After a bit of a hiatus, Driventowrite’s ashtray series is back. Today, how the decline in the popularity of cigar smoking made in-car satellite navigation possible.
For this article, I had the pleasure taking a closer look at our Dublin correspondent, Mick’s BMW 728i. At the same time I had a chance for a small and very tame test drive, another one of those revelations that comes unexpectedly now and, to some extent, again.
First let’s discuss the ashtray. This (below) is the general context of the interior, the 1994-2001 E38 7-series, designed partly under Claus Luthe and mostly under the regime of Wolfgang Reitzle.
While the main interior photo is stock, Mick’s car’s interior has the same architecture. Notice, please, the location of the ashtray.
So looking closer again at the ashtray, one finds that the design of the icons for the ashstray are not down to the whim of a well-paid designer. The ISO system has a set of approved icons for automotive controls. That would also include the cigar lighter symbol. And it also includes the warning triangle symbol on a button situated somewhat eccentrically right by the ashtray, and almost flush with the surrounding surface. No ergonomic marks for that, Mr Reitzle.
Not flush is the plastic indentation on the ashtray lid, where you press the panel to open it. This is an example of affordance, design to show function. It’s all laid out with a careful neatness, mark you, and rather nicely finished. The use of the ISO icon indicates an impressive level of seriousness. But then again it is a serious car and always has been.
On the E38, BMW’s designers situated the tray in between the arm-rest and the gear selector. If BMW at this point adhered to a very conservative and gradual approach regarding most engineering matters, they kicked over the chairs and ripped up the cobbles for the placement of the ashtray. To see why, here is the E32, from 1986-1994:
You will notice that like many German cars of the time, the ashtray is in front of the gear selector and it is very broad, generous affair, designed for the chap working his way through two packs of Davidoff cigarettes en route from Heidelberg to Flensburg. There is also room for a passenger’s ash.
Below we have a dramatic shot of the E-23 interior where you might be able to see a similar arrangment. (Isn´t the design almost expressionist?)
So, from 1977 to 1994 the 7-series driver’s ashtray sat in front of the gear selector and then the world turned upside down when it was moved to being behind the gear-selector. In the transition it went from being a lower-hinged drawer (E-23) to a pull-out drawer (E-32) to a flip-open lidded ash-receptacle (E-38).
People think Bangle started the revolution at BMW with the E-65 but it began in 1994, with that ashtray being relocated. With such a change anything was possible, a slippery path to iDrive and flame surfacing.
Now, can you please put down what you are doing and look at the ashtray in the 1976 car again. It has what looks like a solid wood cover. That’s the sort of carpenty you find on 60s Scandinavian furniture.
Notice also the sheer consistency of BMW’s interior layouts (ashtrays notwithstanding) over three generations. Apart from being confused about where to put the ash, the driver of the E-23 and E-32 would be familiar with the general look of the interior of the E-38 too. It says, politely and clearly this is a BMW. And not another type of car such as, say, a Mercedes.
Why did BMW break with tradition for the E-38’s ashtray? BMW moved the ashtray in part because of the growing demand for dashboard real estate made by the buttons needed for other functions. The E-38 has a small screen, well-integrated and not that easy to see while driving. You can relate the evicted ashstray then to the nascent steps towards connnectivity that began in the middle-1990s. The E-32 is the last of the buttons buttons buttons cars; for the E-38, BMW already sensed that more functionality had to be added. Being an ultimate driving machine did not cut it with some customers.
The E-38’s ashtray is not that badly located though and I expect in reality it’ll still hold the ash from a pack of twenty. In marked contrast, the determined smoker of half-coronas will certainly feel short-changed since the cigar won’t rest comfortably on the edge of the ashtray. That’s another trend – the decline in the popularity of cigars – that BMW spotted. I have had an idea…
Now that I come to think of it, we can revise the story of the evolution of car interiors to say this: that the decline of cigar smoking led to a need for smaller ashtrays. That in turn freed up space for more buttons and controls. That in turn led to the possibility of screens being added to the interiors to facilitate in-car satellite navigation devices.
As well as dabbing the ashtray I had a short stint behind the wheel. Yet again I have to roll my eyes theatrically about the state of contemporary cars. The E-38 is by no means a small car. And it’s not a limousine but an expression of the sport saloon. Yet. Yet. Yet: after about two minutes I felt I knew where the corners were and noticed there was nothing at all bulky about the car which is, in fact, properly large.
This is an impressive achievement, to make a full-size saloon feel as well fitted as a tailored suit. Typically driving any new car is (I find) accompanied by a faintly claustrophobic sense of not seeing everything around you and a feeling of proprioceptive insecurity. Having driven some large American cars I can say they too have a muffling sensation too.
And coming up to date, a recent drive in the E-38’s descendent the F-01/F-04 also produced a worrying sense of unknown mass around me. Nice car, it has to be said and I soon got used to the F-01’s sheer width. It is not a sports saloon though and the E-38 definitely is, with a clear sense that it is simply more of the same thing the contemporary 3-series is made of (in the best sense). I simply did not expect the E-38 to feel so easy to place.
If the ashtray of the E-38 is just about okay, the rest of the car stands as a big question mark over where large cars are going right now (I am talking about manageability). They aren’t doing anything like this today.
(The E-23 interior photo is from Petrolicious which has this enjoyable article about the first and second 7-series cars.)