A few years ago, the common cigarette lighter - shadowing the declining fortunes of almost everything smoking-related - seemed destined for the ashtray of automotive history along with hand cranks, tail fins and window-mounted air conditioners.
And the days ahead looked as cold as a pile of butts for Casco Products Corp., the manufacturer in Bridgeport, Conn., that supplies about 85 percent of U.S.-built vehicles.
But a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion: The front seat of American cars became both a rolling living room and a mobile office, and cigarette-lighter receptacles rather quickly came into demand as power sources for cellular phones, radar detectors, portable fax machines, laptop computers and video games.
Did we mention the fan, Coleman cooler, five-cup coffee maker and 48-ounce blender that consumers now can order from the J.C. Whitney catalog and plug into the lighter port, adding 'transportable juice bar and kitchen' to the architectural description of the passenger compartment? And that the bathroom could be next?
'I'm sure I've seen people blow-drying their hair on the way to work,' says Art Garner, American Honda Motor Co. Inc. spokesman.
Ali El-Haj, vice president of global business development, sales and engineering for Casco, says, 'We have a list of 300 items that people are now using with the lighter port, including baby-bottle warmers, air pumps, trouble spotlights and an electric chain saw.'
Before the boom
Just before the portable-electronics boom began in earnest a few year ago, 'We did investigate maybe taking that (lighter) space away,' admits Don Brown, national product planning manager for Toyota and Lexus vehicles at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. 'But now we're finding requests even for multiple outlets, especially in our Lexus line, from focus groups we talk with. These people have a lot of money to spend on toys and keeping kids entertained, and they're doing lots of things in the car that we'd never even thought of.'
Brown says the next generation of vehicles might be wired for diversions such as rear-seat video-game screens for the kids. 'We're just seeing the tip of the iceberg now,' he says. 'Soon we could see the Internet becoming available in the rear seat of an SUV.'
The robust demand for in-dash power has brought new opportunities for growth for Casco, which also makes an OEM line of lighter-like power receptacles that automakers increasingly are designing next to or in place of the lighter itself. Volkswagen's New Beetle has two power ports, for example; the Audi A6 has a power plug for the rear seat; Chrysler Corp. minivans have one in the front and one in the rear; and new Lexus models have a port inside the central console.
Not that Casco is turning away from its smoking heritage. It invented the automotive cigarette lighter, still officially referred to as a 'cigar lighter' by some at the Big 3, in the 1930s, the first version of which extended from the dash on a long cord.
Lots of use
Company executives are quick to note that lighter demand is still booming in Europe and is just taking off in Asia, thanks to the still rising incidence of smoking abroad.
And they're not ready to concede that puffing is done for in America, either, proven by the fact that the lighter is 'No. 4 or 5 of the most-used components in the instrument panel, with way over 60 percent of its usage still for cigarettes,' according to El-Haj. 'Smoking is going way down, but some people say that kids now are smoking more.'
Ray Piepenbring, Casco's director of aftermarket sales and planning, says, 'The car is one of the last havens for smokers' as they are shut out of more and more public places.
Casco executives also note that automakers who have experimented with eliminating the lighter or making it optional largely have gotten burned. 'Chrysler minivans now list cigarette lighters as an option, with a $15 list price, but with the '96 models, at least 85 percent to 90 percent of customers included them,' says Howard Huelsman, Casco's president and general manager. 'Most dealers just throw it in. It's an amenity that everyone is used to.'
Angela Lewis, General Motors electrical project engineer, says, 'Some nonsmokers even still want to see the cigarette lighter in the car because they think it's part of buying a car.' She says GM has kept lighters 'standard in 99 percent of our vehicles.'
Casco's El-Haj says that use of lighter receptacles as power ports can severely damage them, 'especially with cheap aftermarket products that are imported from the Far East and aren't properly designed.'
Walt Klosek, an engineering supervisor for Ford Motor Co., says devices other than lighters break down the nickel-plated surface of the receptacle that holds the lighter in place, and inappropriate devices can blow fuses in the car.
The Society of Automotive Engineers is reviewing its standard for cigarette lighters for the first time in decades, Klosek says. And by September, Casco plans to introduce a new lighter that takes the receptacle's dual use into account, its first completely new generation of lighters since cigarettes became unfashionable.
'This product,' says El-Haj, 'will be robust enough to really change the way the whole device operates.'
Dale Buss is a special correspondent from Rochester Hills, Mich.