Cup Holders, Drive-Thru Windows and the lasting impact on automobile interior design.

My car does not have a cup holder.

This has never been a problem for me, nor is it something that I have ever considered until last Thursday when, utterly exhausted from a poor night sleep and a missed alarm clock notification, I found myself late for a meeting and in desperate need of caffeine. On a typical morning, I enjoy a cup of coffee while walking my dog, and thus have no real need to bring a cup of anything with me in the car. Similarly, there is little need in the afternoon as I have made every effort to remove fast food from my diet. On this day, however, the need was very, very real.

As fate is oft likely to laugh at matters made worse by simple twist, I was out of coffee. Grabbing a can of Coke instead, I launched myself into the 36-year old Honda, the right hand working the gear shift while the left held the wheel with forefinger and thumb as the can sat cradled in my palm, lifted to mouth between shifts. The delicate balance quickly replaced by the coordinated ease of muscle memory learned through years of driving this way, I began to take in my surroundings to see if there was any logical place to rest the can other than between my legs.

One of the absolute joys I have driving my 1987 Honda Prelude Si is the comfort of the physical space. The seats are among the best I have ever experienced, it has a ton of lateral room for such a small car, and the dashboard set up is one of the best modern (circa 1980’s) interpretations of a “vintage” setup, adhering to the three words used most often to describe an ideal cabin: clean, refined and simple. Through its simplicity, its also completely functional in every aspect that a car should be.

[Interested in viewing an incredible collection of dashboards, center consoles, seats and control interfaces from mostly vintage automobiles? Then check out this Tumblr: Car Interiors.]

The clean, refined and simple layout of the 1987 Honda Prelude interior.

However, must a car’s interior include cup holders to be considered functional? They have certainly become an essential feature (not option) that is taken for granted. In fact, the absence of a cup holder can become the focus of criticism, even when the car is one of the most well-engineered vehicles in the world, as evidenced by Jeremy Clarkson’s 2013 review of the Lexus LFA.

As an after-market accessory, companies have attempted to enable American drivers to eat and drink in their cars since the Ford Model T, but it was on February 10, 1953 when the original patent for a cup holder designed by Jack Fazakerly of Los Angeles was issued. Additional designs and patents for “pop-out” holders and “Refreshment Trays” followed closely behind.

Not surprisingly, both cup holder design and their use mirrored the creation and growth of the Drive-thru restaurant, coming of age in California in the late-1940’s and 1950’s. This is not to be confused with the Drive-In, a type of restaurant where customers ate in their cars, but remained on the premises. First popularized in Texas by a chain called the Pig Stand in 1921, the drive-in became a staple throughout America and is synonymous with our vision and interpretation of mid-Century life (thank you Happy Days), even though it was quickly taking a back seat to the drive-thru, which fundamentally changed the types of food that quick-service restaurants offered.

The Drive-thru was arguably established in 1948 by a 100-square foot burger shack that was perched next to a circular Baldwin Park, California driveway: In-N-Out. Then, in 1951, Jack in the Box restaurants opened without any inside seating and introduced the two-way speaker that allowed customers to order their food from their car prior to driving up to the window for service. This is the same year that the Merriam-Webster dictionary included the term “fast food” for the first time.

From this point forward, “fast food” becomes so intertwined with the automobile that most people today view fast food as anything served out a window and into a car. Yet, despite the parallel journey of food and driving, it took more than 30-years for the cup holder to become fused into car interior design. This changed in 1983 when Chrysler invented the modern minivan with two cup holders sunk into the plastic dashboard and was accelerated to nearly all cars following the 1994 lawsuit against McDonald’s by Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman who suffered third-degree burns after spilling coffee on her lap while in her car.

Can you imagine a 1953 Porsche 356 with built-in cup holders? Or a 1965 Mercedes 240SL, a 1973 Mustang, or even the land-yachts built by Lincoln and Cadillac in the 1970’s and and early-1980’s?

What I can picture, however, is a significant increase in drive-thru fast food sales beginning in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s as a direct result of it becoming easier to eat in the car due to the integrated cup holder design in car interiors.

I doubt very much that last Thursday will be the last day I find myself driving with cup in hand. Ironically enough, just four days earlier it was National Drive-thru day and knowing that, I’m sure I will avail myself of a quick meal in celebration next year. I will just have to do so “old school” style.

My disdain for minivans remains. ;-)

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