Benz Buster -1986 BMW (E32) 7-Series

The keys to the executive lounge are hard-won. Sometimes you’ve got to force your way in…

Image: Autoevolution
Image: Autoevolution

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.

Image: danstasalledebain
‘Here’s Wolfgang!’ (by way of metaphor). Image: danstasalledebain

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.

Image: Autoevolution
Masterful. Was there ever a better styled BMW saloon? Image: Autoevolution

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.”

BMW's 5.0 litre, 300 bhp V12. Image: piximus
BMW’s 5.0 litre, 300 bhp V12. Image: piximus

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.

Image: Favcars
Image: Favcars

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

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

29 thoughts on “Benz Buster -1986 BMW (E32) 7-Series”

  1. This was a memorable car and, in my mind, an enigmatic one – a view probably influenced by those reviews in Car. A mature gentleman who lives around the corner from us has one in a dark, solid bkue

    1. Sorry …where was I … blue, with those large disc wheel covers that are very much of that era. He drives it daily and its in very nice condition, but not pampered, sporting a ‘CHF’ sticker. I admire it every day as I take our Border for a turn around the block.

      It still looks like a modern car, and was followed by what remains for me as the definitive 5 Series. Don’t laugh, but in my head it occupies a similar space as the XM Richard was discussing yesterday (I think it’s the raised boot-line). I loved the later ‘Bangle’ 7 (and 6, and 5) for its bold, graceful ugliness – like a less than handsome aristocrat – but this is nicer. It’s proper design, not requiring a thematic name to lend it credence. Thanks for reminding us if it.

  2. The 1986 7-series is probably another one from the Ulm School of Design and if Spada did the outlines the details are are all from the upper reaches of the Danube.

    1. To me, Spada and Luthe were a match made in heaven. Luthe kept Spada’s idiosyncrasies in check, but allowed him to spice up BMW’s form language just enough for it to have the required impact.

      It’s a gem of a car.

  3. Eóin, you made me want one of those!
    It would actually be my second one. I remember being so in awe of this model as a 13 year old that I invested a significant part of my pocket money in what was at the time one of the most detailed 1:87 scale models, opening bonnet and everything included.

    1. Exactly this one! I wonder if it still exists somewhere in my parents’ cellar.

  4. Terrific and very desirable car. The cabin may not have been as opulent as a Jaguar’s, but it was lovely enough.

    But this 7 – and, at a pinch, its successor, which really followed a very similar template – were the last of these saloons that were still compact enough to cut it as a sporting car. Now the 7 is just too big… arguably, the 5 is almost too big too.

  5. The E32 was a masterpiece, german journalists called this car ,Siebenschön” or a modern Jaguar with muscles. BMW was for the very first time a serious rival and not only a local competitor for Mercedes and jaguar.

    To me, it was one of the few BMW with an emotional design. A combination of elegance and dynamics. His successor was much less attractive, because its clinical design could not offer such emotions.

    I prefer an E32 with velours seats – the E32 offers some interior trims that could destroy the elegance of this car completely.

    1. It’s that huge steering wheel which really jars somehow. I take it airbag integration is the only reason for it but still, they could have tried a bit harder.

    2. I agree that it´s a nice car when it´s pointed out to me. It´s great to see one now. The thing is I don´t find myself thinking about it much (or at all).

    3. That would be Bavarian, rather than Swabian, Eduardo.

      The steering wheel isn’t the most elegant styling, but BMW’s was among the better early airbag adaptations (they even had one as an option for the first-generation seven, and it was hideous). The non-airbag steering wheel was also a four-spoke design, by the way.

      But apart from that I quite like that E32’s red interior (brilliant photo, by the way – I wonder where Simon got it from?). German brands rarely got beige tones right, so getting something other than the ubiquitous Teutonic black or grey option would be rather difficult. There was a very nice dark brown offered for the E32 for a while, but that’s very rare indeed. I would definitely take that red over black or grey any day of the week.

    1. Possibly the seats would stand out better against a black dashboard but, generally, that red interior is very nice indeed.

  6. Nice article Eóin. You might not be terribly surprised to hear me say that despite really liking this car the E38 would get my vote. The newer car kept lots of the touches I loved such as the lip on the bootlid, perfect proportions and beautifully understated interior but looked a little lighter and more delicate. I’m guessing I’m in a minority of one here but I much prefer both the smaller light cluster at the rear and the way the twin headlamps coalesce (especially on the face lifted model).

    1. No you’re not Mick. Some might find the E38 less characterful than its predecessor, but I really like its elegant simplicity. It takes the lines of a smaller car and transposes them on to something larger, avoiding the temptation to put in those flourishes that designers normally find necessary to put in on big cars, either thinking that the viewer would get bored or that the owner wouldn’t feel they had got their money’s worth. And for me it works perfectly – my favourite 7 Series.

      But now of course I spoil it for you by pointing out that it shares first place in my eyes with its bold successor!

    2. Having experienced both up close, I can claim that the E38 is the cosier car, with its cabin among the nicest luxury environments of the ’90s automotive scene. It also felt more robust than the E32 (even though early and early facelift examples suffered from quality issues).

      But it lacked the E32’s panache. It was too serious, too discreet for its own good. BMWs aren’t supposed to be the better Mercedesses (would that be the correct plural, Mr Partridge?), they need to have a slightly raffish air to them. The E38 was the pinnacle of this particular era at BMW, but it also proved that there wasn’t that much mileage in it anymore, which is why I welcomed the E65, back in the day.

      Now that car has led the executive saloon sector into a corner I’m finding particularly unpleasant, which means I’m finding myself longing for the E38’s kind of gracefulness after all.

      But the E32 doesn’t need this kind of hindsight, it’s simply BMW’s best seven, both in terms of its concept and its execution.

  7. My colleague had a ‘Benz Buster’ E38 740i. We both agreed it lacked the solidity of my own C126 560SEC. In fact it seemed to come from a class below the older Mercedes. Perhaps a 750i would do better?

    1. Is there any more solid-feeling car than a W/C126? You can count yourself lucky that you didn’t compare your Benz with an E32 – the ’38 was the substantially more, well, substantial-feeling car.

      Mind you, things took a different turn once the W140 had been facelifted. From that point on, the Bavarian car felt at least as solid as its Swabian competitor. And once the plasticky W220 was launched, the Munich had Stuttgart licked for perceived quality.

  8. Are the differences here substantial enough to be objectively detectible? From my side of the glass, the cars in question all come from a period when no fastener, no plastic, no assembly concept was too costly. The stones of the pyramids didn´t fit more solidly together than the parts of these mighty vehicles.

    1. You’re right, Richard – up to a point. The E32 is a solid car, but not really of the ‘hewn from solid rock’ category – which isn’t BMW’s natural habitat anyway. The E38, however, was a prime example of Reitzle being at his most Reitzliest: in terms of perceived quality, it was supposed to give MB a run for their money, which is what it did. There hasn’t been another BMW that feels as substantial since. Comparing the states of decay of the average E38 with the average E65 after 10 or 15 years of use, the differences are becoming very obvious indeed: in the cabin, at least, the E65 ages a lot faster than its predecessor.

      Mind you, Mercedes were first when it came to cutting corners: the W140’s facelift was a prime example of the ‘substitute metal pieces with plastic parts’ phenomenon that would plague Untertürkheim for at least a decade-and-a-half. Other manufacturers followed suit, obviously.

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