My Vote for the Beginning and End of BMW’s Modern Large Drivers’ Cars
On the right, we have a 1975 (or 1976) BMW 3.0Si (E3 in BMW parlance), and on the left, a late 90s or early 2000s BMW 740i (E38). It seems fitting not only that they are they parked next to one another, but also that metaphorically the E3 is arriving and the E38 leaving, as for me, they represent the arrival and departure of a certain type of BMW, the “modern” large sports sedan.
As has been well documented elsewhere, including here by Paul, the BMW E3 was a new type of competitor to the Mercedes S-Class, a large-ish sports sedan. And for 30 years or so, BMW owned the large sports sedan market. But eventually the competition from Lexus pulled BMW in the direction of luxury while Mercedes’ AMG division took this market back.
Back to these two cars: I see this 3.0Si most often parked at the gas station near work where we fill up our new and used cars for customers once they are sold. I have also seen it on the road near my house, so I know it’s a daily driver, despite it’s near basket-case condition.
This E3 looks surprisingly good from 25 yards, despite it’s very low ride height, but upon closer inspection it has rust in the rocker panels as well as on the front fender in the location an old BMW buddy said was a sign the sunroof was draining into the firewall, causing terminal failure of the structure. I didn’t have a chance to get a picture of that rust line, as I was rushing to work, but it’s one of the many components of this particular car that would steer me away from what would otherwise be on my top 10 favorite classic cars.
Another thing steering me away is that “automatic” tag once so proudly and ironically displayed by BMW, and now only partially there. I know the days are over when I can look down on a BMW for being an automatic, and by 1975 I believe that BMW had switched to a Borg-Warner unit that improved against the original ZF unit once called the worst ever in any car by Road & Track. (Some details here.) But that automatic tag alone would be enough to write off my interest in this car.
As a kid, in the 70s, I thought the BMW E3, in the form of the Bavaria, was the coolest car I had ridden in. Our real estate broker, David Ogilvy Jr. (son of the famous advertising legend David Ogilvy, responsible for the Rolls Royce Ad above) drove a green Bavaria. I remember talking with my mom and dad about his car, and we all agreed it was just about the coolest sedan on the market. Not only was it beautiful, but with a manual transmission, it was the sportiest luxury car on the market.
From the back, Mr. Ogilvy’s Bavaria displayed a bit of negative camber, just like in the picture above, that made it look powerful and fast even at a stand-still.
As an aside about the beauty of the E3’s, there was a 3.0CS (E9 Coupe) in my neighborhood at that time, also in green, and I remember finding the coupe’s looks challenging at the time, as the lines are more complex. The CS sure has grown on me over the years, but the simpler lines and more subtle tail of the E3 appealed to me from the start. A further aside is that the E3 is also both lighter and equipped with better brakes than the E9, so a better performer as well. (The E9 had front disks and rear drums, the E3’s had discs all around.)
2800 CS (Malaga Red) and 633 CSI (Black) hiding behind 2002 (White)
The E3 soon was replaced by both the 5-series and 7-series in 1977, and though I’ve driven neither the E3 nor the 7-series that replaced it, I have driven both of the companion coupes in the form of 2800CS and 633CSI pictured above. (My buddy owned the 2800CS and I owned the 2002 and the 633CSI.) My impressions are that the 6-series retained much of the feel of the 2800CS, while at the same time being a far more modern vehicle. While the 6-series felt both heavier and more powerful, there was a distinctly shared and evolutionary feel. And having ridden in a stick-shift 733i, I know they similarly retained the sporty, big sedan feel of the E3.
BMW 740i looking worse for wear
BMW moved on to the E32 and then the E38 7-series pictured above, each version gaining a bit of weight, a bit more technology, expanding beyond straight-six engines to include v-8s and v-12s, and for the most part, losing the manual transmission. But to my eyes, and in my experience, the E38 was still a car that was chosen by one who wanted to drive. An owner who wanted to work the corners, to listen to the engine under acceleration, and to work the gears, even if only through the slushbox.
The E65 changed all of that, in my view. The focus of the E65 interior was no longer on the transmission and engine but on the screen, furniture quality furnishings, and the iDrive controller. The car may not even have changed as much as I think, but the clientele seemed to. No longer could the 7-series credibly be called a sports sedan. It was now a luxury car. And in that sense, it was a new beginning for BMW and the end of the line for what the E3 created, the modern BMW large sports sedan. Those interested in a large performance sedan moved on to the S55 Mercedes-Benz AMG.