CC’s Best of 2023: Automotive History: Hold My Drink! The Story Of When Cupholders Became Good

Minivan cupholders

Do you remember life before cupholders?  Several decades ago, bringing a drink in a moving car was a risky endeavor – not so today.  But before cupholders became a prosaic automotive feature, they went through an awkward stage.  In the 1980s and ’90s many cars featured cupholders that were shallow, poorly placed or frailly constructed.  Cupholders ultimately improved, and one particular advancement stands out: When an industrial engineer working for a beverage container manufacturer developed a prototype “Universal Cupholder.”  His work served as a blueprint for many of the cupholders we take for granted in modern cars.  Countless people’s clothing and car interiors were likely spared unsightly and frustrating spills thanks to this behind-the-scenes advancement.  Let’s raise a cup and toast John Bridges, the most important man in the history of automotive cupholders.

First, a little background on drinking and driving (no, not that kind…) is helpful.  Prior to the 1970s, drivers showed little demand for in-car beverage holders, as consuming food and beverages seemed best to do in places other than a moving vehicle.  Gradually that began to change, and while many factors contributed to this attitude shift, two stand out: Commuting patterns, and fast food drive-throughs.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

In 1960, about two-thirds of American workers drove to work; twenty years later that figure stood at 84%.  Add increased workforce participation rates (i.e., women working) and generally longer commutes (due to both distance and thickening traffic), and we see how driving time gradually increased.  Commuters became awfully tempted to grab a cup of coffee for the long drive into work.

McDonald's Drive-Thru 1986 Fairfax, Virginia

Commuting wasn’t the only thing that prompted North Americans to drive more.  Parents shuffling kids to activities, increased opportunities for family vacations, and many other factors in people’s busy schedules meant that the strict division between eating and driving blurred.  And that brought about fast food drive-through windows, which gained considerable popularity during the 1970s.

Clip-on cupholders

At the dawn of the 1980s, consumers increasingly drank beverages in their cars, but drivers had to either put that drink between their legs, rest it on the passenger seat, or supply their own cupholder.  Cupholders that fit into a car’s window frame slot became popular during this era, and were common fast food giveaways.  The downsides of these were obvious – they tended to be wobbly, made of brittle plastic, fit only one size cup, and most importantly, using the car door when a drink’s attached to it could be… messy.

1980s Commuter Mug

Spilled drinks from clip-on cupholders were problematic enough that aftermarket cupholders with custom-fit, spill-proof mugs became a common accessory.  Many commuters likely received one of these as a gift in about 1982 or so.

1980s cupholder consoles

Aftermarket console- and floor-mounted cupholders proliferated as well.  Drivers sought better ways to contain beverages in their cars – though carmakers reacted slowly.

Interestingly, it appears that the first proper automotive cupholder appeared in the late 1970s – in an unlikely vehicle for ergonomic innovations.  The 1977 Chevrolet Blazer and pickup offered an optional plastic center console with two molded cupholders (these replaced square holes that had been there for the previous several years).  Given cupholders’ ubiquity in future years, one might expect Chevrolet to have trumpeted its new feature.  But no; Blazer’s 1977 brochure didn’t mention cupholders at all, while the following year’s brochure simply noted the option package contained “a color-keyed console of molded plastic and fitted with beverage holders.”

Curiously, this particular cupholder console was an evolutionary dead end, as the cupholders were replaced again by square holes a few years later.  Despite the growing popularity of in-car eating and drinking, no one seemed to notice this feature’s potential.

In the early 1980s, some conversion vans featured genuinely useful cupholders.  The rest of the motoring public still made due to with aftermarket accessories.

Glovebox cupholder indents

If cars came equipped with cupholders at all, they were often shallow, round indents, such as on the back of the glove compartment door (a feature that had been around since the 1930s).  Such “cupholders” were barely sufficient for holding drinks in a stationary car, let alone one in motion.  But things changed quickly.

Chrysler’s groundbreaking minivans provide an interesting case study.  When first introduced for 1984, the Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan had virtually useless “cupholder” indents, placed prominently on the dashboard.  The following year, Chrysler added an optional storage console, which included a slide-out cupholder tray.  However, these inch-deep receptacles would be considered inadequate by today’s standards – too shallow, and only capable of holding cups of one specific size.

Amusingly, these first-generation minivans’ featured deep and securely mounted cupholders for third row passengers.  But… the padded trim panel rendered them useless for all but short cups that were only partially filled (because they’d need to be tilted to get in and out).  How hard can it be to make a cupholder?  Surprisingly hard, as carmakers discovered.

Chrysler, and others, kept trying.  Between the mid-1980s and the mid-’90s, cupholders became more common, but they still didn’t resemble the receptacles we see in modern vehicles.  For one, carmakers strove to keep them hidden from view when not in use, and for another, they often only held one size of cup.  The above pictures – from a Chrysler LeBaron GTS and a Lincoln Town Car – illustrate this well.

While better than clip-on-door cupholders, these designs proved problematic.  Often awkwardly placed, they were prone to being knocked by elbows or knees, and their intricate plastic parts were subject to breaking.

1995 Ford Thunderbird cupholders

A re-creation of that fateful day.

This picture shows the cupholders in the 1995 Thunderbird that my wife bought new.  The plastic cupholder mechanism latches into the center console lid, and swings into position when needed.  However, the console can’t have much in it (or else the cups won’t fit), and the whole thing is right at elbow height.  One day in 1996, my wife bought a cup of coffee, and brought it out to the car.  Since the cupholder wasn’t deployed yet, she perched her coffee cup on the flat area near the gearshift and opened the console door.  In doing so, she tipped the cup over, spilling its contents into the gearshift.  Countless 1990s-era cars had carpet and other stains around the cupholders from just such a mishap.

BMW 325 interior

No cupholders in sight here.

Many automakers, particularly Europeans, resisted cupholders as a matter of principle, but Americans plowed ahead with increasingly numerous and creative beverage holding apparatus in their vehicles.  Eventually, the Europeans gave in.  BMW AG Chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder told North American reporters in 1996 that “All BMWs now have cupholders.”  Then he tersely added: “I hate them.”

The priority given to cupholders could be measured in dollars.  Ford reportedly spent $500,000 to design complex fold-out cupholders for the 1996 Taurus/Sable, and Chrysler spent an equivalent amount designing the front cupholders on its third-generation minivans.  GM’s Design Chief summed it up in 1996 by stating “A long time ago there was a horsepower race.  Now there’s a cupholder race.”

By the mid-1990s, cupholders had become valued by consumers, most new cars came equipped with them… and the dang things still couldn’t hold people’s cups.  Not only was placement often suboptimal, but additionally most 1990s cupholders were still sized for only one type of drink container – and it rarely seemed to be the container a driver used.

The latter problem (cupholders fitting only one size cup) seemed to defy solution.  After all, how could automakers design cupholders for countless sizes of beverage containers?  Turns out the most meaningful thrust of cupholder innovation came not from the Big Three, but rather from Big Cup.  To be specific, from the R&D chief of Aladdin Industries, one of the beverage container industry’s leaders.

Aladdin Industries is a company that most people have heard of, though in different contexts.  Founded in 1908 as the Mantle Lamp Company of America, its founder, Victor S. Johnson, created an innovative kerosene mantle lamp, whose popularity soon surged.  Johnson took to calling his signature product “The Aladdin Lamp” after the folktale character, and eventually the entire company became known as Aladdin Industries.

1923 and 1949 Aladdin Industries ads

1923 (l) and 1949 (r) Aladdin Industries advertisements

Aladdin soon expanded beyond lamps.  In 1920, the company began selling “Thermalware.”  Originally developed for WWI military uses, civilian Thermalware products were insulated sealable jars – glass on the inside, metal on the outside, with a layer of cork insulation between.  In 1950, Aladdin expanded again by adding school lunch boxes to its portfolio, and the company became less known for lamps and more for food and beverage containers.

Throughout the 1980s, Aladdin was a major producer of insulated plastic mugs – popularized by coffeeshop and convenience store giveaways and coffee refill promotions.  Since many of those mugs didn’t fit cars’ cupholders, customers complained… and eventually those complaints made their way to Aladdin.  That’s when John Bridges, Aladdin Industries’ Vice President for Research and Development, became involved.

Bridges realized that Aladdin had “made close to 100 million mugs without much consideration about where people are going to set them.”  His goals were ambitious: To arrive at some sort of benchmark for cupholder design, and get automakers and cup producers to agree on basic dimensional standards.  Cupholders were, said Bridges, a product that would benefit from standardization.  Citing examples of batteries, film, or electrical outlets, Bridges noted that without standards, there would be chaos.

John Bridges displaying the effectiveness of “wedging” cupholders.

Already a recipient of 100 patents for everything from insulated mugs to food trays, Bridges began investigating automotive cupholder designs in the early 1990s, and embarked on his Universal Cupholder project in 1993.  His first task was to interview 35 automotive interior designers about how they settled on the cupholders used in their cars.  Answers varied.  Expecting responses based on analyses and measurements, Bridges was surprised by answers that were rudimentary, at best.  One designer, for example, said he was instructed to design a cupholder to fit his boss’s favorite cup.

Clearly, car cupholders were an afterthought in the design process.  Bridges’ solution seemed straightforward: Make an inexpensive, simple and useful receptacle for cups.  That task wasn’t as easy as it seems.  A main question was particularly vexing: For What Cup?

Researching the issue, Bridges discovered that 1990s drivers favored the following drink containers, in order of popularity: aluminum can, plastic bottle, paper cup (various sizes), insulated mug, ceramic mug, Styrofoam cup, followed by many others.

One of Bridges’ many cupholder prototypes.

Bridges’ motivation in designing a “Universal Cupholder” was twofold – to persuade automakers to standardize their designs… and then to persuade the beverage industry to ditch oddly-shaped cups that gave drivers and industrial designers the most headaches.

Since cupholders are devices often taken for granted, it’s interesting to read the criteria that Bridges prioritized as he set about his task:

1)   Ability to hold several sizes of cups.

2)   Ability to hold cups stable with vehicular g-forces up to 1.1g.

3)   Compact size: The cupholder and any attached mechanism must be small, since car cabin space is limited.

4)   Simplicity: The cupholder must be simple and inexpensive to manufacture – avoiding typical 1990s cupholder designs made of fragile, complex moving parts.

To test how his designs performed under g-forces, Bridges and Aladdin used a g-force simulator (shown above).

Two years of research and development enabled Bridges to come up with his plastic-molded, tiered cupholder prototype.  Wide at the top and narrower at the bottom, the “Universal Cupholder” worked by wedging cups in place, and also had a raised portion at its base to cradle the concave bottoms of aluminum cans.  The upper portions could hold larger cups, such as paper fast-food cups.

A general tapered shape was important because it enabled drivers to quickly put a drink into the cupholder, while at the same time wedging the cup it into position so it wouldn’t tilt over during normal driving conditions.  Wedging enabled friction to hold cups in place – simple, effective, and with no moving parts.

Aladdin Industries’ Universal Cupholder worked.  While not every beverage container fit into its depths, it held more types of cups than most cupholders of its day, and was of a simple enough design to avoid fragile and fussy scaffolding.  But inventions aren’t terribly useful if they just sit on a company’s R&D bench.  Bridges needed to get the auto industry to adopt his cupholder idea.

Interestingly, Aladdin Industries did not intend to directly capitalize on this industrial design advancement.  Bridges, in fact, said that “it makes sense to let everyone share the benefits” and hoped to assist both his own industry and carmakers standardize their products.  One of Aladdin’s first steps was to provide the cupholder’s specifications to Whirley Industries, one of its closest competitors in the field of travel mugs.

Bridges shopped his concept to several manufacturers’ design studios, offering royalty-free agreements to enable those companies to use the Universal Cupholder, or its component ideas.  Not all of them were receptive.  Unsurprisingly, companies like Ford and Chrysler, which had recently spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on cupholder R&D were reluctant to take the advice of someone offering free design suggestions.  Bridges’ best luck came with General Motors, where executive director of design Jerry Palmer was impressed enough to request his interior designers use Bridges’ concepts wherever possible in creating new interiors.  (Aladdin had worked with GM a few years earlier on cupholder design too, and GM sized the console cupholders in 1992 Suburbans and Blazers to fit Aladdin insulated mugs.)  In addition to GM, Aladdin signed a similar agreement with Mercedes-Benz.

It’s unclear whether these or other companies used Bridges’ exact design, but in the years that followed, cupholders made huge strides.  Many of these advancements directly resulted from the Universal Cupholder, and manufacturers undoubtedly experimented with Bridges’ ideas.  For example, one company that tested out Bridges’ design was Navistar International, whose engineers noted that large bumps were still able to dislodge drinks from this new cupholder.  Navistar, therefore, recommended deeper cupholders.  Surely countless accounts like this occurred in the late 1990s as companies evaluated their own universal cupholder specifications.

While Bridges’ end result didn’t become a global standard, it was the first major attempt to improve car cupholders, and quickly led to industry-wide adoption of better design ideas.  In several respects, this was the progenitor of many cupholder designs used in today’s cars.

Take a look in modern cars, and there’s a good chance that the cupholders share some characteristics from John Bridges’ design, like tiered sides, dimpled bottoms, and a general reliance on wedging cups into place.  In fact, most modern cars have multiple, simple cupholders that can accommodate a wide variety of cup sizes.

Minivan cupholder

While not all cupholders directly trace their lineage to this Aladdin Industries’ project, the concepts given to interior designers by that exercise quickly led to an improved product.  This endeavor showed the ease with which designers could merge useful cupholders into modern car interiors, as well as the benefits of interaction between consumer product companies (in this case the beverage container industry) and automobile manufacturers.  Overall, the world of cupholders is infinitely more functional than it was when John Bridges began examining more effective designs.

Minivan cupholders

So, next time you’re driving, and place your soda bottle in a nice, secure cupholder… take a moment to thank John Bridges and Aladdin Industries.  Their promotion of a simple, yet effective cupholder design prompted general improvement of an automotive amenity that most drivers now take for granted.  We should all drink to that.