A bucket seat is a seat contoured to hold one person, distinct from bench seats which are flat platforms designed to seat multiple people. Bucket seats are standard in fast cars to keep riders in place when making sharp or quick turns. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name derives from the seat "partly resembling a bucket in shape". Bucket seat with Schroth six-point harness in a 2010 Porsche 997 GT3 RS 3.8 Bucket seats in a 1968 Saab Sonett mk2 V4.
Racing vehicles usually have only one bucket seat. Vehicles sold to the general public often have two bucket seats in the front compartment, and may contain more in a rear compartment. Commercial aircraft now have bucket seats for all passengers.
Automobile bucket seats first came into use after World War II on European small cars, due to:
- their relatively small size compared to a bench seat; and
- lack of seating room for a middle passenger, due to the presence of a floor-mounted shifter and parking brake lever.
The first motor sports and fast road bucket seats in Europe were manufactured by Colin Folwell, who subsequently founded Corbeau Seats in the UK in 1963
The bucket seat trend was especially apparent in sporty cars, particularly two-seater sports cars, most of which were manufactured in European nations.
In the mid-1950s, Greg Schifano of Trimline Products Corp. got together with Dan Bradford of Pacific Latex Corp. and came up with a product they called multi-density foam, which eliminated the need for complex springing in auto bucket seats. Soft in the middle and firm edges held the driver in place, and pioneered what we know as the auto "Bucket Seat" of today.
For decades, American cars were typically equipped with bench seats, which permitted three-passenger seating. The advent of compact cars and specialty vehicles such as the Ford Thunderbird in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and sporty versions of both standard-sized and compact cars, accelerated the bucket-seat trend in domestic cars around 1960.
By 1962, more than 1 million U.S. built cars were factory equipped with bucket seats; often, these were fitted with a center console containing a gear shifter and possibly other features between the seats. The popularity of the bucket seat grew with the advent of sporty compact cars (or "pony cars") such as the Ford Mustang. With the introduction of subcompact-sized automobiles such as the Chevrolet Vega and Ford Pinto, bucket seats were used due to the lack of seating room and the use of floor-mounted levers for the gear shifter and parking brake.
While bucket seats continued to gain popularity among compact and sports cars, the traditional bench seat, which could seat up to three people abreast, continued to be the preferred front seating arrangement in larger cars and trucks until the late 1990s. By the 1990s, a few mid- and full-sized domestic cars, as well as trucks, offered bucket seat-console front seating options, for customers who wanted a sports-car image or personalized feel to their car.
Recently, as U.S. cars were designed smaller in order to meet increasingly stringent fuel economy standards as well as intense competition from imported cars (particularly Japanese models), bucket seats became the de facto front configuration among domestic cars. As of 2010, only full-sized sedans and pickup trucks retain the front bench seat.
Although rear seating in automobiles largely uses bench seats, some 2+2 cars have bucket seats in the rear. Long-wheelbase variants of full-size luxury cars, such as the Lexus LS 460L have an "executive seating package" option that reduces the rear to two passengers but provides them with more amenities. The Porsche Panamera, despite its large size, only offers bucket seats as the rear configuration.
The concept of bucket seats is also used in passenger vans and minivans, although they are not generally referred to as such; for instance Ford refers to these types of seats as "Captains Chairs." Unlike cars, bucket seats in vans can be configurated in different ways or even removed for more cargo storage. In the typical minivan configuration, the front and middle row passengers have two bucket seats each, while the rear has a three-person bench, for a total of 7 passengers. The 2005-2010 Honda Odyssey (except for the base trim) adds a stowable "PlusOneSeat" between the middle row bucket seats.