My predilection for two and three door cars is already a matter of public record.
Four years ago however a growing family (and the ridiculous amount of paraphernalia that accompanies two kids) meant short of a roof box or a trailer a new car was needed. The thought of either an MPV or SUV was never entertained. That pretty much meant I was looking for a saloon. Not just any saloon though, but the 5th best looking* 4 door of all time. When this car was launched in 1994 (and especially in base spec) it had a discreet and maybe even slightly underwhelming presence. By the time it came to it’s run out in 2001, dollied up with MSport skirts and almost totally dechromed (the only silver to be found is on the twin kidney grilles) it truly was a sleek slice of motoring heaven.
I am of course talking about the BMW E38 7 series. Initially sketched by Claus Luthe but credited to Boyke Boyer (who also took the “plaudits” for the E36). Nothing available in the late nineties looked as good as this and nor has very much since. It still drives beautifully, more than matches newer cars on pretty much every level and sadly seems to be becoming rarer by the day. Much (soul and internet) searching led me to my aspen silver late model 728i. Built in May 2001 and delivered in MSport guise (shadowline trim) with a great spec-the only thing missing was a sunroof.
Over the years BMW have specialized in producing cramped interiors, even in relatively large cars. The nadir was the E34 5 series, which was not a
welcoming environment for anyone over 185 cm tall (nor anyone sitting in the back). What did they do with all the space? That said even the boffins at BMW Towers couldn’t make the inside of the E38 feel like the pinched surroundings we had come to expect. It’s certainly not overly roomy or airy but there is plenty of space for four tall adults, has a massive boot and I love the cocooned driver focused environment accentuated by the anthracite headlining. No iDrive or massive screens, just well laid out buttons for each function (for someone who grew up in the “80s you can never, ever have too many buttons!). Black leather sports contour seats complete the “Carlsberg” interior
When any car is replaced there is often talk of an era coming to an end. Usually this talk is pretty meaningless. Not so with the E38. Along with it’s handsome smaller brother the E39 it was the last BMW to show vestiges of (the peerless) Paul Bracq’s delicate and beguiling influence. Sales increased sharply towards the end of 2000 and early ’01. For better or worse (I’m guessing you know where I stand here) Chris Bangle completely changed the direction of BMW from this point on. Surely it’s also the last 7 series that was truly designed as a driver’s car. It’s sybaritic successor with that tragic Bangle/Van Hoydonk (success has many fathers…) but which in fairness did outsell the E38 by about 20000 units seems more like a chauffeur driven vehicle to me. More importantly though apart from the 4 door 6 series (F06) we haven’t had a really beautiful saloon from our friends in Munich since. The scourge of diesel was just around the corner and this was the last big Beemer where petrol reigned supreme. Sure there was the wheezy 2.5 inline 6 and the first ever production V8 diesel was found in the 740d but these were niche sellers as the 4.4 V8 petrol was by far the most popular. For the brave/wealthy (delete as appropriate) there was also the 750i with a V12 and a baby V8 735i almost completed the line up.
Perhaps the most notable “last” is the only engine I haven’t yet talked about. It’s the silky smooth 2.8l engine I have in mine. In places like Ireland where motor tax rates are punitive this 7 series “light” engine was often chosen. The very last M52TU was dropped into an E38’s engine bay in June ’01, little over 4 weeks after my car rolled off the production line. I have never found it the compromise I feared before I bought it. The irresistible simplicity of a large(ish) capacity normally aspirated engine driving the two rear wheels has been with us for well over a century. Old school maybe but if it’s not broken…. For seven years this was BMW’s go to inline 6 (in varying states of tune and capacity) for everything from a 320i right up to the (E36)M3. In the 4 years from ‘97to 2000 it was first 3 times and second once in “Ward’s 10 best engines”. That’s not to say that it’s perfect. 30 MPG is achievable on a motorway run but the OBC tells me I’m lucky to average better than 19. Sticking it into sport and driving it with any degree of enthusiasm (which is difficult not to do) turns the car into some kind of petrol black hole where it’s easy to keep the MPG in single figures and the fuel needle almost visibly moves westerly. It’s also a little low on power below about 3000 RPM. Extremely short gearing in first means it really moves off at lights but if you let the revs drop it can be a little sluggish with all that weight to cart around. Above 3000 revs though it’s an absolute peach. Incredibly addictive turbine like swoosh and it really moves. With well over 170000 miles it seems bulletproof and still the smoothest engine of almost any car I’ve ever been in. The 5 speed gearbox has also been trouble-free and unless you look for a kickdown at just the wrong moment the changes could only be described as imperceptible. To provide a modicum of respectability in the fuel consumption stakes 5th is a little leggy (engine spins at about 2000 at 120kph). An extra ratio between 4th and 5th would be ideal. That said (especially in Sport mode) they go together better than Bombay and tonic and after four years I still can’t get enough of them.
It’s clear that there are a few downsides to running this car. It doesn’t take long to get used to not fitting into standard parking spaces (it is almost 5 metres long). However it’s voracious thirst, €1400 annual road tax bill and the way it chews through suspension components are a little more difficult to get used to. That said over four years it’s total cost of ownership is less than that of a brand new hatchback. It’s still worth what I paid for it (not all that much admittedly!) and I can’t think of any such car that would even scratch the surface of what the big old bus offers both in terms of practicality and sheer out and out enjoyment.
*Subject to (very regular) change.