Ashtrays: E34 BMW 5-series

Recently we had a lengthy debate about the best car in the world and the E34 BMW didn’t get much of a look in.

All images: the author

You’d imagine this car which is one of the natural competitors for the E-class might have had a few boosters. It’s a well-rounded machine, comes in a lot of flavours and is not known for its fragility. Well, here in the Ashtrays department of DTW we don’t care a lot about the wider view or depth or all-around competence. It’s about whether or not the ashtrays are well placed and technically interesting.

And here, a car which made into Number 26 in DTW’s famous Top 50 Best Cars, doesn’t get much charity (admittedly it was the successor model which was rated but….).

1998 BMW 5-series rear ashtray

What’s wrong with this? If you excuse the dire quality of the photo, you can make out a horizontally bottoom-hinged flip-out ashtray. It’s located in almost the worst place on the door. One’s elbow is perched on the armrest and the aperture is more or less by one’s joint. This means one has to either adopt a wierd position to reach the hole or else transfer the cigar to the other hand and cross your torso. Ash would easily fall in either manouevre.

Other makers have tried something like this: the Opel Senator:

1984 Opel Senator 2.5 E ashtray.

… and that’s not that good either.

Poor lighting meant I could not photograph the driver’s ashtray. It was a pull-out drawer located in the centre fascia, ahead of the gear change. Not bad – conventional, yet effective. And this kind of pandering to automotive journalists is what gives the 5-series its head start in the comparison wars.  We look further and closer at DTW. We know this car is not as good as many think, not if you are sitting in the back while someone is driving in a spirited fashion anyway.

Author: richard herriott

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

28 thoughts on “Ashtrays: E34 BMW 5-series”

  1. Good morning, Richard. Leaving aside the critical area of ashtray engineering, placement and functionality for a moment, I think the E34 is now something of a forgotten model in 5-Series history. It was a fine car in its day, but I think it suffered somewhat from being too similar in appearance to the contemporary E32 7-series. It also looked rather dated as soon as its sublime E39 successor appeared. It is the E39 and Bangle E60 that immediately come to my mind when I think about the 5-series:

    The E60 was hugely controversial at the time but has aged far better than its entirely forgettable successor. The current, seventh generation 5-series is not featured in the photo above. Can you immediately recall it? I can’t.

    As an Easter Saturday treat for DTW’s esteemed readership, here’s a lovely photograph of a beautifully executed Hofmeister Kink:

    1. Indeed a beautifully executed kink Daniel – if I’m not wrong it’s a G30 5-Series. I remember the first time I saw this model shortly after launch in a BMW showroom on Ku’Damm in Berlin. One of the things that first struck me – admittedly on a design with few surprises – was how they had used the metal pressing on the C-pillar and DLO outline to accentuate the Hofmeister kink. Compared to the recent aberration on the G20 3-Series it’s a masterclass in bringing fresh expression to a brand’s core visual assets.

    2. Hi Martin, you’re right, it is the G30, and here’s the G20 3 Series you mention by way of comparison:

      There’s nothing I can add to your comments comparing the two.

    3. Actually, there is something I can add: if you dislike the C-pillar treatment on your new G20, which looks even worse when highlighted with bright (rather than black) trim, you can add these tasteful aftermarket carbon-fibre louvres:

      Yes, that’s much better!

    4. Hi Martin,

      That C-pillar pressing reminded me of the 605’s which was a nice touch too I think.

    5. Hi NRJ. That 605 was a neat piece of work. I assume that recess behind the rear door concealed a vent. It was an interesting way of disguising it.

    6. The Pug 605 which must be one of the most underrated cars didn’t have a vent there. The crease was there to create a kind of rain gutter for the semi-wrap-over one piece doors.

    7. Hi Dave,

      I remember these type of doors, they were called ‘Portières autoclaves’ in French. It was all the rage back then but I’am sure you knew that.

  2. Hi Richard,

    Thank you for bringing back the ashtrays file again.

    I agree the ashtray at the back of that BMW look terribly placed.
    I’am pretty sure these engineers are non-smokers otherwise they wouldn’t have put it there.
    Looking at that picture it looks like a right-handed smoker would have to transfer the cigar to the left-hand and then swivel awkwardly and raise his or her left elbow to be able to deposit the ash. Outrageous. Thank you again for this important piece of investigative citizen journalism. E34 BMW 5series’s owners who smoke you have been warned.

  3. I don’t get all the love for the E39. What’s the appeal of that design? To my eyes there’s nothing interesting about it and the E34 was a much nicer looking 5-series. At the time I really liked the way it downsized and developed the themes set by the E32.

    1. My impression is that E34 is getting rather more love these days than E32, here in Germany. I assume much of this is to do with the status of the E34 M5 variant, which is considered a legend – unlike the top-end 750i(L) E32, which still remains firmly in the ‘plenty of bang for your buck’ category.

      Does anybody else remember J Mays taking quite a bit of credit for E34 and the original 8 series, back in those days when FoMoCo had to explain who he was and why they made him their chief designer?

    2. I’ll add my vote to that of John’s for the E34. Its successor did very little for me. Still doesn’t. Somehow though, the ’34 just doesn’t appear to be viewed as anything apart from an elderly (and usually slightly neglected looking) Bimmer in the UK and Ireland. I never encounter cherished examples, whereas I see decent numbers of very well looked after W124s out and about.

    3. I own an E39 (530i) and, while it´s a fantastic machine in some keys aspects like engine and ride and handling, its styling is (to my eyes) the weakest point. Flair free and bland. Mine is riding on factory 16″alloys and no M “replica” bumpers, so at least it keeps its dignity. But nothing to do compared with the E34 and E36, two of the crispest and neatest cars BMW has ever made. I´m not a big BMW fan, by the way.

  4. Am I right in thinking that Ercole Spada played a big role in the design of the e34?

  5. I’m a little surprised lack of love for the E39. I mean, just look at it, in an early guise, unadorned with ‘sporting’ addenda that do little for it:

    Mind you, a good E34 is still a handsome car on its own terms:

    1. Sorry Daniel, your pictures only served to reinforce my opinion! The E39 is all bonnet bulge, has no “chin” and fades away to nothing as you progress rearward.

      The E34 has lovely soft radii as the front wings blend into the outer headlights.

    2. I’m with Daniel on this one as well. The E34 was cramped on the inside and didn’t look as complete a car as it’s successor. In particular I always felt the kidney grille looked stuck on like something purchased in halfords as an afterthought on the E34. It looked much more part of the car when it formed part of the bonnet. E39 any day of the week for me.

    3. Hi Mick. Regarding the E34’s kidney grille, the V8 model got a wider version that was standardised on all models from 1996. I think that this looked better integrated than the earlier, narrow version:

  6. I’m no fan of Beemers but I think the E12 and E39 are lovely lookers. The E39,to me is the last good looking BM before it all went south. It is a very “Clear” design, looking at it creates space inside my head. The tail lamps demarked by the horizontal crease are great. It is colour and wheel specific though, it has to be on the standard dished multi spoke alloys with pale metallic blue/green paint. Darker colours do nothing for it, there is a 530d estate in metallic navy near me and I never give it a second glance. Some details do annoy though which they didn’t in the day. It has a messy semi plunging A pillar, shared with a few well regarded mid 90’s designs: the Rover 600 and Audi A3 suffer here too. It also has incoherent egg shaped door handles, they look like something SAAB rejected for the NG 900. And to be fair Daniel O’s pic is shot from too low down in normal view it is a slender machine here it looks a bit of a bloated.

    1. Hi Richard and thanks for your encouraging words regarding the E39. It was beginning to feel a bit lonely in here this evening! Here’s a higher angle photo that shows it in a truer light:

      Here’s a nice original E12 in a great period 1970’s colour:

  7. But nobody has mentioned NRJ’s Visa wheel trims, surely the period piece of the day. Fabulous!

    1. They caught my eye – I believe they mark it out as a Visa 14 TRS – the highest (non-sporting) spec. I like Visas and have happy memories of a GT.

  8. Having grown up in a household with an E34 and later E39 I love these cars. Solid, great in line sixes and in my opinion better to drive than all the contemporary rivals. I also applaud the fact that BMW didn’t accommodate smokers too much for all the obvious reasons, even though it would be a lot better if ashtrays were totally absent in cars.

    1. You aren´t much on the side of hedonism, are you? Whether or not you smoke, an ashtray is handy thing to have. You can keep coins and paper clips and even use then as a store for apple butts.

  9. The title reference to 1998 is a few years past the E34’s sell-by date perhaps?

    As a non-smoker, I am delighted to have my memory of this beautiful car refreshed (I drove an ’89 model for a few years).

  10. Reviving an old thread here, on my state permitted exercise today I found an E39 saloon in a farmyard. I still love the shape and detail but I think I can also see why it bothers some readers. It’s stance is ambiguous is it FWD or RWD? There’s a family precedent here the E12 had a similar stance, park a 1972 E12 next to a1972 Alfetta and you could assume the Alfa was RWD and the BM FWD.

    The glazed in headlights are probably a bit of a homage to the 2000CS and people didn’t warm to that style way back when.

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