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.
If either were for sale, I’d buy the older BMW (E3) Bavaria over the newer BMW (E38) 740i.
There was always a fight within BMW between people that wanted to build sports sedans developed through motorsport participation and people that wanted to compete with Mercedes-Benz on a model-for-model basis. At some point the herd animals won.
In the movie The Transporter, Jason Strahan drives an E38 with a manual transmission – which was and is incredibly rare. Kind of contrary to its image as a S-Class competitor.
I have mixed feelings about Bavarias, since my uncle said they self destructed at 50,000 miles which is why he replaced his second Bavaria with a 450SEL and drove Mercedes cars the rest of life.
Personally I have always preferred the 5 & 6 series and the old E9 coupes. The 7 just felt too big.
That’s an overstatement, but they are notorious for cooling system problems. I had one (a ’74) and my experience was it ran hot and the temp fluctuated. If anything, the fact that it ran hot but did not frankly “over”heat was worse, because you kept driving the thing and damaging it. My automatic was starting to give me problems, and that is how I learned that the very early ones had that ZF. I got a lead on a parts car with a nearly free trans if I removed it. I did, with a helper who still isn’t talking to me, and then found it was different and did not interchange with my Borg Warner. Bavarias can often be had for crazy cheap compared to a 2002 of the same year. I wonder how many people start out wanting a 2002 and can’t resist the siren call of the cheap Bavaria, like I did.
Surprising how tall that 7-series is by comparison; low beltline styling is surely dead. Just this morning, I saw an [original] Mini Clubman followed by a Honda Fit, & the latter absolutely dwarfed the former. To be sure though, almost everything makes a Mini look mini.
That E3 is sitting about 3 inches lower than it should be.
Except an old, original Mini, which makes the new, imposter Mini look huge.
I can attest to the E38 being a big, heavy car with tons of technology. We had one in our extended stable for a while and it was a money pit of the first order. Wonderful car for those that have the money when new, and viable as an used car for those with some money once it depreciated after 5 years or so, but definitely NOT a car that can be reasonably maintained at it’s present value of $3-5k and at the point where many of its high tech systems are reaching the point of failure.
It is interesting to think about how these high tech, high end cars have a lifecycle trajectory that is probably shorter than a smaller, less expensive car from the same manufacturer. I know that I can keep our E46 3-series going basically forever with periodic, but reasonable costs–much like the E3–cars like the E38 reach a point where no one is going to keep them going unless they hate money.
The 3.0Si was my dream car at the time. Its engine was by far the best of its kind in the world, and In Euro-spec tune, had superlative response and performance.
I’ve been on the lookout for an E3 for ages, but no luck. Thanks for this nice tribute to a true classic.
And yes, they tended to be problematic, especially the US versions. All of the power accessories, AC, etc made for a huge number of issues. We had wealthy friends who had one, and she was on very familiar terms with Rudi, her German mechanic.
Can’t wait to see the new 2016 bmw 7 series.
I seem to recall that the fenders on either the E23 or E32 big body BMW are not symmetrical…they were designed without the aid of computers and are not exact mirror images for some reason. I have seen that in print on several occasions, but was too lazy to look today.
If I had to choose between these, I’d take the 3.0Si…E38s just don’t excite me. Give me one with little bumpers, silver with red leather.
I agree with your analysis, but I think the evolution happened in more gradual steps.
My father discovered in the mid-80s that he could afford to purchase certified, low-mileage, well-cared-for 7 series cars coming off other people’s leases, So I was able to sample a whole series of 7 series, as it were, starting with the E23/733i.
That first 733i was a pretty big and heavy car, but it begged you to push it hard in corners. The steering was heavy and the ride was firm, and the big I-6 growled pleasantly when revved.
With each new generation, both the ride and the leather upholstery got softer, the interior got quieter, and it felt more like a highway cruiser than a car for twisty mountain roads. By the E38 generation, the steering was so overboosted, you could just about steer with your pinky.
It’s true, as silverkris points out above, that BMW has chosen the Mercedes S-Class as its bogey for the 7 series, But it’s also true that both of them have become what the Cadillac De Ville would be if GM had kept up with the times: Big, heavy, quiet, sturdy and making no demands on the driver whatsoever.
I think Mercedes has moved the S-class up market from where the BMW 7 series is, but the 7 series was BMW’s idea of a large “sport” luxury sedan in the BMW style. Series 60 (61,62 (de Ville), 63 or 64) Cadillac’s are not in the Mercedes S-class range, they are more of an E-class. Pre-World War Two Cadillac series 75’s are more of an S-class range. I think that the 2016 Cadillac CT6 may be somewhere in the range between a BMW 5 series and the 7 Series, details are skimpy as yet.
I should note here that pre WWII cars and post war cars are different. After the war much of the Cadillac Series 75 models were out of style. The Eldorado Brougham (1957) was an attempt to bring back a high end Cadillac but was overdone and failed.
As another member of the commentariat said on another post-its the Golden Rule, they who have the gold make the rules. How many people with the money for a 7 series, especially the upper level ones, want things like a manual transmission?
I have no idea about German and European markets, but if you’re going to sell cars in America I’ve never got the big deal about having a car for “twisty mountain roads” or one that you can “push hard in corners.” How much of our land is mountain terrain? Not much, really. We’re an Interstate land, lots and lots of wide open spaces with roads that fade into the horizon.
Thus, its only logical that the 7 series went Cadillac style as a big comfy cruiser. Its ironic, though, that Cadillac these days seems to try to out-BMW BMW with their ATS and CTS.
They might have moved onto S55 AMGs, but they could also have chosen the Audi S8, Jag XJ or Maserati Quattroporte.
I remember being very impressed by a 3.0 sedan like this on a used car dealers lot in 1980. I seriously considered buying it until I test drove it. The shocks were shot and the car pogoed. The motor ran rough and worst of all the a/c didn’t work. I know it was probably a five year old car and what did I expect? Perfection? Maybe. This kind of ruined my view of European cars although my brother bought a new 320I later that year and I liked that car except that there was no power equipment. I ended up buying my ’77 CdV instead.
That’s very interesting about the sunroof drains plugging and causing the floors to rot on the E3s. Elsewhere this week, here or maybe at BaT, I read that the condensation in the trunk would lead to water settling in the metal seams and causing rot there. I am one to accumulate these these rust bits and together with the carb and cooling issues make the idea of owning an E3 scary but I still want one.
I’m not up on BMW nomenclature beyond E36 but that 7-series you are showing was always my favorite 7 gen. Too bad by then the electronic gizmos made them impossible to keep on the road. Rust worries or not the E3s have a lot going for them and seem to be getting pricey for good ones.
I saw an E21 and an i3 within 100 feet of one another yesterday:
…and the E21
That’s not what progress looks like. BMW is devolving.
While the E38 was a big, heavy, complex car to be sure, but it was also perhaps the last 7-series to have actual driver-oriented versions. Namely, the ’98 740i ZSP and the ’99-’01 740i sport. I’ve always kind of wanted one of those, as equipped with the proper size wheels and in the non-extended version, they’re quite good-looking cars.
Of course, around 15 years old is probably about the worst point on the value spectrum to buy an older 7-series. Too old to be practical daily transportation, too complex to do much of the work oneself, too new to even be a ‘recent classic’. Maybe in 10 years when most of the basketcases are gone and they qualify for historic plates (which means no inspections, at least here)…