Simple luxury. Chris Graham spotlights one of the less frequently talked about BMW models, the E32 7 Series, which he believes deserves its moment in the sun.
Buying Guide BMW E32 7 Series There's no need to fear buying this luxury bargain today
ig, luxury cars always depreciate frighteningly. While this is inevitably a financial nightmare for the first owners, it can offer rich pickings for the canny, used car buyer with an eye for an automotive bargain.
But buying an ageing executive cruiser can be a risky business. While these frequently high-spec and tech-heavy vehicles can offer luxurious motoring at a fraction of their original cost, get your purchase wrong and these cars can also prove financially crippling in terms of maintenance and repair costs.
However, it’s not all bad news as there are still models out there which offer buyers a better-than-usual chance of enjoying the best of both worlds, and I believe that the BMW E32 7 Series is just such an example. It’s a model which arrived just a few years before automotive electronics started to get really complicated.
At the same time, it possesses enough technology to deliver a premium quality driving experience, even by modern-day standards. It also emanates from an era when BMWs were particularly well screwed together and, as you’ll see, this has served the E32 extremely well in terms of how it’s aged and just how usable it remains today.
A NEW DAWN
The E32 was the second iteration of the 7 Series, BMW’s flagship luxury model. It arrived in showrooms in 1986, and had a production life that ran through to 1994, during which time just over 311,000 models were produced. It was a much more modern and appealing design than its predecessor, the 7-Series BMW E23, and sold a good deal better as a result.
But, in keeping with its flagship status, the E32 was innovative, too. It was much more aerodynamic than the previous model, with a sleeker, lower design. It also provided the platform for features such as state-of-the- art CAN bus electronic control systems, electronic damper control, xenon headlights, traction control and double-glazing.
The model was launched with a choice of straight-six or V12 engines. The M30 six powered the entry-level 730i and 735i models, but there was also the M70 five-litre, V12-equipped 750i. Prices ranged from £21,250 to £49,950, but long-wheelbase versions existed for each model, too (another first for BMW), and the 750iL would have cost you £53,750.
Then, in 1992, BMW bolstered the appeal of the E32 by introducing a V8 option. The new M60 was used in two forms, to power the 730i (replacing the M30 straight-six) and the 740i models. Both benefited from a new, five-speed ZF automatic transmission (ZF 5HP); there was never a manual version of the E32 in the UK. Unfortunately for BMW, it chose to use the Nikasil bore coating in the new V8 engines, which was to cause no end of trouble with loss of compression and engine replacements under warranty.
Andy Walker, who now runs independent BMW specialist Walkers Autotech (walkersautotech.co.uk, tel: 01403 751646), began his career with BMW in 1996 and remembers that, even then, the E32 had already earned itself a good reputation for being a well-made and reliable car. “It was a car capable of taking high mileages in its stride and, in those days, the relatively poor fuel consumption simply wasn’t an issue,” he told me.
“The E32 came from an era when most of its design, mechanical componentry and electronics were relatively simple, certainly compared to the BMW E38, and the more recent 7 Series models that followed it. The combination of the original quality of build, combined with the straightforward, no-nonsense engineering approach mean that, today, the E32 represents a relatively manageable and affordable ownership proposition.
“Most of the consumable parts an owner is likely to require (brake components, couplings, bushes, ball joints), are still available from BMW at very reasonable prices. It’s also quite an easy car to work on, from a mechanical point of view, and routine servicing on a DIY basis is perfectly possible.”
So, so far, so good. However, it’s not all plain sailing, and I wouldn’t want you to get the impression that you can go out and buy the first E32 you see and look forward to years of happy, trouble-free motoring. Obviously, with the oldest examples now being 30 years old, the E32 also has the potential to be a money pit; it’s just that it might not be such a big money pit as some of the more complicated, later models. So, as always, it’s essential to buy with care and to go into the process with your eyes wide open.
A FORGOTTEN MODEL?
As things stand, the E32 appears to be something of a forgotten model and, judging by the online sales listings, the number on the road today has dwindled dramatically. When I looked on Pistonheads there were no E32s for sale, AutoTrader had just two and Car-and-classic boasted eight! So, the first hurdle for prospective buyers is likely to be finding a car to look at in the first place. Regrettably, this doesn’t appear to be a model for which buyers will be spoilt for choice.
Andy’s thoughts regarding the M30 straight-six used in the entry-level models is that it’s rather an agricultural engine so, while not offering the levels of refinement we’ve become accustomed to nowadays, it’s a tough and fundamentally reliable unit. It’s ‘old school’ technology, with adjustable tappets and indirect fuel injection, and will run and run given decent maintenance.
However, it’s also an engine that loves to leak oil, thanks to the many cork or fibre gaskets it used. Of course, this wasn’t much of an issue back in the day and, as long the levels were regularly checked and topped-up, all was well. Now, though, oil leaks can be more serious, thanks to the recently-introduced ‘environmental risk’ MoT regulations. Obvious oil leaks will now result in an MoT test failure.
The introduction of the M60 V8 engines in 1992 brought additional refinement to the model range, and proved a popular addition. While neither was massively powerful, and the three-litre version struggled somewhat with the E32’s bulk, they were good, strong and quiet engines that enhanced the driving experience.
The aforementioned Nikasil issue turned out to be just about the only serious problem and, with most of those having been replaced with Alusil units under warranty, there shouldn’t be much else to worry about. Nevertheless, it’s still worth checking with BMW that a V8 car you’re interested in had that work done. These engines aren’t known to suffer with timing chain stretch or valve stem oil seal wear issues, although the rocker cover gaskets do leak oil, which drips down on to the exhaust manifolds. Any burning oil smells during a test drive are a tell-tale sign of this. The V12-engined models are very rare nowadays, and we’re extremely fortunate to have Elliott Stiling’s smart example to feature here in the photographs. The M70 V12 was obviously a more complicated engine to work on than the V8s, nonetheless, it’s stood the test of time well, and serious mechanical issues are rare. However, regardless of the engine fitted to the car you’re looking at, it’ll be worth thoroughly checking all rubber pipework for the cooling system, for hardening and cracking.
E32 7 Series tech specs
The gearboxes used across the range were very straightforward and have proved reliable. The early cars were four-speed autos, while the V8s got five-speed ‘boxes. The changes produced were reasonably smooth, and still should be today. So, beware of any you come across that are jerky or noisy when selecting gears. They aren’t known as troublesome units so, as long as everything’s operating quietly and with a decent degree of refinement, there should be little to worry about.
Something else to watch for with the V8-powered models is catalytic converter failure. While not an especially common problem, it is something to be aware of because replacements are hideously expensive (as is the exhaust system as a whole – assuming they are even available from BMW). However, the metal used was thick, so exhaust patching is an option if the corrosion is relatively localised.
The differential is another strong and reliable component on the E32. When this car was new, BMW was all about regular servicing and maintenance; the service interval was every 8,000 miles and the Service 2 occurred every 36,000 miles. The diff’ oil would have been changed at every Service 2 (together with all the other fluids), as part of a proper, ‘old school’ maintenance programme. Now it seems clear that the gearboxes and differentials on this model are reaping the rewards from that more attentive care and attention.
Also, given the price of the cars at the time, and the sort of owners who were running the E32 7 Series, it’s unlikely that any would have been forced to endure any sort of skimped-on servicing regime during those important first handful of years of their working lives. Nor were they the sort of car to attract aggressive drivers, so ‘mechanically abused’ examples are rare.
Worn rear axle bushes are a relatively common problem which is worth checking specifically for during a pre-purchase inspection. Make a point of moving the gear selector from drive, through neutral, and into reverse, and pay attention for any clunk that’s felt as this happens. This will be an indicator that the slack created by worn bushes is being taken up as reverse gear is engaged.
It’s not unusual to find that these bushes will have collapsed due to age and that, once the axle has been dropped to replace them, there’s corrosion in the mounting points above the subframe as well. Mud inevitably collects in the areas above the rear axle and, as with any car this old, corrosion is always a possibility.
Elsewhere underneath the car, rust can also affect the jacking points and sills, so these need to be checked carefully and, to do that job properly, the car will need to be raised on a vehicle lift. At the same time, cast an eye over the condition of the rear suspension top mounts, where they bolt into the bodyshell – another area where rusting can be a problem. Overall, though, the anti-corrosion measures taken at the factory were pretty effective on the E32, and badly corroded examples are very rare.
There’s nothing to get too excited about with regards to the suspension; it was a pretty basic set-up in most cases. Accordingly, it’s stood the test of time pretty well, but will often be found to be suffering with worn bottom arms and suspension thrust arms, and the centre drag-link assembly on V8-equipped models (listen for squeaky, dried-out ball joints).
The one exception to the ‘simple’ approach was the electronic damper control system that was available as an option on the 740i, and came as standard on the 750i.
Should problems occur with this – and they often are faulty – then putting it right can be extremely expensive. Andy has a couple of 8 Series-owning customers who both ditched the EDC system in favour of a conventional spring and damper set-up. The prospect of £1,000+ per corner put them off the electronic version.
The braking system used on the E32 was pretty archaic, in many respects but, nowadays, this counts in its favour. The fact that it’s not a high-tech, electronically-monitored system means that maintaining and repairing it is a relatively straightforward, DIY-type process, which is a good thing for the enthusiast. There’s nothing complex like traction control or advanced diagnostics to worry about, just discs, pads, calipers and a rudimentary but effective ABS system. All that you’re likely to come across, problem-wise, is the occasional faulty ABS sensor or a corroded/broken driveshaft flange-mounted reluctor ring. The sensors are still available, but faulty reluctor rings are part of the drive flange, and will have to be replaced with good, used items.
One important point to note is that, like a few E24 6 Series, some E32s were equipped with metric wheels, and this is something to watch for. The only manufacturer to make the tyres needed to fit these wheels was Michelin, and this remains the case today. So, if you find an E32 shod with Michelin TRX tyres, then this is the giveaway that it has metric wheels, and that you’ll have to buy these tyres for ever more (or change the wheels!). The last set Andy specified for an E32 cost just shy of £1,700 and, to rub salt into the wound, there was a four-week wait to get them!
Rear wheel arches can be found to be rusty, as can the front end of the car if there’s been any badly-repaired accident damage or stone chips etc. You can also sometimes find bubbling along the rear wheel arches, the bottoms of the doors, and where the rear of the sills meet the wheel arches.
This type of rusting tends to work its way through from the inside, meaning that it’s often worse than it looks, so be warned. There are no commercially-produced repair sections available for the E32, so putting such problems right will be expensive to do properly. You either have to source a new panel and cut a suitable repair section out of that, or make a repair section from scratch.
Elsewhere, water leaks into the boot can be a problem, as can failed seals allowing water into the rear light clusters. Also, the sunroof panels sometimes rust but, overall, most examples that have been properly looked after should be clean and tidy. Inside the car, take your time with all the usual equipment and switchgear checks. The air con system isn’t cheap to fix, and many owners simply deal with such issues by opening the sunroof!
The instrumentation is illuminated by traditional, tungsten filament bulbs, so it’s quite common for one or more of these to have blown. The instrument cluster itself, though, is pretty reliable, although there is a printed circuit board/LCD which operates the service indicator lights and displays check control messages, which can fail with age. These will need specialist attention to fix (replacements are no longer available), but it’s a simple matter to record mileages and work out service intervals in the old-fashioned way.
In many respects, then, the E32 7 Series is a car that can be treated with a ‘back to basics’ attitude, which makes a refreshing change these days. Whichever model you opt for, you’re likely to be rewarded with an affordable, modern classic that shouldn’t cost a fortune to run and remains durable enough to use on a regular basis.
The BMW E32 V8 740i/740iL is widely regarded as being the sweet spot in the range; the 730i wasn’t really powerful enough and the V12 750i E32 brings with it a fear factor that’s sufficient to put many potential owners off. But don’t write-off a straight-six powered model, as these were tough, no-nonsense units.
In many respects, the E32 continues to get overshadowed by the newer E38, which is a great shame considering the practical advantages that the older model can offer. Whether or not it’ll ever start to appreciate significantly in value remains to be seen; in reality, big, luxury saloons rarely do. On the flipside, though, this helps ensure that they remain within the financial range of most enthusiasts which, like the E32 itself, is a good thing.
The E32 7 Series is a rewarding car to own from a classic era of BMW. The hardest job is probably finding a good one to buy these days.
This smart 750iL was originally owned by Status Quo front-man, Francis Rossi.
The glorious M70 V12 five-litre is certainly a thing of wonder, offering effortlessly smooth performance.
Equally-sized high beam and dipped light units and a wider kidney grille gave the BMW E32 a fresher, more contemporary look compared to the E23 it succeeded.
Although the E32 was much sleeker and aerodynamically efficient than the BMW E23 7-Series, the vestiges of the older model’s heavy haunches are still visible from this angle.
The E32 interior is spacious, comfortable and well equipped for its day. Even now the car can be a surprisingly relaxed, long-distance cruiser. This car features an optional, Nardi steering wheel. The long wheelbase versions like this one featured electrically-operated rear seats, and provided an additional 4in of legroom for back seat passengers.
Well-proportioned and desirable; BMW built just over 311,000 E32s, but they’re certainly thin on the ground nowadays.
WHAT TO PAY?
The BMW 7-Seies E32 remains something of a fringe model, in pure popularity terms, but those qualified to comment – like Andy Walker – feel it’s high time that the model started attracting more interest. But, as things stand, E32 values are all over the place, with ‘barn finds’ available for £1,000, decently-specced examples selling for £5,000-£6,000, and the best 750 is pushing towards £10,000.
OWNER’S VIEW: ELLIOTT STILING
“I’ve always liked the E32, this being the second one I’ve owned; the first was a 1993 black 730i V8, which was smooth but a touch underpowered. My appreciation of the V12 750i, in particular, goes right back to a poster of one that I used to have on my bedroom wall. I had the official, dealer-issue brochure for the car, too, and spent a lot of time trying to convince my stepfather to buy one!
“This car cropped up completely by chance; I hadn’t been looking for an E32 specifically, but came across this 1988 750iL V12 and was attracted by its condition and its interesting history. Its first owner was Francis Rossi, from Status Quo, and it came with a V5 bearing his details, plus a signed letter verifying that he had been the original owner.
“I actually bought it online and unseen, from a private seller in Cornwall. It certainly wasn’t a textbook car purchase, as I spotted the car on eBay just an hour before the auction was due to end, and placed a bid.
“The description of the car wasn’t as thorough as I would have liked, but I decided to take a gamble on it anyway. I’m an ‘eBay sniper’ so always like to put my bid in with just a few seconds to go and, on this occasion, decided to bid up to £4,000 and was successful!
“I had an interesting start with the car. The seller agreed to drive the car to Truro, I travelled down there from Lancashire, and we met in a car park for the exchange. The trouble is, the car broke down before I even had the chance to drive it away! While he was demonstrating a few of the car’s features with the engine running, acrid-smelling smoke started pouring out from under the rear seat. “Luckily, the seller knew exactly what the problem was, and reacted quickly to switch the car off and isolate the problem. After fitting a new battery under the rear seat, he’d forgotten to re-fit the cover, and the terminals had shorted out on the metalwork of the cushion frame. With disaster narrowly averted, the seller shot off to get a replacement battery while I was left to consider just what I was letting myself in for!
“Nevertheless, I went ahead with the purchase and, thankfully, the car tackled the seven-hour journey home without missing a beat. Since then, I really do feel that the car has lived up to the expectations I had for it. The fact that it remains such a serene and comfortable car to drive at today’s motorway speeds, it’s remarkable to me, considering it’s 30 years old. I can only imagine how good it must have felt to drive back in the late 1980s.
“I think that the car has aged well and is still capable of turning heads. The V12 engine is still a beauty and performs really well when needed. I haven’t found it difficult to live with and certainly, mechanically speaking, it hasn’t been a problem. I think it’s the ancillaries that have given me more cause for concern. The V12 has a reputation for being complicated but, in comparison to modern engines, it’s not at all. It’s a mechanical car rather than an electrical one, so can be dealt with using a conventional toolkit, rather than a laptop.
“I certainly haven’t struggled to find people to work on the car for me, both independent BMW specialists and more general motor mechanics. I’ve owned the car for three years now and the only notable problem I’ve had was with the brakes; the accumulator failed. BMW doesn’t make the V12 version of this part any more, but we managed to modify the six-cylinder version, which worked well. The other thing I’ve done is ditch the EDC suspension system in favour of conventional, passive damping. Looking back through the car’s service history, I discovered that it’s had three whole new EDC systems fitted, and I didn’t fancy paying the £5,000-£6,000 that would have been needed for the fourth!”