Happy Sunday! Welcome to Holy Shift, where we highlight big innovations in the auto and racing industries each week—whether they be necessary or simply for comfort.
As a society, we tend to give minivans a bit of a hard time. There are plenty of “soccer mom” stereotypes that come along with vans, but they set themselves in the history books by more than just their ability to cart the kids around—most folks just don’t know it. In the early 1980s, minivans became the first to host a pretty important aspect of today’s vehicles: the modern cupholder.
These days, fast-food chains and convenience stores litter the sides of the road. Stopping to get a cold drink is an almost essential part of the journey, and not having to hold that hunk of liquid ice with a straw between your legs while you drive is as well. But a fix for that inconvenience was long an afterthought, as the advent of cupholders into the car industry was evidently a late one.
The first ideas for cupholders came alongside the drive-in era, according to Slate—eating and drinking in parked cars became a more normal activity, but there were no real means of doing it well. Before the cupholder was a thought, a tray that hooked onto open car windows hosted food and drink. Shallow cup-holding indents in the glove box and “snack trays” came out around the year 1950.
Those options, as is imaginable, worked well until the car started moving. Plus, the airplane-like tray was typically only available to the driver. The poor saps in the back seat had to keep their food and drinks wherever was most convenient.
Inconveniences warranted better techniques for keeping drinks in place, but the first cupholders were “garish and non-integral to the car’s design.” From Slate:
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.
That led to the realization that cup holders should be built for use in less-mobile areas of vehicles, and Slate adds that automakers began to build cup holders into the console between seats. Before that happened, though, Cadillac had a revolutionarily weird idea—magnetic shot glasses appeared in the glove boxes of its 1958 Eldorado Brougham. Safety first, kids.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Chrysler brought the first modern cupholders around with its 1984 Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans. The vans started with shallow cupholders and went through a variety of styles, with other automakers catching on as well. From a 1992 piece in The Seattle Times:
When Chrysler started planning the redesign of its Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans in the late 1980s, it paid particular attention to cup holders.
“When we began doing the new minivan, we evaluated all the letters that we got. That’s when the cup holder thing really began to take off. It was one of those crazy little things that people thought were really neat,” said Trevor Creed, an Englishman who is the interior design chief for Chrysler’s Jeep and Dodge truck division.
But not everyone thought the idea of cupholders was “really neat.” According to Bon Appétit, US News and World Report still referred to cupholders as “crannies for drinking cups” and an unnecessary “future frill” as late as 1989.
With the prevalence of the cupholder today, it’s almost hard to believe that its modern incarnation didn’t come around until just under 30 years ago—and that some saw the cupholder as such a passing, unnecessary fad. But as the history of the automotive industry grows deeper, so do its cupholders.
And with the autonomous-driving technology these days, perhaps the next generation of cupholders will include some sort of robotic arm to pour the gas-station slushies into our mouths, too. (That was a joke. That would be creepy.)
If you have suggestions for future innovations to be featured on Holy Shift—in street cars, the racing industry or whatever you’d like—feel free to send an email to the address below or leave them in the comments section. The topic range is broad, so don’t hesitate with your ideas.
*Non-alcoholic drink, of course.