The keys to the executive lounge are hard-won. Sometimes you’ve got to force your way in…
The 1986 E32 BMW 7-Series may not have been as polarising a styling statement as its E65 descendant, but was if anything a far more significant car. Bayerische Motoren Werke’s ‘here’s Johnny’ moment; it represented a point where BMW took a metaphorical axe to the boardroom door and gave their Swabian rivals the fright of their lives. It also inspired an entire generation of BMW saloons, introducing the distinctive (and patented) L-shaped tail-lamp motif.
Up to that point, BMW’s success had pivoted around more compact offerings, their upscale models proving a difficult sell against the benchmark Sindelfingen battleship. The 1977 (E23) 7-Series marked the Bavarian’s first serious attempt to take the fight to Mercedes, but it lacked finesse and outright firepower against its Swabian rival. Once Stuttgart-Untertürkheim retaliated with the peerless W126 S-Class two years later, the E23’s shine had truly dulled.
Relying so heavily on the three and Five Series models, profitability was a continual issue, so creating a more competitive flagship model became a matter of some urgency. In a December 1981 report, Car’s Georg Kacher described the forthcoming 7-Series as a ‘do or die’ car. BMW engineer, Karlheinz Radermacher stating; “We Shall put all our efforts into this model and if the car is a flop, BMW may never build another big saloon.” With domestic sales stagnating and BMW’s styling conservatism now seen as out of step, industry insiders smelled blood.
Stylistically, BMW had struggled to escape from the Hofmeister era which had served them so well, but under the leadership of the eminent Claus Luthe, BMW stylists created a design as accomplished as anything from Bruno Sacco’s Sindelfingen studios, arguably BMW’s finest saloon shape ever. The chosen design, reliably attributed to Ercole Spada successfully reinvented marque-specific styling themes, marrying tradition with aero-influenced modernity in an almost seamless fashion. Its muscular form language and sharp-suited lines catapulted the Seven into the realm of serious desirability. Even today, there isn’t a line or a feature out of place. Luthe, Spada and stylists, Boyke Boyer and Hans Kerschbaum truly excelling themselves.
But to take the fight directly to the three pointed death star, E32 had to stack up dynamically. Engineering prodigy, Wolfgang Reizle left few stones unturned to ensure not only would the Seven best the Benz on every key metric, but would also be the driver’s choice. Using carefully honed variations of standard-issue BMW hardware mated to state of the art electronic control, (including an early use of ASC), and aided by the use of a similar near-as-dammit multiplex wiring system as the one employed by Jaguar, E32 was a technofest in double breasted Hugo Boss pinstripe. A hugely confident Reizle told Car; “This car sets new standards in so many respects I am convinced it will be the new class leader.”
The accolades weren’t long coming, not least the 1986 Turin Design Award which highlighted not only the Seven’s styling, but the evident care and engineering detail that went into every aspect of the car’s construction. This award was highly treasured by Luthe, who is said to have retained it upon his retirement.
Apart from the UK, where critical sympathies lay distinctly Coventry-wards, E32 beat all comers and in its native Germany, the ‘Bavarian Jaguar’ eclipsed the mighty S-Class, much to Daimler’s alarm. Soon, all remaining hiding places were ruthlessly exposed with the announcement of the 750i, the first production V12 to be made in Germany since the pre-war era. BMW had had been close to introducing a bent twelve during the 1970’s, but economics and internal politics put paid to that. Announcing the model, Eberhard von Kuenheim promised his new flagship would “satisfy the highest standards which could be demanded of an automobile.” And just to be on the safe side, BMW are said to have prepared a V16 version.
Not that E32 was perfect. Because its dynamics were biased towards the sporting driver, ride quality was never in the Mercedes class, while Jaguar’s superiority in NVH suppression easily eclipsed both German machines. Furthermore, the optional Servotronic speed sensitive power steering wasn’t favoured by critics. BMW’s trademark in-line sixes were delightful as ever, but lacked power. The V12 addressed the performance deficit, but was criticised for a lack of mid-range torque; Car’s Gavin Green also noting the larger unit offered little in refinement over the six. Another disappointment lay inside. Beautifully finished and impeccably wrought, the Seven’s cabin was ergonomic, business-like and suitably Germanic. In showroom appeal it certainly had the Mercedes’ measure, but it really didn’t stand comparison with a rival Jaguar Sovereign. Additionally, like its British counterpart, early Seven’s suffered from a host of build and electrical-related maladies.
Nevertheless, E32 was a landmark car for BMW – never again would they be condescended to by their Swabian cousins. Yet it’s now something of a forgotten gem. Viewed next to its current lumpen incarnation it appears almost waiflike and really rather lovely. Today’s Seven is as much a bloated pluto-barge as anybody’s S-Class – all notions of ‘ultimate driving’ now confined to transporting four overfed captains of industry to their next round of golf with appropriate gravitas and self-importance. Yet without the impact of this car, BMW would doubtlessly have continued scrabbling for crumbs from the top table. Given how far they’ve travelled in the intervening thirty years, some might prefer they had done so.
Our German-speaking readers may also enjoy this fine piece on the E32