The keys to the executive lounge are hard-won. Sometimes you’ve got to force your way in.
Editor’s note: This article was first published on DTW in November 2016.
The 1986 E32 BMW 7-Series may not have been as polarising a styling statement as its E65 descendant, but if anything, it was to prove a 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. Its style 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 more difficult sell against the eternal benchmark Sindelfingen flagship. The 1977 (E23) 7-Series marked the Bavarian carmaker’s first serious attempt to take the fight to Mercedes-Benz, but it lacked finesse and outright firepower against its Stuttgart rival. Once the three-pointed star retaliated with the peerless W126 S-Class two years later, the E23’s shortcomings were cruelly exposed.
Relying heavily on their less prestigious three and Five Series models, profitability was a continual pressure for Vierzylinder management under the leadership of Eberhard von Kuenheim, hence the creation of a more competitive flagship model would become a matter of urgency. In a December 1981 report, German auto journalist, Georg Kacher described the forthcoming 7-Series as a “do or die” car for the carmaker, with 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 increasingly viewed as being out of step, Kacher and his fellow industry insiders scented blood.
For some time, BMW had struggled to escape from the Hofmeister era which had once served them so well, but under the leadership of former NSU chief designer, Claus Luthe, BMW’s design team 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 former carrozzeria Zagato designer, Ercole Spada successfully reinvented marque-specific styling themes, marrying tradition with aero-inflected modernity in a most pleasing fashion. Its muscular form language and sharp-suited lines catapulted the E32 into the realm of serious desirability.
But to take the fight directly to the three pointed Death Star, E32 had to stack up dynamically. Engineering prodigy, and head of Research and Development, Wolfgang Reizle left few stones unturned to ensure not only would the Seven best the Sonderklasse 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 magazine in 1986, “This car sets new standards in so many respects I am convinced it will be the new class leader.”
The accolades were not 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 Sindelfingen’s dismay. By the following year, all remaining hiding places had been ruthlessly exposed with the announcement of the 750i, the first V12 engine to enter series production in Germany since the pre-war era. BMW had had been close to introducing a bent twelve during the 1970s, but economics and internal politics put paid to that project. Announcing the model, BMW CEO, Eberhard von Kuenheim promised that his new flagship would “satisfy the highest standards which could be demanded of an automobile.”
Not that E32 was flawless. Because its dynamics were biased towards the more dynamic driver, ride quality and passenger comfort was never quite in the Mercedes class, while Jaguar’s superiority in NVH suppression eclipsed both German machines. Furthermore, the optional Servotronic speed sensitive power steering was not viewed favourably by critics. BMW’s trademark in-line sixes were delightfully elastic and free-revving as ever, but lacked muscle. The V12 addressed the performance deficit, but was criticised for a lack of mid-range torque. In addition, critics also noted that the larger unit offered little additional refinement over the six.
Further disappointment lay inside. Beautifully finished and impeccably wrought, the Seven’s cabin was ergonomic, business-like and suitably Germanic in time-honoured BMW fashion. In showroom appeal it certainly had the Mercedes’ measure, but compared to a rival Jaguar Sovereign, it appeared somewhat sterile. Additionally, like its British counterpart, early E32s are believed to have 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 Baden-Wüttemburg rivals. Yet despite this, the 1986 Siebener is now something of a forgotten gem. Today’s Seven is as much a bloated pluto-barge as anybody’s S-Class, all notions of ultimate driving now being confined to transporting overfed captains of industry to their next round of golf with appropriate gravitas and self-importance. Yet without the impact of this model, BMW would undoubtedly have continued scrabbling for crumbs from the top table. Given the direction they have travelled in the intervening years, some might prefer they had done so.
 There still isn’t a line or a feature out of place. Luthe, Spada and stylists, Boyke Boyer and Hans Kerschbaum truly excelled themselves.
 Just to be on the safe side, BMW are said to have prepared a V16 version.
 Viewed next to its current incarnation it appears almost waiflike and really rather lovely.
Readers may also enjoy this fine piece on the E32
47 thoughts on “Benz Buster”
Good morning, Eóin and thank you for todays article. I certainly haven’t forgotten the E32, even though it’s an increasingly rare sight on our roads these days. My choice would be a short wheelbase 750i, I think.
BMW did indeed make a V16, the Goldfisch. The radiators were located in the back as there was no room left in the front.
The Goldfisch’s rear end.
This can’t have been a serious proposal but just an expetimental prototype.
Nobody in the von Kuenheim/Reitzle pre-Bangle days would have signed off such a half baked product.
Now with picture
That looks like a very bad Photoshop!
Just like those impossibly ugly Group B Audis which also had their radiators in the boot
Of course it wasn’t a serious design proposal, it was a technical proposition to see if the engine was even viable. As is seen from the prototype, it wouldn’t have been possible to cram the engine in without a substantial lengthening of the front.
It can’t have been a coincidence that (one of ?) the only other European V16(s) was ‘developed’ by Rolls Royce and fitted to the 100EX which ‘evolved’ into the Phantom Coupe. So BMW’s work wasn’t entirely wasted. In the Rolls Royce it was a 9 litre of 600ish horsepower, and one of the cars fitted with one of the five made achieved some fame as Johnny English’s car in the spy spoof ‘Johnny English Reborn’
May I say that I prefer the E32 over its successor?
First because it was such a bold statement when it arrived on the market and second because I like its more muscular look.
The way the car tapers down at its rear and flows into that small ducktail looks better than the flat and somewhat shoebox like solution of the later car. I also prefer the E32’s front with individual lamps over the later solution with a common glass cover. The biggest glitch in the E32’s design for me are the distorted kidneys of the V12 which look awful compared to the slimmer items of the six cylinders.
The square exhaust pipes of the V12 are naff, too.
The small ducktail becoming the rear spoiler, ever seen that before? Remember the Glas 1700 reincarnated as the South African BMW 2004?
I prefer the E32, too.
The E32 was the begining of a new design era for BMW, and a few years later they had a “dream team” range formed by E36, E34, E32 and E31 (well, the 8-series is more debatable).
Sadly BMW design went flat with the next model, the E38, and for me it never rose again. The E38, E39 and E46 were rather decent but heavily based in their predecessors and lost their sharpness. Fantastic cars, anyway, and I favour them against their rivals from Mercedes- Benz.
I´m just realised I´m getting old.
I know others will disagree, but I always preferred the look of the E32 to the E38. The latter always looked a little too much like an XXL 3-series to my eyes, whereas the E32 has a character all of its own.
The problem with making the kidneys wider is that once you start doing that there’s only one direction you can go in, until you end up with the monstrosity under discussion the other day.
There is though a slight but significant diference: the widening of the kidneys on E32 was related to an engineering fundamental – the use of a larger V instead of an inline 6.
The form follows the function, and gives said choice solid design ground to support it.
E38 was seen, when launched, as lacking in agressivness, being merely (!) and supremely elegant (that’s funny when one relembres the recent discussion about the new 7)
But E32, when launched, moved my world (and every car nut boy’s).
That’s why some felt (me…) the 1988 5 was not in the same class…
Good morning Eóin. Another painful reminder of an era when BMW really knew how to design handsome cars. While I have always loved the lithe athleticism of the E38, I have to acknowledge that the E32 is a very fine design, and its more substantial form was probably was closer to what most people expected in a large luxury saloon.
The E32 certainly sent Mercedes-Benz back to the drawing board for the W140, which Stuttgart tried to make look even more substantial, but ended up looking a bit gross to many eyes. BMW then wrong-footed Mercedes-Benz again with the E38, Stutgart’s response to which was the W220, a car that was rather flimsy in both appearance and construction.
Reitzle tells the story, that he was shocked when he saw the prototypes of the E32 in their final form, designed by Claus Luthe.
Luthe, the man behind the NSU Ro 80, creates a long and relatively small body for excellent aerodynamics but the car looks neither sporty nor elegant and did not offer so much space inside as the Mercedes W126.
So Reitzle decides to stop the project in this late moment. He adds 4 cm width for a more imposing look, more space for passengers and a v12 engine.
At the presentation of the E32 on the IAA, Mercedes man Werner Niefer was shocked. They always saw the smaller prototypes and never expected such a beauty….
Here he tells the full story
Thanks for sharing, Markus. I really enjoyed the video.
The best part is when Mr. Reitzle says that the E32 transformed BMW from village blacksmith to serious Mercedes competitor.
Thanks, Markus, I enjoyed it too. The way he talks about bringing the organisation into a “flow” is very interesting to me, as is the remark that it felt like fun. Both are important observations that are, I think, visible in the designs. Currently, Hyundai/KIA seems to be in a similar flow, where the designers are obviously enjoying playing with forms and shapes, while BMW’s current output speaks of “zwang”. Somehow, to me at least, they look like the designers feel they are forced to output these designs by some external force while Reitzle reveals that, although they were looking at Mercedes as the benchmark, the pleasure in developing the E32 and subsequent models was internal to the team.
Dave: I also liked the Swabian-Bavarian rivalry that gets a mention…
That is a fantastic interview. It’s lovely to understand how the car industry could be so amenable to individual assertiveness in the 80s, the cars being the result of engineering, design, cultural and competitive questions. Now I see why they engaged me so strongly then… and how little recent cars do now 🤔
This way of doing business only works if you have the right people with their assertiveness.
BMW was extremely lucky to have had Wolfgang Reitzle on the job he did because the only person with a deeper knowledge of things automotive than him was Ferdindand Piech. It was a great mistake to let him go.
Look at what both of them achieved in their relative companies and compare this to the results of equally assertive persons on the wrong mission like the escapades of Schrempp (it’s great how Reitzle dismisses ‘this Schrempp’ and his acquisition mania) or Bangle (Reitzle doesn’t leave it uncertain that under his reigh Bangle never would have become head of the design department).
During the Nineties I had the opportunity to be in a couple of meeting of which one of the other participants was Wolfgang Reitzle (I had no personal appointment with him and I did not meet him personally, we were just sitting in the same room and were discussing the same topics). The atmosphere was strange. Before the meetings everybody prepare ‘what Mr. Reitzle expects’, mostly by anticipation. You got the impression they thought that Reitzle would not tolerate contradiction and took it for granted that things went exactly the way he wanted.
And yet you could feel that the things that were discussed no longer were a matter of heart for him after having been passed over in his run for the boss’ seat. You could tell by the way he like quicksilver changed his mind and one month wanted the opposite of what he’d wanted the month before and in the end he wasn’t interested in the results anyway. It was a marked contrast to the man you see in this interview and you have to ask why anybody should have been interested in de-motivating him so much.
Shortly afterwards he was gone for Ford.
The E32 reminds me of the Mercedes 190 in that it achieved the seemingly impossible task of updating a revered but old-fashioned and decidedly un-aerodynamic form language into a modern and still very attractive design idiom. BMWs and Mercs leave me relatively cold, but their efforts to do this certainly did grab my attention. It’s interesting that the E23 had quite a few teething issues as well, as I remember, but had its reputation suffer a lot more than the E32.
Similarly, but over a longer timespan, Alfa Romeo tried to do this (75) and more or less failed at first (155), then succeeded (156), but was let down by product planning – or lack thereof (159). Lancia followed a similar path and I think that design-wise, the update worked rather nicely (Delta I and II), but again, lack of product planning and investment ultimately did for their efforts. Although in both cases the rot had set in long before, obviously.
The wheels on the grey-silver car, the penultimate photo … sublime, like the rest of it. They don’t make them like that anymore.
Or do they? The latest factory option from Rolls Royce.
Eóin did you really say that the L-shaped rear lamps were patented? I had no idea that such a thing was possible? And I feel sure that your readership will find other examples, although I have to say I can’t bring one to mind.
The Hillman Avenger!
The floodgates are open… Thank you Joel.
I can come up with 2 suggestions, but they’re a bit odd. Firstly, an Alfa 75 does actually have L-shaped rear lights, but due to the use of other reflective strips, it doesn’t look like it when they’re fitted. Conversely, the Lexus GS’s lamps look L-shaped, but in fact aren’t – the illusion is due to the lens colours. I agree that on the face of it, the shape of a lamp seems to be a very fundamental thing to obtain a patent on. However, perhaps not on reflection, given how distinctive the design is.
The Monica 560 was the first one that sprang to mind for me.
Chris Lawrence of later aluminium Morgan fame brought us the Monica. Those lights he designed for the Monica remind me of the Jaguar XJ 6/12 SIII, (the best looking saloon ever).
Though Vignale originally designed something more chromey and generic.
Good morning Ty. DTW tells the story of the Monica here:
BenS: Having written that article almost 7 years ago, I’m afraid my memory doesn’t stretch to where I derived that information from. However, to have included it would have required considerable confidence on my part as to the veracity of the source.
Although, arguably they were J shaped if I remember correctly?
And of course pre-date the patent that was mentioned. I am still annoyed that I can’t think of one, but perhaps the Renault Safrane update? But perhaps the less said about that, the better. That really was a rubbish facelift.
Appreciate the styling of the E32 yet will have to dissent in preferring the E38 even if it is lacking in aggression. Were there any other little known E32 studies and projects?
While the Goldfisch V16 was pointless, do respect it as a way to demonstrate the maximum potential of the small cylinder displacement engine family which also included experiments with a 1.25-litre 3-cylinder as a minimum. Recall reading the M20 Six originally being designed to spawn a 1.8-litre Six at minimum, equating to 3-cylinder with a potential capacity of 900cc.
Had BMW been inclined or in a position to do so, the 3/4-cylinder engines of the small cylinder displacement family could have easily powered a sub-E21/E30 car than what was proposed with the Z13 concept, let alone the task of having converting the PSA-Renault X-Type rooted BMW K1100 motorcycle engine used in the Z13 concept back into a car engine suitable for a small BMW that is also sufficiently divergent from the PSA TU engine.
At that time BMw had one singe large problem and that was they were selling too many small cars with small engines. The last thing they’d have needed was a sub-3er vehicle.
At that time 60 percent of all Benzes sold were E-classes, most of them by private buyers, yielding a healthy profit.
At the same time two out of three BMWs sold were of the 316 and 318 variety with a much lower profit margin than at the Untertüdkheim competitor. BMW needed to push the spectrum upmarket to earn some decent money.
There were initial considerations to make a 1.8 litre six but they would never have been able to sell this at a reasonable profit.
I remember that it was common belief amongst BMW’s competitors that BMW would not see the beginning of the Nineties as an independent manufacturer and most bets were on a takeover by Toyota. If the E32 had become a flop in the market it would have happened that way but in the end the E32 was the car that changed BMW’s future.
Was that a constant problem since introducing the New Class models or an issue that began to manifest from the mid-1970s to early-1980s prior to the introduction of the E32? Quite a marked turnaround if BMW were soon after looking at a smaller car with the Z13, before initiating a takeover of Rover.
On the dire prognosis had the E32 not been a success on the market, were there other companies in the running to potentially takeover BMW besides Toyota such as Nissan if not US or European manufacturers?
Lack of cash flow was a BMW problem since the end of WW II.
For years the only source of income were motorcycle and Isetta sales and the little money they had was wasted on making the expensive to build ‘baroque angel’ and creating the 507 for Maxie Hoffman.
With the 700 they didn’t get particularly rich and remained so until the E36 era – that’s why the unplanned three digit million expenditure to buy rusty E36s off the road were so painful for them.
Just look at BMW’s sales numbers and consider that Mercedes still was able to command higher prices for comparable cars and made a larger profit car per car.
BMW 02 – 300,000
BMW E21 – 1.3 M
BMW E30 – 2.3 M
BMW E36 – 2.3 M
BMW E12 – 700,000
BMW E28 – 700,000
BMW E34 – 1.3 M
BMW E39 – 1.5 M
Benz W114/115 – 1.5 M
Benz W123 – 2.5 M
Benz W124 – 2.4 M
Benz W201 – 1.8 M
Benz W202 – 1.9 M
BMW E3 – 190,000
BMW E23 – 280,000
BMW E32 – 310,000
BMW E38 – 330,000
BMW E65 – 340,000
Benz W108/109 – 440,000
Benz W116 – 470,000
Benz W126 – 880,000
Benz W140 – 430,000
Benz W220 – 480,000
You see the rise of BMW and the trouble Benz had with making a dent into the 3er’s sales numbers.
But you also see the tendency towards the larger models in Benz’ sales numbers and the phenomenal success of the W126.
Mr. Reitzle very vividly states in the interview that BMW simply didn’t have the money Mercedes could spend for a very long time.
It might have not helped BMW’s situation post-war, yet cannot help think their position in the 1950s would have been improved had (money permitting) the Baroque Angel derived 530 project been schemed in from the start. It is weird they were in a similar state as Citroen in having no mid-tier model between their entry-level and high end models.
It was mentioned the other day BMW rejected Iso’s approach for the latter to use the former’s four-stroke engines in the Isetta. At the same time before they ditched the idea because it would have potentially placed them in direct competition with Fiat and moved upmarket with US V8 models, Iso were said to have been envisioning a replacement for the Isetta along the same lines as the 700 with the stillborn Boxer-powered and Michelotti-styled Iso 400 prototype.
Although unlike the rear-engine 700, the Autocarro ISO 400-based Iso 400 was to have a conventional front-engine rear-wheel drive layout and planned to be available in 2-door coupe, 4-door saloon and 3-door wagon bodystyles as well as possibly a 500cc Boxer later on.
In the event BMW did agree to supply its engines to Iso and thus with its ties became aware of the Iso 400 (either on its own or via Michelotti), would BMW have experienced more success with the 700 had it adopted the Iso 400’s layout and thereby further broaden the 700’s appeal?
If there’s one thing BMW surely didn’t need then it was another car in the 600/700 range.
In the late Fifties/early Sixties people wanted to get rid of their driving aids which meant the end for contraptions like Isetta, Messerschmitt KaRo and others.
Even vehicles from a class above like Lloyd Alexander slowly became less attractive and came to an end. It also was extremely difficult to produce a proper car of that size that sold sufficiently less than a Beetle and still made a profit.
One size bigger sat the towering Beetle (don’t forget that around 1965 more than forty percent of all cars on German roads were Beetles) which gave Opel with the Kadett A and Ford with their Taunus P4 ‘Cardinal’ some headache. One should not forget that the Beetle had some expensive components (magnesium crankcase, torsion bar suspension) but was cheap to make through simple structure and (for the time) high degree of automation and sold at an extremely attractive price.
The Kadett A only was competitive because it was incredibly primitively made like with an engine that cost next to nothing to produce.
A BMW competing with these cars surely wouldn’t have made sense. Nobody would have bought a primitive BMW or an expensive BMW of that size.
After Herbert Quandt had made up his mind and didn’t sell BMW to Mercedes they finally found the funds to fund one single model. They put all eggs in a Neue Klasse shaped basket and it worked. They didn’t keep the Neue Klasse in production for ten years without reason, the 2000 tilux was beyond its best before date and only sold because it was fast and except for the Alfa Berlina there was no competition.
Was not thinking of a duplication of the 700, rather a conventional front-engine rear-wheel drive 700 in the manner of the Toyota Publica produced instead of the rear-engine model.
Even before BMW acquired Glas and fitted a 40+ hp 992cc OHC engine from the 1004 into a 700 to create experimental BMW 1000. BMW were already thinking of replacing the 700’s Boxer engine with a number of 4-cylinder SOHC designs displacing 0.7-1.0 litres putting out 29-50 hp, whose features would be found in the 74 hp 1.5-litre M10 used in the New Class.
Even then BMW were looking at 50-55 hp 1.1-1.2-litre versions of the M115 aka M10 for possible rear mounting and were it not viewed as too large and heavy (something that could have been minimized by about 20kg with aluminium), was easily capable of being built using same machinery as the existing M115/M10.
Otherwise can see the smaller M115 engines being used in rebranded South African built versions of the Glas 1004 at most.
In this scenario however the 700 and its 4-cylinder OHC successor would be front-engine rather than rear-engine, with the 4-cylinder OHC being in essence BMW’s own early-1960s manual gearbox analogue of the Renault powered DAF 55/66.
Simple question: who would have bought all those small BMWs?
That’s why they didn’t build them.
Am not disputing it would have eventually outlived its usefulness, only highlining what BMW were internal looking into within their skunkworks and how inspired by the front-engine layout of the Iso 400, an alternate BMW 700 would have arguably had more broader success had it been front engined.
As for who would have likely bought a later post-1965 short-lived 4-cylinder development of the 700 to see out the rest of the decade (vaguely similar to the 64-72 NSU Prinz 1000 that sold 196k examples), cannot imagine the same audience that helped saved the company buying nearly 190k examples immediately vanishing into thin air overnight or being easily persuaded to upgrade from a 700 to a 1.5-litre 02.
BMW obviously made the correct decision to shift away from the 700 segment to begin moving upmarket and challenge Mercedes-Benz.
Looks like history repeats itself: Wasn´t it Issogonis who judged the Morris Minor to narrow and literally had it cut in the middle and added two inches?
Robert – yes, that crossed my mind, too. I think Issigonis added 4 inches (10 cms) to the Mosquito prototype, which is a lot more than the 4 cms which I believe was added to the BMW.
Former BMW CEO, Bernd Pischetsrieder, was related to Sir Alec, funnily enough.
But when the Australians tried to do the same thing to the ADO 9 Farina cars, to match the offerings of Chrysler, Holden, and Ford, and even made a prototype with a new IRS as they didn’t have an axle long enough. But it was too much for management who ordered the car scrapped.
„Additionally, like its British counterpart, early E32s are believed to have suffered from a host of build and electrical-related maladies.“
I can attest it was very much so. When the E32 was released, my father‘s car-loving friends (most of them well-heeled doctors or similar) were all hyped up and ran to the BMW dealer to get a new 7 in their garages. 4 bought one.
All these cars suffered from being utterly unreliable, with unlimited electrical gremlins and spending more time in the shop than even the worst specimen of the line of Citroëns which my father owned through the late 70s/mid 80s (much to ridiculed of its friends).
Three years on, none of them was driving a BMW anymore. Three were back to their Benzes and the fourth (my godfather) had a shiny pearl-white Toyota Supra (much to my bewilderment at the time – though now, I fully condone that decision!)