holder is an 18-headed Hydra, capable of providing a snug resting place for everything from a Big Gulp to a juice box. But the cup holder's rise was hardly preordained, and its development has been a history of stops and starts. Slowly, the cup holder elbowed its way from its humble beginnings to prime real estate in the hierarchy of the automobile dashboard.

Julie Blossom Harvey, an elementary-school teacher from Upper Arlington, Ohio, is one of the new breed of cup-holder-obsessed drivers. She wanted a cup holder for her morning diet soda, but one that could also accommodate steroid cup sizes. Methodically going through a checklist of her nonnegotiable cup-holder need, she spent hours researching before choosing her new vehicle.

"Certain cars are not created for people who know cup holders," she said.

There is no recorded or even oral history among the auto designers of that "eureka!" moment that forever changed the way Americans commute. It began with an indentation added here or there.

The 1955 Chevrolet, for example, had two slight indentations on the inside of the glove compartment door, just the right size for thermos cups.

But these were not the cup holders consumers craved: If the car stopped or started suddenly, a coffee shower rained down. Back to the drawing board. Yet for decades, the field lay fallow, overlooked by auto designers. Improvements came in baby steps, and ideas came up from the street, rather than from the design lab. Cup holders fall into a category interior designers call "surprise and delight features," little inexpensive touches like headphone jacks and map pockets.

David Spykerman, who jokingly refers to himself as Mr. Cup Holder, is a designer in the auto division of Johnson Controls in Plymouth, Mich., a company that supplies auto interiors to General Motors and other manufacturers. He remembers toying with a version of the cup holder in the early 1990s.

"It wasn't anything that we expected to take so seriously," he said.

The 1990s will be remembered as the golden age of innovation for the American cup holder. Don Clark, 57, a DaimlerChrysler engineer, is known throughout the industry by his own honorific - Cup Holder King. Clark was one of the first people to realize the vast market potential of the cup holder when he was promoted to manager of instrument-panel engineering in 1990.

He remembers receiving more complaints about cup holders than about any other part of the automobile interior. "What I realized was there was some sort of emotional attachment between the consumer and the cup holder," he said.

The early cup holders were rudimentary devices and did not always properly fulfill their function. In 1991, Chrysler tucked them into a sliding drawer. When the drawer was pulled out, it released spring-loaded stirrups that were supposed to hold the cup in place but sometimes launched coffee into space, Clark said.

Engineers worked to make the cup holder more stable, space saving and adjustable different cup sizes, but drivers were not satisfied.

The looming challenge was to somehow secure the Big Gulp.

The relationship between cup holders and the fast-food industry is one of mutual dependence. Clark wanted a holder that would fit cups large and small. He visited fast-food restaurants and convenience stores, collecting every container on the market. "All the people in our office started to bring in new and unique cans to me," he said. "I had upward of 100 different containers."

His diligence paid off; a cup holder that gripped everything from juice boxes to Big Gulps appeared in the 1996 Chrysler minivan.

There were other great leaps forward. Spykerman of Johnson Controls waxed eloquent on improvements made in the early 1990s in the Buick Park Avenue. In that model, Johnson introduced an innovative space-saving cup holder, one which could be smoothly folded out from a small compartment. To Spykerman, it was beauty in motion. "The deployment was so exquisite," he said.

Not that cup holders were perfected. The redesigned Cadillac Seville of 1998, for example, had a cup holder that blocked the driver from shifting into the lower gears.

Innovation may have slowed, but it's not gone. A year ago, the Ottawa Citizen reported that General Motors was working on a type of goo that holds a cup in place. GM is mum about the matter, and no details have been released. Chrysler is working on undisclosed innovative places to put cup holders.

Harvey, the Ohio teacher who pined for the perfect cup holder for years, is happy. Now she can eat breakfast and load up on caffeine during her 20-minute commute without worrying about a spill. "I can rest my arm on the armrest and keep my hand around the can of Diet Pepsi," she said. "There's nothing sweeter in the world."

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