James May

Smokers ignite poster

Smokers of the world, ignite

This article was first published in March 2006.

Gentlemen, you may not be permitted to smoke for much longer. Never mind that you won’t be allowed to fire up one of those perfectly harmless Marlboros in a pub, because you might offend someone eating a burger made out of a part of a cow the cow itself never saw. Never mind that the Italians have already banned it from anywhere that qualifies as indoors, even though a few years ago it seemed perfectly acceptable to smoke in the Duomo in Florence. And never mind, either, that from now on you’ll only be able to enjoy that Condor moment if you buy your own battleship and duffel coat and do it on the bridge, Jack Hawkins style. No, it’s the car we have to worry about.

The car has always been a great place for a crafty toke. It’s yours, it’s private, there’s no bar and no public licence. No one’s coat is going to end up ‘smelling all smoky’ and the bloke in the next car is hardly going to complain that it keeps blowing in his direction. You should be safe.

But I doubt it. It’s already illegal to use your mobile phone in the car, and not so long ago someone was nicked for eating an apple at the wheel. It’s only a matter of time before driving one handed in general is outlawed.

Car manufacturers have already started working in anticipation of this dreadful day. Gears can be changed with little buttons or paddles mounted on the steering wheel. Radio controls can be found there, too, with buttons to alter the aircon. If it’s a BMW, there will even be some lucky dip buttons that could do something you didn’t want to do, but at least they enable you to do it whilst keeping both hands firmly on the wheel.

However, all of these developments count for nowt the instant you spark one up, because smoking requires at least one hand and, for a brief moment, both of them. Inevitably, then, there are already dark mutterings from the sort of people who prefix everything with ‘as a parent’, that smoking in cars should be banned.

But should it? Is it really any more dangerous than picking your nose, rooting around in the centre console for an American Hard Gum, or tapping out that great Ginger Baker fill on the top of the dashboard? Selflessly, and on behalf of all who indulge in the weed, I set myself a simple scientific experiment in order to find out.

The apparatus was as follows: one 2005 Porsche Boxster, mine, with immaculate leather upholstery and absolutely no cack in the little crevices around the switches; one birthday Bolivar, hand-rolled on the glistening thigh of a dusky lovely, and one 20-mile round trip embracing A and B roads, a bit of motorway, a town centre and every other hazard that could lead to airbag deployment and me blowing smoke out of my arse. I disgorged the cedar-wrapped delicacy from its Zeppelin-like tube and prepared myself for some pure smoking pleasure.

“The ashtray is on the left in UK-spec Porsches. My ashtray remained spotless but the cabin was knee-deep in embers” 

A few problems manifested themselves immediately. Firstly, Porsche seems to be in on the anti-smoking movement and has provided the Boxster with an ashtray that would barely accommodate a packet of Rizlas. The chances of scoring a direct hit with a three-inch slug of spent Bolivar looked pretty slim from the off. Secondly, the electrical induction device that the handbook probably likes to call a ‘cigar lighter’ doesn’t actually work, and never has done. It’s a special small-diameter version aimed squarely at people who smoke menthols and was nowhere near big enough to embrace the girth of the great belching engine wedged in my face, Churchillian style.

Fortunately, I had also acquired a box of extra-long, contaminant-free cedarwood matches and struck one at the first set of lights, which I found were not timed in accordance with the requirements of the cigar connoisseur. The head had barely burnt away, than they had changed to green and in turn instigated a lot of hooting from the Silk Cut Ultra smoker in the Renault behind.

I drove about two yards and stopped again. I couldn’t see a thing because someone had lit a bonfire of old Michelins in the car somewhere. What’s more, the blazing log in my right hand wouldn’t go out no matter how vigorously I waved it about. You might imagine that the clever thing to do here would be to lower the Boxster’s roof, which can be operated at speeds of up to about 30mph. But I couldn’t because it’s winter, I’m 43 and smoking a big cigar in a Porsche, and people would think I was a complete pillock.

I opened the window instead and made scooping hand movements, of the sort used to hurry children across the road, in order to expel the worst of the appalling pall. I remembered a smoking colleague whose method had been opening the window two inches and setting the ventilation fan at medium speed. That way, the exhaled smoke would be plucked from the cabin and trailed in my wake like the product of some catastrophic cylinder-head failure. He was right.

The ashtray is on the left in UK-spec Porsches but I often missed, so the roles of the ashtray and the rest of the interior were effectively reversed, the ashtray remaining spotless but the remainder of the cabin knee-deep in embers. Then, the hand-held mobile phone rang. “I’m sorry, I can’t talk at the moment,” I said. “I’m smoking.”

I settled down to a relaxed rhythm of smoking and driving, steering the Porsche with my left hand and the stogie with my right. What’s more,I drove slowly, at peace, and at those junctions requiring a split-second decision, I invariably decided to wait and enjoy a few extra puffs on the Bolivar, revelling in the aromatic fug of my own making. All I needed to complete the experience was the music from the Hamlet ad.

In fact, I think I’m right in saying that the in-car cigar is the single greatest advance in active road safety since the invention of the windscreen wiper. Smokers of the world, ignite.


James May, Column

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