In today's U.S. auto market, a car without a cup holder might as well be a car without an engine.

Put simply, "We couldn't sell a car without one," said Christopher Zourdos, general manager of the Courtesy Jeep-Eagle dealership in Rockville.

And, indeed, "I wouldn't buy a car without one," said Lydia Bendersky, a Washington resident who is shopping for a new automobile.

In fact, Bendersky said she is dumping her perfectly good 1992 Honda Accord sedan because its cup holders accommodate only "skinny water bottles and regular cups of coffee."

"I buy coffee from Starbucks. Big cups! And I buy big bottles of water. I need a cup holder that can hold a big cappuccino and a one-liter Evian bottle," Bendersky said.

The tale of the humble cup holder -- and how it came to be a crucial item for new-car buyers -- illustrates the power of consumer demand in the American automobile market -- and the sometimes weird items that catch consumers' fancy.

A man whose cup holder runneth over these days is Larry Kazenowski, vice president for business planning and development at Visteon Automotive Systems, a Michigan company that's the second-largest automotive supplier in the world, with $16.4 billion in annual sales. A subsidiary of Ford Motor Co., Visteon provides cup holders and a variety of other creature-comfort products for cars and trucks sold by automakers worldwide. It also makes heavy-duty components, such as chassis systems and engine-control electronics.

But if Ford put in all of those chassis and powertrain components and left out the cup holders, its cars and trucks would gather dust in dealers' lots, said Kazenowski. "If you don't have cup holders in the car, people will complain," he explained.

So how did this obsession with molded-plastic holes begin? That's something of a mystery in Detroit, with various automakers offering their own versions.

The only consensus is that the first cup holder probably was installed in a van. Kazenowski, approaching the sub ject from Ford's perspective, believes the "breakthrough" happened back in the 1960s, when Ford installed trays near the floor in the front cabins of its full-size Econoline vans.

"We designed that tray so that people would have a place to put their business cards and that type of thing. We didn't design them as cup holders. But we found that people mostly used it for cups," which created problems, Kazenowski said.

People reaching toward the floor to grab a cup of coffee sometimes had trouble steering their vans safely. So Ford did away with the tray, which created another problem: It made a lot of Econoline buyers unhappy.

So Ford brought back the tray, but this time put it higher, atop the transmission cover, for easier reach. Eventually, the tray was designed with circular indentations to better hold cups steady. People who noticed the cup holders in vans began demanding them in cars. And the rest, according to Ford, is history.

But people at Chrysler Corp. tell a different version. They believe they gave the world cup holders in 1984, with the introduction of their Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans.

"We put in cup holders, which really were just a couple of depressions, in the center consoles of our minivans," said Trevor Creed, Chrysler's director of interior design.

"Our first cup holders were ill-conceived, because they weren't deep enough. We made them deeper, but only enough to support a 12-ounce cup of coffee," Creed said.

But Chrysler's consumers wanted more -- lots more. The company began getting letters from people who said it would be nice if cup holders could be installed on flippable seat backs. Others, primarily moms acting as family taxi drivers, complained that children were spilling cups of stuff all over minivan seats. Those moms gave their children fruit-juice boxes; but Chrysler had no holders for those boxes.

So we added "square cup holders to accommodate the boxes of juice," Creed said.

People began demanding the same kinds of items in their cars -- and pickup trucks. And here is where the Chrysler and Ford stories begin to converge. The Big Gulp'

For the longest time, pickup trucks, especially the full-size type, had been driven by big men working big jobs, usually construction or some other form of heavy lifting. These big men had big appetites and big thirsts, and they wanted big cup holders to hold their humongous 7-Eleven Big Gulps and similar drinks.

Automakers responded to the big cup holder need in different ways. Ford, Chrysler and General Motors Corp. developed varieties of cup holders, designed to hold different sizes of cups, either through the use of rubber inserts or molded rings within a single cup holder cylinder.

Nissan Motor Co., in its 1998 Frontier truck, attacked the big cup problem by attaching a huge circular ring to its center console. Two smaller cup holders handle medium and small cups.

The cup holder race could get a little silly, Creed concedes, as automakers strive to add bigger, more numerous cup holders to their cars and trucks.

"I think we'll stop making them bigger when birds start bathing in them," Creed said. The Why of It

There are many theories about the proliferation of cup holders. The two leading schools of thought might be tagged "Home-Stuff" and "Time Crush."

Home-Stuff adherents believe that cup holders are a natural extension of the American belief that you can take it with you, at least on the road. That belief, Home-Stuff adherents say, also helps to explain the explosion of armrest consoles and storage units in new cars and trucks. They help put the family living room on wheels.

One Home-Stuff advocate is Zourdos of Courtesy Jeep-Eagle.

"Cars are second homes for many people," Zourdos said. "They spend so much time in their cars, going to work, picking up children, going out, what have you, they want their cars to be as much like their homes as possible."

And so, if there is a stereo at home, there has to be one in the car. If there are compartments to hold cellular telephones or laptop computers at home, then similar storage spaces should exist on wheels. And if it is perfectly natural to sip a cup of coffee at home, "People believe that they have a right to take it with them in a car," Zourdos said.

Time Crush adherents say that there is some validity to the Home-Stuff theory. But they believe that the Home-Stuff advocates are overstating their case.

"The problem is time," said Chance Parker, director of product research at J.D. Power and Associates, a marketing research firm in Agoura Hills, Calif.

"In all of our consumer surveys, whether for a product or a consumer service, people are concerned about time. If their car goes in for service, they want to know how long it will take to get the job done. They feel pressured for time. They feel they no longer have time to sit down at the kitchen table and have a cup of coffee. They want to be doing something else while they are drinking that coffee," Parker said.

Automotive cup holders are the logical extension of that need to do everything at once, Parker said.

"A cup holder allows people to drink their coffee, drive and talk on the phone at the same time," Parker said. Which is why, he added, more car companies also are adding compartments to store cellular phones.

Bendersky's hectic life certainly supports the Time Crush argument. She runs a one-woman TV bureau here, reporting and producing feature stories for Channel 13 TV in Santiago, Chile.

"Things have to be orderly," she said, explaining why she wants to transform her car into a mobile office. There are faxes to be sent, messages to check, coffee to drink; and if she's going on camera, there is makeup to apply.

"You know, I wish someone would add a little tray to hold cosmetics," she said. "I sometimes apply cosmetics at stop lights."

Visteon's Kazenowski says he's got her covered. "We have cosmetic trays," he said. Safety

All of this busy activity inside a car inevitably raises the question of safety.

Already, there have been national studies showing a correlation between the increased use of cellular phones in cars and vehicle crashes. Auto industry analysts say that there are no known studies showing a relationship between spilled drinks and car collisions. But such accidents have occurred, according to officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"Safety is a real issue," said Jeff Cohen, brand manager for GM's GMC Trucks division, and a devotee of the Home-Stuff theory.

"We are trying to balance creature comforts with the driver's ability to safely operate the vehicle while using another piece of apparatus," Cohen said. As a result, GM spends lots of time and money studying "ergonomics" -- the proper fit between human and machine -- making sure, for example, that cup holders can be reached with minimum visual distraction.

"Over the years, because of customer demand, we've developed a need to make our vehicles both meal-friendly and user-friendly," Cohen said. Capitulation

There was a time when European automakers, especially the Germans and the Swedes, sniffed at the very idea of cup holders. For example, a reporter visiting BMW's headquarters in Munich several years ago produced gales of laughter when he asked a member of the company's design staff about the possibility of installing cup holders.

"Cup holders!?," the staffer exclaimed. "You want to drink coffee while driving on the Autobahn? Cupholders!? Oh, you Americans!"

Today, BMW installs cup holders in the cars it sells in the United States. Ditto Volvo and Mercedes-Benz.

"The market {in the United States} taught us that you can drink a beverage and drive," said Stuart Schorr, Washington regional spokesman for Mercedes-Benz.

It was not so much that engineers in Germany opposed cup holders. "It was just that the German consumer didn't have the habit of drinking a beverage while driving. They got out of their cars to drink coffee, or eat. So, no one in the German automobile industry thought about putting cup holders in cars," Schorr said.

But American buyers demanded the things, and Mercedes-Benz began installing cup holders in its U.S. 1994-model C-Class cars, the entry-level luxury type. The company's engineers, wanting to preserve the dignity of the Mercedes-Benz cabin, hid the cup holders beneath a compartment door adjacent to the center armrest.

Traditional U.S. Mercedes-Benz buyers appreciated that touch. But the C-Class primarily was designed to bring newly rich, mostly young people, into the Mercedes-Benz fold.

Those buyers, too, saluted Mercedes-Benz for installing cup holders. But they had some complaints: "Some people said our cup holders are inadequate because they won't accommodate a Big Gulp drink," Schorr said. The Holdout

In Ferrari circles, it is anathema to speak about something as silly as a cup holder. Ferraris are premier Italian sports cars. They are legendary champions of the international racing circuits, piloted by great racers such as Phil Hill, the Grand Prix world champion in 1961.

And, surely, they are expensive, with prices that begin around $138,000.

Cup holders?

Ralph Cestero, sales manager of Ferrari of Washington in Sterling, considered the question.

"Are you serious?," Cestero asked. "This is a Ferrari. When you're driving a Ferrari, you're driving a Ferrari. You don't have time to be doing anything else. You don't have time to drink your coffee. Our buyers don't want cup holders, not even in the Ferrari sedans. This is a Ferrari!"

He was speaking on his cellular phone, by the way, while driving a Ferrari F 355 Spider, a high-powered sports car, to a business meeting in Washington. ** A LOOK INSIDE Here are some of the types of cup holders and other amenities competing for a place in your car. "ANGLE-TILT" DUAL CUP HOLDER 1997 Suzuki X-90 T-Top Tilted so that several cups can fit in a narrow space. "SUPER-SIZE" CUP HOLDER 1998 Lincoln Navigator, front seat All-purpose holder for "Big Gulp" cups, big water bottles, cell phones. CUP HOLDER WITH ALL-PURPOSE STORAGE 1998 Lincoln Navigator, back seat A "multi-tasking" cup holder that can hold a one-liter water bottle, regular coffee cups or a 12-inch cup. "DROP-OUT" TRAYS THE CHILLY COMPARTMENT 1997 Rolls-Royce Silver Spur Compartment holds two chilled bottles of wine. "CUP HOLDER IN HIDING" 1998 Volkswagen Passat GLS Push-in/slide-out dual cup holder with gimbal bottom. UMBRELLA HOLDER 1998 Cadillac Seville STS Umbrella storage case under front passenger seat. ** AND THE CUP GOES TO . . . The inventor of the cup holder: The auto parts industry, which claims its clip-on holders for drinks, which appeared in the 1930s, qualify as the first cup holders. Or Ford, which says its team inspired the cup holder in 1967. Or Chrysler, which says the indentations it built into its cars in 1984 make it the inventor. Vying for the title of the vehicle with the most cup holders: Chevrolet Venture minivan: 17 Chrysler Town & Country: 14 Toyota Sienna: 14 The variety of the cup holder: 12-inch traditional Holder with the cutout to accommodate the coffee cup handle Multi-purpose holder with insertions that can be removed to fit various sizes "Big Gulp" holder Rectangular juice box holder Hideaway cup holder