Car cigarette lighters are weird

A friend was having trouble with an aftermarket sat nav the other day – there was a question mark as to whether the 12v socket was working. I suggested to her “check that the cigar lighter works”, to which her reply was “…the what?”
Indeed, she had no idea that the 12v dashboard socket on her Suzuki Swift was ever home to an electric cigar lighter. To her, it seemed like a somewhat baffling piece of standard equipment. “You mean I have no air conditioning or electric mirrors, but I do have a way of lighting a cigarette?”
I immediately saw her point, and suddenly found myself marveling at the fact that a cigarette lighter, of all things, became almost universally standard in the modern car.

Born in ’81, I just about make it into the Millennial category, and my wife, five years younger, certainly does. We were born into an age where smoking was no longer obligatory, as it seems to have been be for our parents. Millennials were free to opt out of smoking if we so desired, and now clinicians have established a confirmed link between the inhalation of noxious, smelly carcinogenic fumes and poor health – interest in tobacco continues to decline.
My ’98 Audi A4, alongside every other example ever built, features a cigarette lighter. Only one, mind, and it’s never been used. I frequently use the 12v socket it lives in, but the lighter is more sightly than its receptacle when I’m not drawing power. The neighboring ashtray has never seen a cigarette – instead it plays host to the key for my locking wheel bolts. I’ve always accepted the fact that cars tend to have cigarette lighters, but it remains a slightly strange concept.
Pick up the 1991 UK Ford Cars catalogue and only two models – the very entry-level Fiesta and Escort variants – shipped from the factory without cigarette lighters or a 12v socket in which to keep them. Elsewhere in the range, there were cars with two lighters. I’m aware of more than one car with a cigarette lighter in each rear door. A smoking family is a happy family. No radio, no rear screen heater, but freedom to smoke.
Smoking was once such an accepted part of life that methods of tobacco combustion began to appear in cars from the mid 1920s, but today’s familiar coiled metal jobs appeared during the late 1950s, and brought that ubiquitous 21mm tube with them. It’s led to the weird situation we have today, where the cigarette lighter is fast falling out of favour, but its bizarre power supply lives on.

Order a non-smoker pack in your new Mercedes and you’ll get a rubber inlay instead of an ashtray and a plastic plug that’s the same shape as a lighter, but which you’ll look really dumb trying to ignite a cigar with. Said plug is likely to have ’12v’ written on it, and you’re pretty likely to find more than one in a given car. Head out to the luggage compartment of any new station wagon or SUV and you’ll likely find a spring-loaded flap, behind which lurks the same 21mm socket.
If it wasn’t for smoking, 12v electrical sockets could be a far less bulky, more appropriate size. Perhaps something akin to the charging point on your laptop computer, for example. Look at the ludicrous size disparity between a cigarette lighter socket and a car’s USB port. If made from sensibly durable materials and connected to a sensible fuse, decent levels of current can be drawn through these things, but surely there must be something better than a legacy connector dreamt up in the 50s, now that nobody uses them for lighting cigarettes?
What other strangely obsolescent features do our cars have that we don’t question on a daily basis?
(All images Chris Haining, Hooniverse 2018)

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34 responses to “Car cigarette lighters are weird”

  1. 0A5599 Avatar

    Fake oil pressure gauges.

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      True. Same with coolant temperature gauges

      1. nanoop Avatar

        One of the VWs I owned (2012 Skoda) had a temp gauge which indicated cold-ok-hot in a suspiciously digital manner.
        The other VW (1983 Porsche 944) keeps you well informed: thermostat opening, regulation loop stable for constant load, too slow for efficient cooling, fan turned on, fan turned off.
        It also dances in the rhythm of the indicator and drops by five degrees when I turn on the rear defogger – just like all the other needles that are positioned by direct signals (speed (wire w/magnetic drag) and tach (calculated signal through DAC) are stable).

        1. Eric Rucker Avatar

          VW’s been faking temperature gauges since, I believe, the Mk3 Golf era – they didn’t want people to see the fluctuation.

          1. nanoop Avatar

            When they reverse-engineered VWs in the aftermath of Dieselgate, they found out that the code for positioning the tach needle was like 12KB dense code – not your mere “count pulses, write value to DAC” routine…

  2. outback_ute Avatar

    I think 15 years ago cigarette lighters started disappearing here, and the last few cars I’ve had haven’t had an ashtray – I think a cup-shaped one could be had if you want.
    Going forward I can’t see the traditional sockets being phased out for some time yet. There is still a lot of stuff that is not powered by a USB plug that will be catered for. Otherwise there will be a market for convertors!

    1. Craig Dotson Avatar
      Craig Dotson

      I’m not sure that USB is a suitable replacement for a 12V “cigarette” outlet given that the voltage/power isn’t suitable for 12V accessories.
      Powerlet makes a re-engineered 12V power outlet and connector (and host of adapters to cigarette receptacles/plugs) primarily for powersports and motorcycle applications, but if they’re suitable for that environment they’re more than sufficient for automotive use. I’ve heard of other proposed standards (i.e. proprietary products that haven’t caught on) for smaller form-factor 12V power delivery.

      1. Eric Rucker Avatar

        I wonder, though, if USB Type C Power Delivery will be the way things go – most 12 volt cigarette lighter outlets are limited to 10 amps, and while it is at 13.8 V nominal for ~138 W, USB Type C can do 20 volts at 5 amps (or 100 W) if the power supply behind it supports that.
        Come to think of it, seeing how in-car electronics are running off of modern parts that are 3.3 volts or less, and everything needs regulation anyway… I wouldn’t entirely be surprised if someone decides to just run everything off of a 48 volt bus instead, and that might be what kills the 12 volt port.

        1. nanoop Avatar

          12V bus might die eventually, but the 12V port will survive, dangling off a 48V board net – how else should I power my heated seat cover!
          I don’t know about Tesla S voltages, but there you’ll find a 12V outlet next to two USB sockets.

          1. Eric Rucker Avatar

            Tesla has a 12 volt bus with a lead acid battery on it, powering all vehicle electronics.

          2. outback_ute Avatar

            Not to mention the air compressor or kettle!

        2. P161911 Avatar

          I remember rumblings of a switch from 12V to 48V as far back as the late 1990s. It was predicted that cars would go to solenoid operated valves to drive the change.

  3. 1slowvw Avatar

    Not a weird car feature, but I received a copy of the salmon of doubt by Douglas Adams for Christmas, it’s got a great article he wrote about the days before computers and other old tech had standardized plugs (no wait that never happened). He made a great observation about how the only true standardized international power outlet is the 12v cigarette lighter found in cars around the wold.

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      I also share his hatred of having endless different mains converters. It’s about time households had an 8-12v ring mains for small electricals

      1. nanoop Avatar

        Middle-class cabins in the mountains have that, including USB wall sockets.
        Makes sense, since they have solar cells, battery stacks, LED illumination, no running water, but G4 coverage and an outhouse.

  4. Rover 1 Avatar
    Rover 1

    Of all the makers to have cigarette lighters you’d think that it would have to be French, given that country’s attitude to smoking.
    You’d be right.
    The ’86 Renault 25 V6 that my mother owned in the nineties had six, one for each ashtray. One in each door, front and back, and two in the centre console, again one in front and one in back. My slightly older Citroën CX, a 25 competitor has only one. My 86 Citroën BX has four ashtrays, but only one lighter, but they were a cheaper car.

    1. njhoon Avatar

      That dashboard and center console are exquisite.

      1. Rover 1 Avatar
        Rover 1

        The interior was from the skilled pen of Marcello Gandini, one of the three maestros of car design. He had to wait to start at Gruppo Bertone before one of the other two left.That person, one Giorgetto Guigiaro, head of design at Bertone until he left to form Ital Design. With Guigiaro gone, Gandini reigned supreme, with some epochal designs for Bertone that confirmed Bertone as one of the top two styling houses. The third of the trio, Leonardo Fioravanti ran Pininfarina at the same time. With the 25, Renault didn’t want any risks, they employed the best, the exterior design was by Robert Opron, designer of Citroens GS, SM, GSA, and CXs who Renault stole off Citroen to design the 25 by at least doubling his salary. Gandini did just the interior this time.Here are some other Gandini designs

    2. caltemus Avatar

      My first car, an 89 town car, had an ash tray and lighter in both rear doors and the passenger door. Along with the center dash set, it had 4

  5. nanoop Avatar

    Charging ports based on USB: a mess of standards.
    Charging ports on notebooks: a mess of “standards”
    Charging ports on mobile phones: a mess of “standards” (including those USB standards).
    12V outlets on cars: a sturdy, confidence-inspiring rock in the sea of miniaturization, de-facto monopolization, and good ideas badly executed.
    I also like (re-purposed) ashtrays, they make great drawers: My sun glasses did fit into the ashtray of the Ford Focus, just remove the metal tab intended to stub out burning tobacco cylinders. The 944 ash tray is holding spare fuses and bulbs, the lighter-to-USB adapter while it’s not in use, and serves as an ambient light because it’s illuminated.

  6. Zentropy Avatar

    I discovered that the open ashtray on my E28 perfectly holds my iPhone (sideways) at an easily viewable angle, so I don’t need a mount in order to use GPS. Trouble is, I also discovered that the cigarette lighter socket is disconnected, so I currently can’t keep the phone charged.

    1. Sjalabais Avatar

      Lots of older cars have excellently positioned dashboard trays that, retrospectively, seem to cry: “Google Maps goes here!”.

      1. Zentropy Avatar

        Looks like a 240. What’s with the “Neptune” badge?

        1. Sjalabais Avatar

          Not sure, just a random google result for “240 dashboard tray”. I used to put my phone there for charging and directions when I still had a 240, and have since struggled to find equally good spots in newer cars.

      2. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

        Lovin’ that graphic equalizer.

    2. wunno sev Avatar
      wunno sev

      i have a 2016 Fiesta, and there is nowhere convenient to put a phone. the best you can do is the cupholder, and it’s completely wrong for viewing directions. this car came out in 09 or something, when smartphones were juuuuust becoming a thing, but by 2016 it’d been seven, eight years? put a damn phone pocket in the car!
      the car got an Android Auto software update, so i’m kinda over it, but still. it’s the future! get with it! a particular story sticks with me from back when i used to get Car and Driver on pulp:
      though C&D had its share of dumb columns back then, i always found Phillips reasonable, and he really hit the nail on the head here. people don’t buy cars after careful consideration of their needs. they buy ’em because of one or two dumb things that they like.
      so if they wanna make money, carmakers need to just blow people away with little touches that immediately stand out. phone pocket? check. android auto and carplay standard? check. set-and-forget climate controls? check. voice commands? check. selectable mood lighting? check. you can do all this stuff that used to be fancy and expensive just by programming a computer now. (incidentally, i think lacking a 12V cig lighter port might be something that would – completely irrationally – turn a lot of buyers off. we’re still not used to the USB ports in our cars yet.)
      i find most of these features frivolous, but i’m an enthusiast. i sat for weeks poring over reviews, stats, and configurators, selected a car based on its handling and powertrain, and flew halfway across the country to get the exact one i wanted. most people just mosey on down to the dealer of the brand their parents drove and ask what’s on the lot. so put a phone pocket on the dashboard and watch the cash come rolling in.

  7. Alff Avatar

    Automatic transmissions have rendered the tachometer the automotive equivalent of an appendix.

  8. Batshitbox Avatar

    Try finding a replacement for the cigar lighter cartridge! The one in my GMC had to be held in to warm up (yes, I use the lighter as a lighter), so I went to the Auto McParts Store and looked in the section with friendly cards that say HELP on them but no luck. The spotty teenager said they just don’t have the demand for them. (But evidently the window crank knobs for all pre-1973 IH and AMC products just fly off the shelves?)
    My favorite “fix the cigarette lighter” scene

  9. Mya Byrne Avatar
    Mya Byrne

    The cigarette lighter dates back to the 30s, actually

    1. mdharrell Avatar

      Various types of automotive lighters date back even earlier than the 1930s but the standardized Casco socket under discussion here only goes back to the mid-1950s.

  10. HuntRhymesWith Avatar

    I know why they’re disappearing: I keep the cigarette lighters of all the cars I’ve owned to remember them by.

  11. David Buckley Avatar
    David Buckley

    Lighter sockets are great for Voltmeters. Plenty cheap on ebay.

  12. salguod Avatar

    The “standard” 12v power outlet isn’t as standard as you might think. The design firm I worked at previously had to design a plug for a radar detector and we surveyed a number of cigarette lighters / 12v outlets and found enough variation to make it difficult to design a plug that would work well in all of them.
    I couldn’t get the power plugs I had to stay plugged in to the lighter socket in my 1996 318ti. I have a bluetooth FM transmitter in my RSX and I tried to remove it the other day and it simply wouldn’t come out. It’ll twist, but not pull.
    My 1960 Thunderbird has 2 ashtrays, one front one rear, (and they were full of cigarette butts when I got it) but only one lighter. I think Dad’s 1957 Eldorado has 4 ashtrays and a lighter for each. My 2005 Mazda3 came with a lighter & ashtray but I don’t think anything that I’ve owned that’s newer has.

  13. salguod Avatar

    Two of my 5 daily drivers have a 3rd pedal that it seems most drivers feel is obsolete. I find it makes driving much more enjoyable, however.
    With tapes and now CDs disappearing from cars, how long until AM or FM are gone too?
    Key locks seem obsolete with fobs and now keyless systems becoming ubiquitous. I don’t think most cars have but one in the driver’s door now.