Slegs Vir Suid-Afrikaners*

The South African variants.

Image: BMW SA/

The main reasons for certain countries to develop (or have developed for them), unique variants of established car model lines can roughly be traced back to tax laws, vehicle or traffic legislation and domestic motorsports homologation requirements. BMW is a brand that has sired several bespoke cars only available in certain markets. Italian and Portuguese legislation resulted in the E30-series 320iS which was fitted with a 2-litre version of the M3 engine, avoiding the severe tax hike for engines with a displacement exceeding 1999cc.

BMW South Africa gave birth to an E23-series BMW 745i with a different and arguably better engine than the 3.2 litre turbocharged six with which it was originally equipped (because the turbocharger got in the way of right hand drive conversion), and homologation rules put cars such as the E30-series BMW 333i on public roads, again in South Africa, which turned out to be a fertile ground for deviant model versions. Today, let’s take a peek under the hood of these last two South African variants.

BMW 333i. Image: Germancarsforsaleblog

In 1984 Bernd Pischetsrieder worked at BMW South Africa and together with then president Vic Doolan hatched a plan to regain the dominance in Group One racing once enjoyed by the three litre BMW E12; other unique homologation specials such as the Alfa Romeo GTV 3.0 and Ford Sierra XR8 leading the pack at the time.

Pischetsrieder was doubtless aware that the M3 was in development but rather than wait a few years it was decided to create their own race weapon with the aid of German enhancement specialists, Alpina. The recipe was similar to what Alfa Romeo and Ford had done – shoehorn a larger engine under the bonnet and upgrade the car where necessary.

The powerplant chosen was the M30B32 3.3 litre six as already used in the 633CSi and 733i; Alpina supplied the close ratio gearbox, limited slip differential, front dual ventilated 296mm disc brakes, sports suspension with Bilstein shocks, 16 inch Alpina light alloy wheels and a special bodykit.

With 197 bhp at its disposal, very similar to what the initial version of the M3 could muster, the 333i was the fastest E30-series in the world at the time with a maximum speed of 142 mph and a 0-62 mph sprint of 7.4 seconds. In May of 1985 the 333i entered into limited production – advertisements clearly stated that only 204 would be built – but this homologation special would never race, as Group One was cancelled that same year to the dismay of its many fans.

The 333i would still see racing action though, as some owners entered them in local competition. Despite the bad news BMW South Africa pressed on regardless and duly constructed the promised 204 cars, the last one being completed in late 1987.

BMW 745i. Image:

The turbocharged 745i was introduced in 1980 as the pinnacle of the E23 line. Right hand drive markets such as South Africa however were presented with a seemingly insurmountable problem, the turbocharger left no room for the steering column which made the conversion impossible.

For the first few years of its life this meant the 745i was limited to left hand drive markets only but at around the same time the E23-series received a facelift in 1983, BMW South Africa dealt with the problem by once more making a creative grab at the corporate parts bin.

The famous M88 3.5 litre six that started life in the legendary M1 and in M88/3 form powered the M5 and M635CSi was installed in the South African 745i, in effect creating a kind of M7. The M88/3 was not turbocharged but with 286 bhp delivered some 30 more horses than the regular 745i.

BMW South Africa made sure the car could handle the extra grunt in the way expected of a Bayerische Motoren Werke product by upgrading the suspension, fitting brakes sourced from the M635CSi as well as its ABS anti-lock system, and adding a limited slip differential plus sixteen inch BBS alloy wheels.

At the time the South African 745i was the fastest four-door BMW with its top speed of 146 Mph; the 0-62 Mph dash was dispatched in just over seven seconds. Inside it also differed from its European cousin by having leather upholstery sourced from domestic cows; the unique leather-covered centre console had its power window switches placed around the gearshift instead of the parking brake handle, and the ashtray was located behind the gearshift instead of under the radio as it was in all other E23-series 7 series.

Munich reportedly never contemplated following BMW South Africa’s lead as they feared they would be unable to produce enough M88/3 engines to meet the demand, and also because they thought the engine would be considered too noisy in this application by the majority of its European and American customers.

Just 209 cars were built between 1984 and 1987, among which seventeen were equipped with a 5-speed Getrag manual gearbox. Even though this special 745i was never developed with motorsports homologation in mind, one was entered in the South African Modified Saloon Car Championship for the 1985 season; piloted by Tony Viana it won that year’s championship, so far the only instance where a BMW 7-Series has competed in official motorsports.

* For South Africans only

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

14 thoughts on “Slegs Vir Suid-Afrikaners*”

  1. Lovely article, brrrruno. I never knew the E23 actually raced. It also made me nostalgic. My dad had two E30’s and I owned one as well. I wouldn’t mind to have a 333i in the garage right now.

  2. Excellent piece brrruno. BMW certainly produced some serious cars thanks for highlighting some of them.

  3. As well as highlighting these interesting South African variants, Bruno, you’ve reminded us of an era when BMW made some really lovely cars. The E23 is a handsome beast:

    I notice that the electric window switches appear to have been displaced to make room for electric seat adjustment controls. I wonder if that feature was also unique to the South African car?

    1. This South African 745 has a centre console differing a lot from the standard item. Dashboard, console and door cards are covered in leather and perhaps it was not possible to apply leather to the standard console which forms kind of an armrest around the handbrake lever that carries the window switches in other 745s. The controls for electric seats are the same as in Euro/US 7ers.
      Here’s a US market 735

    2. Aha, I now see where the electric window switches were originally sited. What an awkward, unergonomic position. The South African solution was much better.

    3. I’ve never been a big fan of the slab sided E23 (and even less so of the E24).
      One thing that’s particularly nasty is the crude way the A post trim is fixed to the front wing

    4. E23 is one of those cars that steadfastly refuse to take on a rose-tinted sheen from my perspective. It was and remains a wannabe luxury car to me, and therefore in an altogether different league than E32 & 38, which I value more with each passing year.

      In addition to its aesthetic shortcomings, I also have more than a hunch that E23 just wasn’t a terribly good car. A business associate of my father used to run one in the mid-’80s and was deeply dissatisfied with it. When a friend of his had to sell his Jaguar XJ12, he jumped at the chance to trade the BMW in for that car, which I found superior in every regard that mattered to him (not just style, but NVH, handling and performance too).

    5. Hi Christopher. I recall that the E23, while well regarded at launch in 1977, was comprehensively outflanked by the Mercedes-Benz W126 S-Class when it was launched two years later. The E32 always looked a bit lardy to me, as though it was sitting rather heavily on its axles. The E38 was delightful though, almost as good as my all-time favourite big Beemer, the E3:

  4. I grew up in South Africa with a couple of friends’ parents driving E23s – most of them it has to be said enduring similar experiences to the one Christopher outlined above, and mainly replacing them with W126s. As an already BMW-mad kid in the early 80s I was fascinated by the nuanced status signals of ascending boot badge number and associated trim levels of a 728i vs 733i vs 735i (alloy wheel configuration, full on board computer, velour vs leather seats…)

    I loved the E23 interior – and still do: the towering driver-oriented dash had such presence and conviction, and I loved how the HVAC controls were backlit different colours, with such crisp push button action… I had the anorak zipped up already. I recall my enthusiasm when I first read about the 745i (those poor 735i drivers dethroned from their superseded flagships)… but sadly they were all too rare to even glimpse in passing on Johannesburg’s roads. I think the E23 facelift was the first I really studied to try and understand what BMW were getting at with their modifications – I was amazed by how fresh the new grille treatment made an otherwise unchanged exterior look, and immediately rendered any pre-facelift unit undesirable.

    But ultimately I agree with the comments – E23 was no match for the W126, which felt on a different plane of quality and solidity. And when E32 dawned – for me absolutely all-time peak BMW – it was such a transformation that looking back it feels as though there ought to have been a generation in between E23 and E32, so great was the leap forward. But E23 was the model I cut my teeth on understanding and growing to love BMW.

    1. E23 and E24 were industry firsts by using full-on electronics, an adventurous BMW milestone.
      The use of largely unproven comprehensive systems like the first Motronics cost them dearly and nearly killed BMW’s reputation.
      Some models were particularly badly affected like the non-M 635CSi and turbo 745i where the integral electronic ignition-cum-fully computerised injection gave more than their fair share of trouble.

    2. I’d been unaware of E23’s pioneer status – on the basis of what I was told be the people who did have first-hand experience of that car, I always assumed it’s a somewhat crude device. That there’s a perviously unknown (to me) innovative core underneath several layers of uncouthness adds intrigue, however.

  5. Very interesting, I didn’t know about these cars although I do know there were lots of unique cars built in South Africa. I wonder how much heavier the M30B32 3.3 six was than the 2.3/2.5?

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