Fifth Nicest*

My predilection for two and three door cars is already a matter of public record

The scalloped headlamps and reduced indicators were very small facelift tweaks. To my eyes though they made a big difference.
The scalloped headlamps and reduced indicators were very small facelift tweaks. To my eyes though they made a big difference.

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.

Front three quarters BMW 7 Series
I love the smoked indicators.

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

Central Console 7 series BMW
How can you not love a console full of buttons?

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


Interior BMW 7 Series
They don’t do interiors, but if they did…

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.

BMW M Parallel alloy wheels
I promise that I’m not a boy racer but I never could resist dished wheels

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.

Fuel gauge 7 series
It’s not just the car that can move pretty quickly

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.

Rear three quarters silver BMW 7 series E38
This is my favourite angle

*Subject to (very regular) change.

29 thoughts on “Fifth Nicest*”

    1. Thanks Johann. I enjoyed writing it. I had had to keep cutting parts out as it was becoming a book rather than an article.

  1. Fantastic passionate article MIck.

    I have to fess up, I am not the biggest fan of Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, but I do hold the E38 in very high regard, alongside the E24 6er. The design in my eyes is timeless elegance, a well selected product placement for Tomorrow Never Dies. A movie star with a remarkable resemblance to yours, minus the 5.4 V12.

    I have a ‘Marmite’ gasoline fed W219 CLS for which I have an equal passion to yours. I coveted the vehicle for 9 years before hitting the trigger. Haven’t looked back since!!!!

    1. Thanks Sanjay. I totally agree with you about the E24. It’s one of my all time favourites and definitely on the bucket list. I think the Bond car is the same colour as mine but is a pre facelift model. As you said it has the V12. When I was buying mine there was actually a 750i for sale near to where I live. I did take it for a test drive and the dealer was even willing to give me a limited warranty on the car which was on offer at €4500. I was way too much of a wuss to even really contemplate buying it even though I really did enjoy the test drive. Glad your car brings you the same pleasure I get from mine but I’m guessing you probably spend as much time as I do standing beside it at a fuel pump.

  2. Mick, I’d be laughing if it wasn’t so true!!! Don’t know about yours, but mine has an 80l tank, so standing at the pump can take an age sometimes as well as a hefty kick to the wallet!
    Then again, you go into these things with your eyes open and the pleasure outways the pain every time. I do periodically laugh at the manufacturer claimed fuel consumption figures. In the years of ownership I have only ever witnessed 30mpg on the trip computer once!!! Never likely to see the published fabled 40+ mpg unless I start removing steel components off the car.

    1. Yes the pleasure does outweigh the pain. Think mine is 85l and tend to get a fortnight out of a tank. I do much more mileage in my work car.

  3. Mick: That’s a lovely example and looks really well cared for. Chapeau. Not wishing to be contrarian however I will say that I never really warmed to the E38. After the matchless E32 it always felt to me like a cover version of a seminal original. Good but slightly unsatisfying. But pushed to explain and I might struggle a bit. The E38 is a subtle beast and only really shines when lingered over. The forms and graphics are very correct and well handled. To be honest, I cannot really fault it except that I find the rear end a little bland. I think it’s the combination of the boot height, which seems a little flattened and the tail-lenses, which are too redolent of the cheaper models for me. For the extra money, I’d want something slightly more expressive. Lets just say, I preferred the E32’s tail treatment.

    I know I’m probably out on a limb here, seeing how this and its Five-Series stablemate are revered by marque aficionados as a styling high water mark. But then, I also like the Bangle cars – well most of them anyway.

    Carping aside though, I salute you on keeping a nice older car in such fine fettle.

    1. Thanks Eoin, I do agree the E32 is special and it’s definitely up there for me but I love the subtlety of the E38. The smoked lenses accentuate this for me but someone did once say to me that they looked like aftermarket accessories. Lots of cars I disliked at first have grown on me but despite really trying the E65 always struck me as as the loud drunken boor showing off at a party.

  4. Mick. I have to admit that I am not alone on this site in actually admiring the E65 – now where would you find another site like that?

    On the other hand, I always liked the E38. It was a far nicer shape than its predecessors, looked smaller than it was (a reasonable marker of a well resolved car) and, as you say, had those things (good steering, straight six petrol engine) that proper BMWs should have. I suspect that if I had an E65 for driving I’d be disappointed, not so an E38. I too would be sorely tempted by a V12 – but not if I lived in Ireland.

    As for your and Sanjay’s comments on fuel consumption – pah!. My S6’s turbo 5 never saw anything approaching 30 mpg in all the time I had it, and would happily nudge single figures in town

    1. Sean, the fact it looks smaller than it is was something I had in the article but removed it before uploading. I love that about the car. Single figure mpg in town? I don’t feel so bad anymore! I still think back to the 750i but I was never going to buy it. It’s also got me hooked on the soundtrack of a straight six.

  5. My dad used to be an E38 driver (it turned out to be his last BMW Siebener, by the way), and I loved his ’99 750i, which was the worst car in terms of reliability he ever owned – even after its entire wiring had been changed, it was still extraordinarily prone to electronic issues. These ranged from being unable to lock the car to the electrical boot lid refusing to open/close, a complete instruments blackout and so on and so forth. Which was all the more regrettably as the car’s spec was delicious, as was its peachy V12 engine.

    My ideal Seven would be the E32’s exterior, combined with the ’38’s interior. The latter car truly felt like a quality item.

    But both certainly rank high on the all-time best Seven Series list, with the E65 coming third, thanks to its curiosity value, ahead of the ‘nice try, but must try harder’ E23 and the two most recent, utterly charmless generations of Siebener. The E32/38 were genuine BMWs and did serve a specific purpose, which modern luxury saloons are mostly lacking.

    1. “Quite what have you done to my Seven Series, James?”

      “Sorry Q, I don’t know what happened. It must be dodgy electrics”

      “Oh come on, you can do better than that surely, it’s a BMW”

      “I don’t know about that Q, but if you ever get the boot open can I have my trousers back?”

    2. Kris, I was worried about electrical gremlins when I got the car but so far apart from a pixelated display(apparently it happens to all Beemers of this vintage),a flat battery and a slightly wobbly driver’s window everything electrical(including the fancy soft close function) are still working well. Lots of stuff has been replaced including what seems like the entire suspension system twice over and even the fuel tank! I feel better about not getting the 750i after your dad’s experience but my thoughts often drift back to it.

      Sean, I’ve always been a bit ambivalent towards the 007 link. Love the car but maybe not the blatant paid for product placement nor the ridiculous chase scene when Pierce is hunched in the rear seat with his Sony Ericsson driving the thing. I especially hated seeing it being driven off the top of a building. Still there it is and there’s not a lot I can do about it.

    3. Actually I find Bond product placement generally odd. Does seeing a BMW Z8 sliced in two, or an Aston completely trashed in the first few minutes of a film, really make you think ‘I’d like that car’?

    4. Mick, my dad’s 750i was part of a notorious gang of top-spec cars built just after the facelift had been implemented, which meant the availability of a lot of new electronic gadgets that could (and did) go wrong. Reportedly, a few hundred such E38s were built before Dingolfing got the hang of assembling these new gizmos correctly, so I guess all post-2000 E38s should be fine.

      What irritated me the most about the 007 chase scene – which I like, by and large – was the blatant use of different cars for each shot. There was the 740iL with the cameras in the wing mirrors (they didn’t even change the soundtrack!), a lot of 740s without cameras, and that single 750iL without the M wheels. Mind you, the topography of Hamburg as depicted in Tomorrow Never Dies is even more confused.

    5. Kris, I’m seriously impressed. Despite having seen that scene at least 4/5 times I never noticed all those different cars. I did know that 2were specially customized to be drive able from the rear seats but this was not from watching the movie. I’ve never been to northern Germany so I can’t talk about Hamburg but it does annoy when the geography of a city is disregarded when making a movie. It’s a bit petty I know as it doesn’t make a difference to the story.

      Sean, I suppose they believe the old mantra that any publicity is good but I always wince when a beautiful car/building or whatever is “destroyed”.

    1. Thanks Chris. Agree with you on having a straight six but 2 of them in the same engine would have been nice!

    2. No love for Bee-Em’s V8s? According to Dr Ulrich Bez, it’s the best BMW engine ever… in the world!

    3. Kris, maybe driving and loving my straight six clouds my judgement but I still love it every time I fire it up.

    4. Mick, I was trying to be ironic – BMW V8s have never lit my fire, really. Their speciality are the straight sixes, full stop.

  6. Mick, congratulations for the article, it’s easily the fifth nicest piece I’ve read in quite some time.

    I like it when someone is passionate about what they’re writing, and it really shows in your case. This even holds true although I don’t share all the predilections you describe. I must admit that I’d rather go for the more groundbreaking E32 or even E65 than for this one (which is still much nicer than the newer 7ers, I agree). Also, I’m not at all fond of this all-black, cocooning feeling you seem to like. I had this in my CX Turbo, and I don’t miss it. I’m glad to have found cars with light-coloured headliners after that.

    1. Thanks Simon. It truly would be a drab world if we all agreed. I do feel in a minority of one here when it comes to the E65. I will admit when it came out first I was completely reactionary and strongly disliked it on sight. Those eybrows, those door handles, the fat wheels and the terrible butt all spring vividly, immediately and painfully to mind. Over the years I have tried to be mature about it and have looked at it closely from many angles. I have seen the video of Van Hoydoonk and Bangle explaining what their vision was. I just don’t get it. Although the facelift (and eyebrow reshape) did somewhat improve matters I still wince every time I see one. I understand your point about the sombre interior but every time I get in I get the feeling the car was designed like a tailored garment to suit the driver.

    2. The E65 is the Citroen Ami 6 of our times, Mick. Beautiful it ain’t, but striking it unquestionably is. And for that reason alone I harbour some affection for it, despite its challenging appearance, despite those doorhandles, despite that awkward c-pillar, despite the weeny rear track width, despite that cheapo interior, despite the fact that it led the way for all future luxury saloons to grow far beyond the 5m mark (a task the W140 had failed at a decade earlier). I certainly like the facelifted E65 an awful lot better than its utterly charmless successors. The E65 may be the chap with the hydrocephalus, but at least one can remember it.

    3. I’m not sure if I will ever be able to shift that analogy from my mind Kris! Suffice to say I will be looking at my next E65 with an even more jaundiced eye (if that’s possible).

    4. I don’t know if SV Robinson (the second member of the DTW E65 Appreciation Society) agrees with me, but I, of course, prefer the original to the vanilla facelift.

  7. I always admire the clean lines of an E38 when I see one. But for me, Bangle and Arcangeli’s E60 design is where art expression and sheer design talent came together to change the game.

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