Our Fates Are As Unknowable As Sennacherib’s

Toyota’s reputation for solid engineering is well-established. Their engines seem to be unburstable and the controls always smooth and light.

Photo: School of Land-Windermere

Such sensibleness applies to their ashtray designs too. This late 70s Carina two-door saloon is home to a very nice drawer-type ashtray which you can
easily reach while smoking and driving (in a relaxed and laid-back way). It’s positioned under the main body of the dashboard. Notice how all the important bits of the dashboard are bounded with a small area. There is no centre console. Just carpet. And a wand jutting from the floor. That is sensible.

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At one point in time – let’s call it the 1970s – a centre console suggested width and Jaguar-like aristrocacy (but a Silver Shadow has no centre console). A horror vacui means space must be filled, despite the cost. So, since then the centre console has grown, and grown and grown.


Even small cars such as the 208, Clio and Fiesta have complex, ornate and frankly wasteful centre consoles. Do they think this suggests the interior of a Jensen or XJ-6?

1977 Toyota Carina A40: source

Two thoughts lead from this consideration.

The first (number one) is to do with this notion of elaboration I have been chewing at since the early spring. Elaboration refers to the progression from a functional feature to one with a semantic overlay to one where only the semantics remain. An example?

By the end of the classical architecture period (I mean the pre-Modern period) the tropes of classicism had been seemingly exhausted. The simple wooden post had become an Ionic column and then merely a low-relief symbol plastered onto brick. The Baroque period saw corners given smaller corners. And in car design, the need for a bit of extra space for buttons on the upper IP has led to a major construction, an isthmus of plastic between the hand-brake and upper IP, just to house a cup holder and maybe a cranny for mobile ‘phones.

Look back at the simple and useful Toyota IP. Everything you need on a panel near the eye-line. At this point, the centre console needs to be reviewed. I dare a car-maker to do without it. As I said, a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow hasn’t got one and it’s still an okay kind of car:

1965 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow interior: source

The second point is more to do with the feeling I have of an evolving understanding of the principles of ashtray design itself. Classified are the types. What I have not done is attempt a general theory of the principles of their deployment. If we can look at enough examples, we ought to be able to see where you would expect each type to be used.

In the days where a dashboard was mostly the horizontal sweep from A-pillar base to A-pillar base, a drawer-type ashtray suited the topology of what was basically an undercroft. As the centre console grew and extended it made more sense to have a flip-up lid or maybe a sliding lid. There is no undercroft ahead of the driver and front passenger, merely leg-space.

So, you might expect this theory to lead to a bold prediction: if you examined cars from 1960 to the present time you would expect to find the number of drawer-type ashtrays to diminish. That is a falsifiable claim and thus it is a claim carrying some significance.

(If you will excuse me, I have to point out that there is no other website that can bridge the subjects of cars, the philosophy of science and fine art.)

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

13 thoughts on “Our Fates Are As Unknowable As Sennacherib’s”

  1. I agree about the phony consoles, especially in fwd cars !

    The Jaguar needs the console, as the hvac box absolutely fills the space behind it, right to the firewall. My W124 mercedes is the same.

    My Acura Integra, by contrast, has the phony “console” with the hvac controls and radio, but behind them is at least a foot of space between the back of the console, and the firewall. Honda managed to spread the heater and evaporator along the firewall, so it doesn’t need the space (although the glove box is tiny as a result).

    Fwd cars should allow for a much roomier front compartment, even with a narrow car, because the transmission tunnel is small. But every manufacturer seems to insist on creating an un-necessary, idiotic “console” to crowd the driver and front passenger.

  2. Richard, could this be your ultimage ashtray?

    Big enough to hold at leastone hundred cigarette ends and positioned very high.

    1. I love the story that early ‘suds leaked so much from their poorly glued windscreens that the parcel shelf below the dashboard filled with water. The improved version, quickly introduced, was to make the shelf out of plastic moulded with many holes in, so the water didn’t fill the shelf…. certainly mine leaked well and drained straight through the shelf onto the floor.

      Perhaps this explains the high location of the ashtray too? One wouldn’t want it filling with water.

    2. That does look very satisfactory. So far my favourite has been the Renault 25 which has a wide and deep ashtray located ahead of the gear lever.

  3. As a non-smoker, I have no view on ashtrays either way, but Richard’s first photo reminded me of the introduction of that generation of Carina to the Irish market.

    Previously, Japanese cars were (to European eyes) risibly florid in form and detailing, but in the late 1970’s they suddenly adopted a simpler, linear form, making them look much more contemporary. The detailing was initially still a bit chintzy, but that too was soon simplified. Here’s an excellent example of Japan’s “European” phase, a 1982 Datsun Laurel:

    It is a dead ringer for the first generation Opel Senator. Incidentally, Richard’s Carina is an example of a type of car long dead in Europe, the medium size two-door saloon.

    1. Yes, much to the chagrin of our Leinster correspondent too. If you can at all bear the tension, I have actual photos of a live Nissan Laurel coming up very soon. The two-door Carina is not a bad looking car. It is heading towards bland though. It was a design that reacted against its predecessor more than being a thing with its own identity.

    2. Here’s one of my favourite cars from the “florid” era, the Datsun 120A Cherry Coupe:

      Definitely a nominee for the “What were they thinking?” award. Those C-pillars are awesome! Cars like these certainly enlivened the dreary Dublin streetscape in the 70’s, at least until they dissolved into a heap of rust, which didn’t take too long in rainy Ireland.

  4. Perhaps this is a Toyota theme? My wife’s 2005 Prius has no centre console, I note; this seems logical if one assumes that the point of electronic automation is to make things simpler for the driver, but most manufacturers have taken the opposite path and opted for pointless complication and an increased gadget count, all of which has to be accommodated somewhere.

    The Prius, condemned by many as “boring”, uses automation to achieve an element of Roycean zen (Sir does not need to know anything about the machinery; Sir just has to point it down the road). If you want easy, quiet and economical transport from A to B (probably via a boring ring road and a boring motorway as most journeys are) it does the job remarkably well.

    But I still prefer my (23 year old ) Jag…

  5. If you will forgive a further point on automation…I was recently greatly impressed by the HVAC on my sister’s new Subaru Forester in the States. On a journey from early morning -19C in Arizona to +25C afternoon in Vegas, I did not once have to touch the heating controls. It defrosted the screen, then warmed the interior and finally cooled it with no intervention at all, all in perfect comfort. Who needs knobs now?

    1. Although it’s still controlled by physical switches rather than the screen, I don’t think I’ve ever adjusted the climate control on my Boxster. It’s set to 21°C in Summer and Winter, top up or down. If it’s very cold when I start driving, the heated seats take care of that, although I find them too warm, even on their lowest setting, to use for too long.

      That said, the standard* three rotary controls for HVAC; direction, fan speed and temperature are perfectly intuitive , much moreso than any screen based interface.

      * This arrangement seems to be pretty common in a wide range of cars from different manufacturers and is very helpful when you jump into an unfamiliar hire car for the first time.

    2. Automatic climate control is wonderful until it isn’t applicable, such as hopping into a car covered in ice/snow in the cold. If you cannot work out where the AUTO OFF, fan/max heat and defrost-only settings are, you’d be waiting all day to get nowhere. In such circumstances, leaving the automatic brain to work things out in my Subaru means it goes into panic mode – fan to 6 and much blowing about of frigid air while the engine struggles to warm up. As if blowing air around randomly in minor hurricane mode will magically warm things up before the engine does! That’s while you use your scraper to have a go at the ice externally to hurry things along or brush off snow.

      The temperate climate dwellers know none of these inconveniences! That’s how EVs were resuscitated and found to be “good”. The folks in northern California never had to think much about weather and cold temperature performance. Last week though they got a good dose of snow due to climate change variability. They probably all stayed home and shivered.

      My Subaru has a first class medium size ashtray ahead of the gear lever at the junction of dash and centre console. A minor tap on the door, and on damped hinges that door flap rises gently out of the way, while the ash container itself below is gently lifted and rotated from a horizontal position to present itself for a ceremonial knocking-off of the ash. The tray itself appears to be made out of latter-day bakelite, thick-walled, hard, and appearing indestructible. A choreographed performance. I keep a solitary coin token in it now that tolls have become electronic, just to remind me of analogue days. The cigar lighter contained within the system is a rubber fake but the socket itself works for when I need to use the tyre air pump.

  6. It looks like the Tercel of the same vintage we had then. Indestructible until it ends up in my brother’s hands.

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