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Car cigarette lighters are weird

Chris Haining January 24, 2018 Terrible Ideas 34 Comments

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)