New Old School: BMW’s E23 745iA And E32 750iL
Photography by Alex Sobran
When driving older cars it’s common for people to use some trite variant of the phrase “It’s like being in a time machine” when describing the sensation, and that’s fine, but it’s never all that accurate either. Think about it: the typical vintage car has endured years of accumulated mileage, heat cycles, modifications, and penny-pinching repairs, or even if meticulously restored it will still see the addition of “better” components in place of the originals, not to mention the fact that there is no way to go back to the factory and assemble it as it would have been done in the period, for better or worse. And even beyond the vehicle itself, one must still drive on today’s roads surrounded by today’s people who prefer to be on their phones trusting lane-assist and auto-braking programs to pick up the slack. The only true way then to experience the past from our place in the ever-moving present is to find a preserved car and take it somewhere devoid of modernity. This is difficult.
I was fortunate enough to have such a rare opportunity when BMW Classic brought a lineup of extremely low-kilometer cars to Romania for a dreamlike journey through a dreamscape section of the Carpathian Mountains. The route taken was more like navigating a knotted headphone cord than a road, and it’s pronunciation and spelling left my tongue similarly tied. Constructed as a military route in the 1970s, the Transfăgărășan is about as secluded a tangle of tarmac as one can find anywhere, and yet it isn’t some lonely stretch of straightness either, proof that you don’t always have to go somewhere boring to be alone. And while offering vistas that compete on a global level, it is more or less untouched by the sort of things you expect to see at such destinations; instead of a McDonald’s at the summit you’ll find a meat shop whose owner, if you were to ask her where the dangling slabs of primal food come from, would be able to point at instead of speak the answer—it’s not that she can’t use English, it’s just that the cows next in line are right there over your shoulder chewing their cud and checking out the German cars that’ve just ascended the wonderfully convoluted series of switchbacks.
There is more to come on the rest of that lineup later, but returning to the introduction, the ultimate time/driving machines of the bunch were the 1983 E23 745iA and the 1993 E32 750iL. With odometer readings that can usually only be attained today on cars that old from knowing a guy with a “little trick” and little morality who can roll it back for you, I wouldn’t believe the numbers if these weren’t part of BMW’s collection. Pair these paragons of preservation with a mostly empty mountain pass that had more cattle traffic than cars to impede the experience, and it’s hard to think of a closer parallel to the time when the two were brand new. They pretty much still are.
When’s the last time you’ve seen original velour piping inside a car from 1983 that isn’t rubbed to a shine on the bolsters or covered in eczematous blotches from decades of sun? And the car phone in the E32 presents as if it’d maybe been lifted from its holster just once so the original owner could experience the slight heft of it and nothing more. The steering wheels look like they’ve only been held with surgical gloves; all the tiny grooves and dimples have uniform depth around the rim. The cars were so mint that it felt wrong to invade their sanctity, but then again, the desire to become acquainted with machines of this calibre outweighed any sense of sacrilege.
Both of these 7s are significant not just in BMW’s history, but in that they were able to bring about paradigm shifts in the luxury space without resorting to gimmicks or extravagances. One doesn’t look at these cars from a contemporary perspective and smirk at the datedness of them. These are restrained designs that when kept in this condition still convey a certain status, still represent the cachet of having the means but not the desire to flaunt them. And to throw away that maturity for a moment, hell yes one has a turbo straight-six and the other a goddamn V12!
The BMW E23 745iA
Beginning in line with the timeline, I’ll do my best to pass on the feeling of driving the E23 before moving on to the E32. The E23 was the result of the E3 Bavaria ideology that combined enough space and comfort to enjoy longer commutes with enough chassis competence to take the back roads home on a Friday. This year marks 40 since the first 7-Series, though it was not until 1980 that the name began forming its deserved reputation in earnest. This was the year of the 745iA.
Yes, the “A” is for automatic, but as much as we all love having a third pedal, it really does take something away from the ethos of what a 7 stands for. In a sports car from the time or even just a 3-Series, yes, it would be a shame not to shift manually, but in this car that would feel like a compromise; after all, automatics were one of the most luxurious options back then. Here the three-speed self-shifter was surprisingly good as far as autos go in that I was expecting that dull low-rev hiccup between upshifts that was instead a bafflingly modern-feeling transition. Chalk it up to the condition of the car maybe, but it just didn’t have that trademark disappointment when it dumps the RPM to start another slow arc across the tach.
And that’s the other thing, the path of the rev needle; this is truly an old school turbo! Sequential this and thats are good for gas mileage and drivers who can’t cope with sudden changes in pace, but there’s no beating the feeling of that single-impeller thrust that you can actually feel. I never thought I’d drive a big barge like this and be giddily watching the dash as the revs approached the best boost range. This is the stuff you do in a 930, not a 7.
I won’t pretend that the ~250hp and the turbo that achieves that number were anything akin to a Widowmaker, but it’s no fib to say that to get the most out of the car it needs to be driven in a similar albeit slower manner; it was a fun little challenge to try to flirt with the bottom of the boost range and the top of the upshift range on the tach while cornering. Speaking of corners, the 745 predates the age of the truly luxury-laden cruisers that would follow in terms of weight and nimbleness, and so is still a definitive piece of that original meaning of Ultimate Driving Machine.
Today that phrase mostly means tons of tech, but back when it was coined it was more like this: Here, we’ve made a big car that’s primarily made for comfortable transport, though it wishes it were an athlete instead of a limo, and you can tell it hits the gym after work in pursuit of that. You can call this a plug or an ad or whatever you want but I mean it: this big BMW was not at all a slouch on these roads. The front end lifts your vision into the clouds when you stomp on it after a first gear turn, and inversely it will point you to the pavement when you brake late into the next one, but it’s not like the modern large cars that do that because you can still feel it all instead of feeling like the car is feeling it for you. Does that make sense? I’ll try again. It might waft around a bit and it’s going to loll you around like a warped canoe if you’re trying to drive it like an M3, but you feel like you’re making that happen rather than something that’s happening to you because of the car’s limits. It’s giving you feedback instead of getting rid of it. Simply put, it’s very fun to drive this car like it wasn’t meant to be.
Now, the design; Paul Bracq, we need to go back! Adding, literally, to the shape bred through the E21, E24, and E28, the E23 (the fact that the biggest car in this generation doesn’t have the highest number is mildly annoying even if such things are meaningless) manages to add size without adding any bloat. Unlike a lot of large cars now and even quite a few back then, the proportions are tight: the belt line is that perfectly sliced-straight perimeter that separates the long narrow body from the upright cabin; the A- and C-pillars don’t need to give in to crazy amounts of rake to make the thing look “sporty;” the shark nose front end wears the Euro light setup of mismatched diameter lenses that every American wishes they had and pays too much money to get; and the TRX wheels if kind of questionable in their attempt at metric sizes (sorry Germans, sometimes things can’t make sense!) have a somewhat severe Coke-cap-like industrial element to them that fits well with the sharp body above.
Inside, it feels like your grandmother’s just died and you’ve taken the plastic off the furniture for the first time, though it’s not a sad experience even if there’s a lot of blue, it’s a plushly happy zone of nostalgic overload. The seats have almost zero bolster to them, but the cloth helps to hold you in place a bit when you’re running late to a conference call; the tape cassette holders in front of the big T-shaped gear lever are a total trip, and, in this car, all are in dainty and fragile working order to boot. The gauges and radio and HVAC controls are all no-nonsense and easy to use (it took me a real-time ten full minutes to figure out how to get acquainted similarly with the 2017 M760Li, but that’s another article), and the air-conditioning blows cold! In a 1983 BMW! Though it wasn’t exactly warm driving by the glaciers, we put it on anyway for the sheer novelty and shivered with a smile. And the wood, the real, unhidden-behind-a-can’s-worth-of-clear-coat wood. Opening the ashtray’s thick tree of a handle each day would be enough to make me take up smoking. There aren’t soft touch this and climate zone that’s in here to wow you, but instead a big hunk of wood hiding a spot for spent cigarettes, and that’s much cooler if you ask me.
All in all, the E23 was just sublime. It was fun to push its boundaries, and it was nice to not have to in order to enjoy it. The fact that the thing had less than 4,000 kilometers on it only made the time spent inside that much better, and the lack of any modern cars (a ‘90s Dacia is not exactly as modern as its model year suggests, and that was pretty much the only other car I saw during the drive) to provide unwanted juxtaposition elevated the whole experience even higher than summit of the Transfăgărășan.
The BMW E32 750iL
Okay, now trekking on over to the next generation. This is when things got serious in the 7-Series range. V12 serious. In the case of the E23, that car’s badge’s digits represented the theoretical comparable output of a naturally-aspirated engine to that of the turbo’d 3.2L that started out in the 745, but on this one? 750 means: 7-Series, all five liters of it (well, 4,988cc, but, c’mon). As much as the inline-six was—and is again—BMW’s buttery-smooth bread, it wasn’t going to cut it anymore in an age when Benz and a still sort of fledgling luxury edition of Audi were both mining the V8 for its power potential. Instead of playing monkey though, BMW climbed farther up the tree and made its first production V12 and stuck it in their biggest sedan instead of any kind of sports or GT car.
Stepping in this extended wheelbase E32 (iL’s are almost five inches longer than “standard” 750s) and sliding down the thick leather of the M5-shared Recaro front seat, you feel like you’ve now entered something like a well-appointed personal vault, and then the also leather-laden hulk of a door swings momentously shut to seal you inside the almost blindingly bright interior. The double-paned windows do nothing to detract from this sensation of being inside a very safe place. It’s also sort of like being in a yacht, what with all the typically nautical light-colored seating complete with armrests. Or maybe the cabin of a nice jet, which these cars surely shared hangar space with quite often. There’s a dashboard and steering wheel and shifter to remind you that you are indeed in something with wheels though, and the first thing I noticed was that said dash had more advanced features to toggle compared to the E23, but managed to somehow simplify and streamline the design. Not everything that improves needs to convolute.
So, what it’s like to drive this car. Actually the yacht comparison still holds once you’re moving along the road, or at least when you have the car out of its sport settings. With the suspension and throttle in their comfy modes, the ride is very smooth indeed, and it’s soft enough to ensure the backseat passengers don’t spill their drinks all over the nice plush carpet, but if you tell it to take a turn in a manner such that they would, it’s kind of a let-down. It’s the opposite of sharp, it doesn’t even know the definition to strive for. The steering wheel suggests rather than directs once you’re moving quickly, and though this is probably pretty nice on the Autobahn (you didn’t think there’d be a 7-Series article without the requisite mention of the best place for one did you?), it’s not very confidence-inspiring when understeer equals launching a two-plus-ton hunk of metal and cowhide off a cliff.
Put the suspension and the engine ECU (ECUs actually) in “S” though (I love how innocuous the sport buttons used to be in this era, absolutely none of the flash and dazzle of the newer cars), and the story changes immediately. Remember, this is a machine that’s two inches shorter than 200, so don’t think I think it’s an agile little corner carver, but relative to it’s berth and belly the 750iL is better than you’d hope for when it’s out of its element. Leaving the stiffer and sharper buttons on for the rest of the ride, the initial sense of commanding a whole lot of car behind you gradually transforms into focusing on what’s in front of you. Once I got used to the requisite braking planning and force needed to slow down correctly for the kinds of turns on the mountain, it became a rewarding car to haul around. Fun to plan and just enough excitement when executing. More understeer than oversteer of course, but also of course, I wasn’t about to really try to find out how to slide it when next to guard rails in a foreign country on a mountain in a car that is not my own. Sorry if that’s a disappointment, but know that I heard the tires singing their songs and drove it hard enough to feel it move a bit. And that’s just how it is, everything is just kind of “a bit,” which isn’t bad. It won’t surprise you if you’re keen to drive it quickly, which is preferable to something this heavy that’s fickle instead of predictable.
The 750iL was only offered in an automatic, but again, this is kind of the appropriate configuration for a big 7, I must admit. It’d be more fun to keep the M70 V12 up in the revs and to be able to manipulate downshifts with a heel and a toe rather than just one big dumb foot, but that’s what many other manual-transmission BMWs can offer. You don’t get on a Gulfstream and ask the pilot for the sticks right? The ZF four-speed does a serviceable job of kicking down a gear when you tell it to with a stomp, and the ~300hp from the big motor is enough to overtake the plebs in their economy cars, but it’s not a monster either. Maybe that’s due to gearing, but it isn’t a big beast like its very distant cousin the S70/2.
Time for styling. Lots of people think it looks like a big E34, but the E32 came first and so it’s more accurate to say that the E34 looks like a little E32. Another kind of backwards thing regarding the design of these BMW brethren is the sportier styling of the bigger car. You’d expect the smaller one that had an M version made of it no less to don the sportswear while the bigger one put on a suit like the people who drove it, but just look at the sharp upswept body-integrated rear lip on the back of the 7-Series. It looks fantastic, and is exactly the right stroke of aggression for a car that has mainly pretty staid responsibilities—the E34 is devoid of such a feature, or else has a much much less pronounced version. The wide grilles that feature on the V8 and V12 models of the E32 platform certainly give it an imposing, bared-buck-teeth kind of look, but as goofy as that description sounds, see for yourself: it looks good. Not too much, but enough menace to move cars out of the left lane before you need to reach for the flashers.
I’ve always considered the E30/E34/E32 era sort of the transition between two distinctive styling epochs of BMW production cars. They all have yet to have their twinned headlights merged behind glass, and the Hofmeister kink is still a standout feature against a tall greenhouse rather than just a natural part of the rake of the later cars. There is also the definite move to modern design though, and especially on the E32. The taillights for instance finally look like the design department realized they could make them something besides purely utilitarian (though that’s kind of funny to say considering the “L” shape with the upper blinker was intended for safety, which is the only true function of taillights).
The iL is long, but never for a second does it look like some extended cars that put a toe too far into limousine length. And because things had yet to balloon to house all the safety and other add-ons, it’s still something you can drive around in packed cities of Europe without sweating (too much anyway, it’s still pretty big compared to a Smart).
Inside, it’s basically a mobile office, and the iL was one of the first production cars to offer electronically adjustable rear seating. Quite lux. There is the car phone mentioned earlier, and I can’t help but love imagining a massive antenna attached to the roof and someone making international calls to their shady Swiss bank from anywhere in the world. Maybe the Mars Observer wouldn’t have disappeared if NASA’d tried out the Siemens system in the 750? Okay of course it wouldn’t help, but it’s fun to make bad jokes! And when you’re the kind of person who could have bought one of these bad boys new, at least some of the company you kept would likely laugh at any crummy attempts at humor.
On this example there was leather stitched over just about everything, and being such a well-kept car the stain-and-dirt-welcoming silvery whitish skin was just a step below glowing in the dark. If it gets too bright though you can always power up the erector-set-style rear sunshade. Oh! Also, the headliner was just wild. It’s this very fun to run your fingers along grey synthetic material that’s ultra slippery and almost iridescent. It didn’t look durable so I didn’t touch it too much, but it was more interesting than pretty much any other interior material I can think of. Neat stuff. It was really the only light-feeling thing on or in the car. Everything else feels heavy, not in an overladen way but in a purposeful way. If you’ve ever seen the Jurassic Park scene wherein the lawyer asks Hammond’s grandson if the night vision goggles are heavy and then replies to the “Yes” with “That means it’s expensive, put it down,” that’s what it’s like to spend some time in and out of the E32.
Well, these were impressions of two of BMW’s earliest and most regal machines. I truly felt like I was in the ‘80s and ‘90s while driving them in the seclusion of the Transfăgărășan, and I hope at least some of that special sensation came through the screen to you, I know I’ll hold on to these memories until I’m in much worse condition than these two time capsules.