Mercedes-Benz may have been a more established global player among European luxury marques, but by the 1980s, BMW was demonstrating that it could indeed best Mercedes at its own game. Cars like the E28 5 Series and E30 3 Series proved highly popular with the upwardly-mobile, white-collar baby boomer crowd, and while the first generation E23 7 Series was a successful effort, it was the E32 which truly elevated the 7 Series to S-Class levels and beyond.
Not to impugn the E23’s legacy in any way, but by the time of its departure, it was a full decade old. Introduced in 1986, it’s an understatement to say that the E32 was a far more significant car than its predecessor in every way. Larger, more luxurious, and more powerful, the E32 also boasted bolder styling, and most notably numerous cutting-edge technologies and innovations.
Up until that point, successive generations of full-size luxury cars typically made advancements over the cars they replaced, however, apart from a few mechanical improvements here, a couple of added luxury features there, and modernized styling, the difference between one generation and the next was not a night and day affair.
The E32 was truly a game changer in this way, as technologically speaking, it propelled the 7 Series light years ahead of its predecessor and most of the competition, making them seem almost archaic in comparison. It also played a major part in making this rapid and consistent technological advancement the expected norm in luxury automobiles, by which a 3-5 year old car will be instantly outdated in its technology features.
Mechanical innovations included Electronic Damper Control active suspension, allowing automatic and manual adjustment to each damper based on the driver selected comfort or sport settings, as well as road conditions. In addition to improving ride and handling qualities, EDC also improved braking and traction, ensuring maximum contact of each wheel with the road.
Automatic stability with or without traction control, self-leveling rear suspension, Servotronic speed-sensitive power steering, and acoustic park distance control were all options, with the majority of them standard in the top-spec 750.
Speaking of which, among the E32’s most notable breakthroughs was its 5.0L V12 engine, the first such twelve-cylinder for BMW. Fully skipping offering a V8 in the 7 Series, BMW engineers essentially joined two M20 inline-6’s at a sixty-degree angle to create the M70 V12. Producing 300 horsepower and 330 lb-ft torque, it was capable of propelling the 750iL from zero to sixty in a then-impressive 7.8 seconds (by comparison a modern 750i xDrive’s 4.4L V8 can do it in only 4.3 seconds).
Several years into production, the E32 750iL was also the world’s first production car to feature Xenon High-Intensity Discharge headlamps. Featuring a brighter, bluish-white beam of light, Xenon HIDs are widespread today, but Litronic, as BMW called it, quite cutting-edge for 1991.
Equally notable, were some of the E32’s novel interior amenities, such as built-in car phone, power-adjustable steering column, 10-speaker sound system, 6-disc CD changer, double-glazed windows, power rear sunshade, electric rear seat and headrest adjustment, heated front and rear seats, and a board computer controlled by column-mounted stalk, just to name a few.
In Europe, the 750iL also offered a pricy “High-Line Fond” (rear) package, aimed at those who preferred being chauffeured in the Ultimate Driving Machine. Components included a full-length rear floor console trimmed in buffalo leather and burl walnut, hinged tray tables made of burl walnut, a champagne cooler with space for one bottle and two glasses, four-zone automatic climate control, and power-adjustable rear heated seats. A fold-down rear center armrest housed the rear telephone as well as controls for the cassette-stereo and CD changer, rear sunshade, and even redundant fore-aft controls for the front passenger seat.
Of course predicted luxuries such as natural grain full Nappa leather upholstery, genuine burled walnut wood trim, dual-zone automatic climate control, remote keyless entry, headlamp washers, and 10-way power adjustable front seats with a 3-position driver’s memory seat were standard in every 750 (standard equipment on lower models varied, especially by market).
Design-wise, the E32 carried over signature BMW styling elements while showcasing crisp, new design language. Dual kidney grilles, forward slanted front fascia, quad round headlights, and Hofmeister kink were all retained, making for an unmistakably recognizable look.
Versus its E23 predecessor however, the E32 emitted a far more muscular look, with sharper body lines, longer hood, a more aggressive front fascia, a more upright trunk, and more athletic proportions. It was also a larger vehicle too, with the body’s widest point being at the rear doors to give maximum space to rear passengers. A vehicle with far greater presence, the new 7 Series was a far more befitting Bavarian flagship. Welcome to the big leagues BMW.
With the E32, BMW also introduced its now signature L-shaped taillights, something that would briefly take a hiatus with the 3, 5, and 7 Series introduced during the 1990s, but return with the E46 3 Series, and appear in nearly every BMW design since.
In addition to its robust 5.0L V12 added shortly after the start of production, the E32 was initially available with the choice of two inline-6s found in the 3.0L 730i (185 hp) and 3.5L 735i (208 hp). Beginning in 1992, BMW reintroduced V8 power — having exited the 8-cylinder game back in 1965 — with the choice of two new V8 engines premiering in the 5, 7, and 8 Series.
The E32’s 3.0L version was somewhat confusingly designated “730i”, as the same displacement 730i I6 continued to be offered. The larger 4.0L was fittingly designated as the 740i. With 282 horsepower and 300 lb-ft torque, the 740i was capable of achieving identical zero-to-sixty times as the 750iL due to its lighter weight and 5-speed automatic. The 735i and its I6 were correspondingly dropped following the addition of the two V8s.
As far as transmissions went, the 730i (I6), 735i/735iL, and 750i/750iL were all available with a 4-speed automatic, while the standard transmission in the 730 and 735 was a 5-speed manual. The V8 730i also came standard with a 5-speed manual, however, in one of its first such applications in a production automobile, a 5-speed automatic was available in the V8 730i and standard in the 740i/740iL.
Externally, V12 and V8 models were distinguished by their wider dual kidney grilles and corresponding wider power dome on the hood. Six-cylinder models continued using the more traditional narrower (and thus more vertical looking) dual kidney grille. Of course, to make things confusing, upon special request, the 750 could be ordered with the classic narrow kidney grille.
Taking a play out of Mercedes’ book, for the first time, the 7 Series was available in an extended length “L” (for Lang, German for “long”) body, which rode on a 4.5-inch longer wheelbase. Placing a greater emphasis on chauffeured rear seat passengers, all of this additional length went to rear legroom. 735iL, 740iL, and 750iL models were all offered over the E32’s production span.
Ending production in 1994, E32 7 Series sales amounted to over 311,000 units, a very reasonable figure for a car in the 7 Series’ class. While the E32 was a successful car in its own right, what it did for the BMW brand, and its lasting legacy are all the more significant.
Although BMW was steadily building its premium image, especially in North America, it was the E32 by far which elevated and solidified BMW’s elite status as a world-class luxury brand, fully on par with the likes of Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar. With its highly advanced powertrain, cutting edge tech features, sumptuous amenities, and BMW’s unmatched dynamic handling characteristics, the E32 7 Series was one of the greatest steps forward for the Bavarian brand, and a proud display of all its might.
Cementing the 7 Series’ flagship status, the E32 was a true game changer, and one that even had Mercedes quivering in its shoes, causing Stuttgart to delay the launch of its W140 S-Class by nearly two years in order to add even more features and their own V12.
Although the E32 has been out of production for over two decades now, many of the technologies it pioneered are still being used in BMWs today. With each successive generation, the 7 Series continues to be the vehicle debuting BMW’s latest innovations, many of which soon trickle down to less expensive BMWs.