Buying Guide. This month we take a closer look at a true modern classic in the BMW world: the E32 735i. The E32 7 Series was a revolution even for BMW back in the 1980s and the simple six-cylinder 735i makes it the ideal modern classic to buy now Words: Simon Holmes /// Photography: KGF Classic Cars
When the new, second generation 7 Series was introduced in 1986 it made a real impact for BMW. It not only marked the brand’s success with another leap and bound forward, it also marked a new age for BMW where technology was starting to take over. The E32’s features might seem basic compared to today’s cars but as a flagship model it showcased a series of impressive new innovations. A lot of it was, of course, electrical and that meant it was a complex machine underneath so the cars featured 2000 metres of wiring and 1800 connectors. It was needed, though, as there were new elliptical headlights for improved brightness, pressure sensitive windscreen wipers that clamped down harder on the windscreen as your speed increased to stop them lifting and an On-Board Computer (OBC) that was able to perform 35 checks of the vital components in order to alert you to faults or failures.
BMW was building its cars well back in the late 1980s and it shows even today.
It was a real step forward although, slightly ironically, the first engine available in the starting lineup for the new platform was the M30 six-cylinder that had been originally designed in the 1960s. But that didn’t stop it being a good choice for the E32 as the reliable unit was given a new lease of life with some carefully-thought-out changes. Bosch Motronic engine management was the biggest and most important new addition but an improved exhaust manifold, an inlet manifold with larger ports and a better flowing intake system all helped extract more from the engine. Power was up to 211hp delivered at 5700rpm and it came with a stout torque figure of 225lb ft, registered at 4000rpm. As standard it was connected to a five-speed manual gearbox but as you might well expect, very few 7 Series owners wanted to use a clutch. The alternative was a four-speed automatic which was standard on the SE models and came fitted with a driving mode switch to alternate between Economy, Sport or Manual settings.
However, although the lazy automatic suited the style of the E32 it massively sapped performance. 62mph from rest came in a respectable 8.3 seconds with the manual but with the automatic that figure dropped to 9.3 seconds.
As well as the gadgetry and updated engine specification the new model also received a complete styling makeover. Gone were the sharp lines of the previous E23 shark-nose and in came the rounded and more modern curves of the E32. Although the styling was softer and less aggressive it was still a big car with plenty of road presence, which was handy as it was good to drive. Although the E32 focused on providing a comfortable ride this didn’t stop it being fun to drive as well, despite its size and weight. The new driving safety innovations helped, such as ABS to aid braking and (optional) ASC to reduce wheelspin.
The basic 735i cost £27,935 but that only got you a few toys to play with, such as central locking and electric mirrors and windows. This made the SE version a popular choice and although it came at a high cost – around £7000 more than the SE – it was justified as you got an automatic gearbox, cruise control, wider tyres, air-con, leather trim and a rear window blind. Optional extras varied widely – from an electric aerial or adjustable lumbar support to an LSD or Servotronic steering; but then this was the showcase for BMW technology.
By the time it got to 1988 an ‘il’ long wheelbase model had been added, but at £39,750 it wasn’t hugely popular, particularly as the 750iL V12 was the true range-topper by then. 1988 also marked a series of small developments as items like the vacuumoperated braking system was changed and so was the differential ratio from 3.15:1 to 3.45:1. The six-cylinder models ran until 1992 and after serving for six years its production ended and it was replaced by the new V8 models. There wasn’t a direct replacement for the 735i; instead the model ended and the 730i continued on as a V8 to be joined by the 740i. That meant all the 735i models missed out on the face-lift of 1994 but they still sold in good numbers in their heyday, people often selecting the more usable six-cylinder over the complex V12.
If you don’t know where to look for an E32 then you might have trouble finding one at all. These cars rarely turn up in the common places anymore, so forget trying to find one on AutoTrader or even eBay. Instead, familiarise yourself with the specialist on-line forums and classic car sales websites, as these are now the best places to find them. Searching for them here generally tends to unearth the more well-lookedafter, enthusiast-owned cars.
If you have your heart sent on a proper minter then it’s best to contact a specialist that deals in this kind of modern classic, such as KGF Classic Cars. It has just sold the fine example pictured here with only 55k miles under its belt, plenty of service history and in immaculate condition for a touch under £4000. This is the upper pricing structure for these cars as this example is about as good as it gets in the used 735i market now. At the opposite end of the spectrum you can get yourself a runner for around £1000. For anything that’s priced less than that you should be asking why, although tatty cars in need of some real TLC can be had for a mere few hundred pounds if you can find one. It’s worth noting that cars that have been laid up and need re-commissioning can be had for a bargain if you’re aware and/or capable of doing the work. For around £2000 you can pick up a nice, clean example that can be put straight to use and, as mentioned, the top cars that want for nothing go for nearer double that from a specialist.
Generally, you should be able to tell a good one from a bad one a mile off. Look for signs it’s had some careful previous owners. There should be folders of history and receipts and items like the tool kit and first aid kit will still be present. The leather trim tends to wear worse than the cloth does and the former is arguably more desirable as it makes it a nicer place to be. Keep a look out for the rare Sports seats and if you have your sights set on a manual gearbox then good luck – they are extremely rare. As for running one on the road then costs are pretty reasonable; expect to pay £126 for six months road tax or £230 for a year. Insurance can be had on a specialist modern classic policy so it costs very little. Fuel consumption isn’t great with high teens around town but on a run, at a constant 70mph, it’s possible to approach the 30mpg mark if you’re careful. Servicing for the six-cylinder engine isn’t too bad but replacement suspension parts can get expensive.
Rust isn’t actually the major issue you might think it would be. BMW was building its cars well back in the late 1980s and it shows even today. They can suffer from a bit of rot around the edges if they’ve had a harder life but it’s rarely anywhere serious and underneath in the key areas they are usually sound. Instead, signs of rust tend to creep in on the rear quarter panels around the fuel filler cap, along the bottom of the doors and sometimes on the bottom edge of the front wings. Watch out for cars fitted with mudflaps as these allow dirt to build up which doesn’t help the bottom of arches.
Other than that, check for accident damage and badly fitted panels or trim that indicates a poor repair in the past. These are older cars, so repair work over the years is fairly likely, but as long as it’s been done properly and it’s not too serious it shouldn’t be a cause for concern. Headlights and foglights tend to dim or mist up over time and the only way to bring them back to life is to pull them apart and clean them up or replace them.
Transmission and drivetrain
Manual gearboxes are strong but you will have trouble finding one, so it’s best to concentrate on the automatic. These are generally durable but can suffer from minor and annoying issues. Oil leaks from the torque converter seals and a ‘box that’s stuck in one gear are common problems. This isn’t always as catastrophic as it first seems and often it’s simply a dodgy contact on the electronically controlled shifter selector or the switch that allows selection of Sports, Economy and manual modes.
Both can be removed easily and cleaned up to provide a better contact point. An unhealthy battery that’s lacking in voltage will also cause the gearbox to have a fit, so check this, too. For more serious issues with a shuddering or slipping gear change then it’s worth changing the oil and filter before sending the gearbox off for a rebuild.
The rubber propshaft centre bearing wears and that causes a nasty knocking under acceleration, but these are fairly simple and cheap to replace. The differentials are strong units but the seals can leak, which causes them to run low on oil and then make some odd noises, so check for leaks.
General build quality is good and if it’s been looked after you will be able to tell as they don’t wear too badly, although the driver’s seat bolsters usually give up first but these can be repaired. The most common and annoying issues stem from electrical gremlins such as a heater blower being stuck on full speed. This will be down to the control module’s solder joints failing. It can be repaired if you’re handy or replaced if you’re not.
Other issues will usually flash up on the OBC but it’s best to check the battery first of all to make sure it’s putting out healthy voltage before even trying to trace the fault as the issue often lies here. If the OBC does indicate a taillight or headlight failure when the bulbs are working fine then this will be down to a poor connection on the bulb’s contacts which careful cleaning will usually cure. If that doesn’t work, check the relays as, again, the solder joints fail over time.
Door locks can fail which is due to the solenoids but it’s not a major headache to replace unless the door is locked shut!
Wheels, tyres and brakes
Some cars came on metric wheels, which require expensive 240/45 ZR415 TRX tyres – around £350 per corner – so most cars will have had other alloys fitted. There were several other wheel choices – 15- inch cross-spokes or the ones seen here in the pictures being popular – so just make sure they are all in decent condition and straight. Also, it’s worth checking the spare in the boot is present and correct.
As for the brakes, it’s worth knowing that the really early cars produced before late-1988 were fitted with a more complex brake booster system that ran off the power steering. They are prone to blowing seals and the boosters themselves can leak, especially with the wrong fluid and this then causes problems with the steering. It’s expensive to fix and will more than likely need to be taken to a specialist, so be aware of odd noises or leaks from early cars. Later cars used the standard vacuum setup that tends to be much more trouble-free. Aside from that, sticking callipers can be a problem, especially if the car has been laid up for a while. They will need rebuilding or replacing.
Steering and suspension
Being a big heavy car there’s more to worry about here than in most other areas and, sadly, it can get expensive. General wear affects the way the car drives and straightaway you should be able to tell if the steering feels particular unresponsive or dulled. Worse still, the E32 is notorious for suffering from a front-end vibration that turns into a wobble through the steering wheel and brake pedal. At first, it feels like warped discs as it tends to happen under high speed braking but it’s almost always more involved than that and most of the time it gets worse as it starts to occur under mid-range acceleration, too. Aside from checking the obvious, such as ensuring that the wheels and tyres are balanced and straight, then you have to start going through the front suspension.
Replacing the upper and lower arms together with the bushes is a good start but won’t necessarily cure the wobble. Then it’s on to track rods and anti-roll bar links and centre drag links but by then it will have got pretty expensive.
Thankfully, at the rear there’s less to worry about. It’s only really the subframe mountings, which tend to corrode and collapse that cause a nasty knock at the rear over bumps. Dampers do sometimes fail but it’s not common. Other knocking noises from the rear can be put down to the exhaust system, so it’s worth checking.
The engine itself is generally regarded as a very strong and reliable unit that rarely suffers from major problems. If looked after and serviced as and when it should be then astronomical miles are feasible without cause for concern. Oil leaks are a relatively rare occurrence but give it a good check down by the front timing cover and by the oil pressure switch at the back of the head as if it does leak, these are the most likely places.
Listen out for any odd noises from the top of the engine as camshafts can wear, often as a result of a blocked oil spray bar, and the banjo bolts that hold the bar in place are also known for working loose. Valve stem seams can also become brittle leading to smoke from the exhaust on the overrun.
It’s also worth keeping an eye on water temperatures, as the gauge should always remain in the middle. If it gets hotter, especially when in traffic then it’s likely to be the viscous fan coupling, which wears out over time. It’s also worth checking for leaks from the radiator as these are known to corrode over time, as do the header tanks and even the hoses occasionally.
Like most older, big BMWs a failing battery causes all manner of problems that can seem unrelated, such as messages flashing up on the OBC telling you the transmission is failing! So for any sort of strange behaviour or error messages always check the battery is healthy first of all.
The E32 still holds up well, even today as a luxury car that can be used and enjoyed. It helps that BMW built it properly so the usual concerns for a classic car, such as rust, aren’t so much of an issue. The six-cylinder engines were also virtually bulletproof and suffered none of the serious and expensive issues that can plague a V8-powered car. That just leaves a few other minor problems to look out for, which means for the money there simply aren’t many other classic cars, let alone BMWs that offer the same usable package that the 735i does. With supply still relatively consistent and prices still reasonable, now is a good time to buy one.
TECH DATA BMW 735i E32
ENGINE: Straight-six, 12-valve / M30 / M30B34
MAX POWER: 211hp
MAX TORQUE: 225lb
TOP SPEED: 144mph (140)
0-62MPH: 6.9 seconds (9.3)
PRICE NEW: £27,935
* Figures in brackets for automatic ZF4HP