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Car Lighter Provides Outlet for Some Exotic Accessories

Times Staff Writer

The movement that crushed cigarette smoking has also almost retired the roles of two items of automotive equipment: The ashtray and the cigarette lighter.

“We have been putting ashtrays on cars since the ‘30s and there are still enough smokers out there to justify continuing,” noted Bob Harnar, a California spokesman for Ford. “But in most ashtrays these days, you’ll find loose change, gum wrappers, paper clips, air fresheners, bubble gum, toothpicks, pins, fuses and tokens.

“I haven’t see anyone make a planter out of one yet.”

The cigarette lighter has proved itself equally adaptable--and far more useful.

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As a ready home power source away from home, it is beginning to bring the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, parlor, den and even the laundry room to Los Angeles’ freeways.

The kitchen?

“Sure,” Jill Blackway said. “We sell a full-size blender, a two-cup economy coffee maker, even a single-slice toaster and a hot dog oven that can be plugged into the cigarette lighter of a car.”

Jill and husband Bruce Blackway preside over the international mail-order business, 12 Volt Products of Holland, Pa. They distribute 25,000 catalogues twice a year and it’s a business plugged heavily into the recreation market. But, Jill Blackway says, a new and growing population of urban travelers is finding freeway uses for backwoods items--such as car battery popcorn makers and heating pad/back massagers.

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She knows of a Virginia woman who goes ice skating and uses a hair dryer to tidy her curls in the car while driving between rink and date. Or she can plug in a curling iron.

“My husband always used to say that if we ever got a 12-volt microwave (oven) we’d be on our way,” Blackway continued. “Well, we’ve got one in our current catalogue.”

But a machine that nukes pizza for lunch hours spent on the Harbor Freeway isn’t, yet, selling like hot dim sum. At $619, the cigarette lighter microwave is more than twice the cost of the real thing and, Blackway added, “it drains a lot of power so you have to have an auxiliary battery with you.”

“But among other unusual things, we have a shower and a mini clothes washer with an optional rack that turns the unit into a 12-volt dishwasher.”

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It would be inadvisable to take a morning shower at the interchange of the San Diego and Santa Monica freeways while CHP officers are monitoring the car pool lanes. But, after a late night before an early start at the office, there could be benefits to slipping underwear and socks in a washer attached to your BMW.

Phones to Fax Machines

At Beverly Hills Motoring Accessories--considered the world’s largest automotive mail-order boutique among persons who consider such things--just about anything that can be permanently wired to a car’s electrical system has been rewired to function from a cigarette lighter.

That includes fax machines, cellular phones, radar detectors, rechargeable flashlights and lap-top computers.

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There’s even a converter that sucks up 12 volts from the car battery and boosts it to 115 volts for television sets, lamps, CD players, razors, electric toothbrushes, vacuum cleaners and other appliances brought from home.

In the Los Angeles area, said Andrew Cohen, president of Beverly Hills Motoring Accessories, traffic is jamming faster and commutes are stretching farther. Business is busier and time has become more valuable. So a Californian’s car is his office and that means full availability of office equipment.

“We’ve learned how to invest that time spent in the car,” Cohen said. “I know when I’m in a jam in my car, I pick up the phone and that down time becomes productive time.”

That explains the variety of equipment. But what about the growing insistence on portability?

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“Security,” says Dale Smith, president of Electrolert of Tipp City, Ohio. Electrolert manufactures Fuzzbusters and Spybusters that, as the trade names insist, detect speed radar beamed from police cars and airplanes. “Theft rates have gone up, so with a plug-in detector you simply pop it out, hide it in the glove box or put it in your briefcase.”

Edie Kirshner, president of Anes Electronics of Marina del Rey, believes the handiness and absence of installation charges accounts for the popularity of cigarette lighter hookups. Her company manufactures Thunderbolt, a strobe-lighted, shrieking car alarm fine-tuned to protest broken windows, jimmied doors and presumably heavy-handed parking tickets. “You just buy an alarm and plug it in (the cigarette lighter) with none of the costs of hard-wire installation. Also, one alarm can be moved from one car to a second car to a truck.”

Larry Kraines is president of Kraco Enterprises Inc. of Compton, manufacturer of cigarette lighter car alarms, radar detectors and those CB radios that have been around since Burt Reynolds was a bandit.

“There’s a whole resurgence of folk who have taken it (citizens band communications) away from the truckers and their nomenclature,” Kraines said. “They are younger consumers between the ages of 16 and 29 who want to dial a channel and talk to their friends all the way to the beach or desert.”

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Compared with a cellular phone, the savings, good buddy, are enormous.

“A plug-in CB retails for $49.95,” Kraines said. “A car telephone is at least $800 plus the monthly bills.”

Advice for Overachievers

He added that, with a piddling input of 12 volts, the risk of shorting or equipment fire from cigarette lighter appliances “is of absolutely no concern.”

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It would appear that anything driven electrically can be driven by a cigarette lighter. From chain saws to videocassette players. From a bug zapper to a frying pan. Of course there are some X-rated items. There’s even a solar-powered charger to restore car batteries drained by all of the above.

“One man did call us and asked for something we weren’t able to deliver,” Blackway recalled. “Nobody makes a 12-volt cleaner for boiling contact lenses.

“We also couldn’t do anything for people asking for 12-volt telephone answering machines. But now Panasonic makes one.”

And for Armando Espinoza, the automotive and tobacco-electrical arts have combined to form a perfect cycle.

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Espinoza, 21, of North Hollywood, is into radio-controlled devices. He has a $226 scale model truck called Midnight Pumpkin. After some heavy back yard and parking lot running, the little battery-powered vehicle has been known to run out of juice.

That’s when Espinoza simply plugs his truck into the cigarette lighter of his full-size Datsun.


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