Me and my car 1981 BMW 735i Automatic E23 7-Series

Being a professional mechanic, Ian Hodge wasn’t fazed by the prospect of taking on a 37-year-old car with over 100,000 miles on the clock that was belching out exhaust smoke. Since then, he’s been hugely impressed by the many virtues of his remarkably clean E23 7 Series.

Robert Burns’ famous line of poetry which suggests that ‘the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry’, couldn’t be more apt than in the case of Ian Hodge. For it was while searching the internet for a sensible and practical load-lugger, that this BMW enthusiast from Maidstone, Kent, rather took leave of his senses!

“We’ve got three dogs now, so my partner, Rhianna, and I decided that an E39 Touring would fit the bill as an interesting and affordable vehicle,” Ian explained to me. “Rhianna is a BMW fan too, so we thought that model would be ideal for transporting the dogs and us in style to the many car shows we go to.” Strangely, though, things didn’t quite turn out like that.


Ian’s passion for BMW stretches right back to a specific point in his childhood, which he still remembers well. “One day, back in the late 1990s, I was being driven along in the back of my mum’s Citroen Saxo VTR. As we approached a roundabout, I spotted a white saloon entering the roundabout on the opposite side from us, and was then totally amazed to see it drift majestically past in front of us, then speed off down the road. We followed and it did exactly the same at the next roundabout, and I just thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen! Then it was gone. I later discovered that it was a BMW E30 325i Sport and that was it, I was hooked!

“Of course, I never imagined that I’d ever be able to afford an E30 of my own but then, five or six years later, opportunity came knocking. In 2006, a friend of mine at work who knew I was interested in older BMWs, happened to mention that a mate of his had one that he wanted to get rid of. All he knew was that it was a 3 Series estate.”

As it turned out, the car was a standard, 1988 325i Touring and the owner wanted a quick sale. Consequently, he was asking just £200 for it. Amazingly, despite having spent the previous six years languishing on a grassy patch in a Littlehampton garden and being covered in green moss, the car was still a runner. Ian couldn’t believe his luck, and the test drive that followed convinced him that it was a car that he just had to have.


“I was in my early 20s at that time,” he told me, “and was driving a slow old Ford Sierra Sapphire. So the performance of the 325i, despite the state it was in, was really exciting. I was happy to hand over the cash and trailer the car home, before the seller changed his mind!

“I spent the next few weeks cleaning the car and doing a few basic jobs, like fitting a set of Rota wheels and uprated springs, but that was about it. At that stage I was quite content to enjoy it for what it was. “Then everything changed when a friend and I decided to take a trip out to the Nürburgring in the E30 Touring. It was quite a rushed decision and, of course, we were underprepared. Nevertheless, despite only completing about three laps during the entire weekend, it proved a life-changing experience for me. I found it so exciting that I was hooked, and returned home determined to start improving the E30, to make it a better track car. “In those days, I was involved in a bit of oval track banger racing, so my first move was to sell everything I had to do with that, to free-up some money to spend on the E30. I just wanted to get back to the ‘Ring and start improving my times.”


“I fitted a set of Gaz Gold coilovers, Minilite wheels and four-pot brake calipers, but that was just the start. The car’s come a long way since then; the interior’s been stripped, I’ve fitted a full roll cage and installed weight-saving, Perspex windows. What’s more, it’s now has a 2.8-litre, M52 engine under the bonnet, from an E36. It’s not immensely powerful but it does go well, and remains road legal. My best time around the ‘Ring in it is 8m 19s, which I think is respectable.

“Nowadays, I try to get out to Germany at least twice a year, driving the car there and back. Unfortunately, it’s not a great car for travelling long distances; it’s terribly hot inside and you can’t open more than a small slot in the windows, so the four-and- a-half drive from the Calais to the circuit can be an uncomfortable challenge in itself. Often, by the time I get there, I feel like I’ve already competed at Le Mans. But once I’m out on the track, all that discomfort is forgotten.

“Currently we’re thinking of selling my partner’s 1 Series coupé and replacing it with an X5, that I’ll then be able to use to trailer the E30 out to Germany. That will make such a difference, even though I always used to scoff at people who trailered their track cars to the circuit. Now, as I’m getting older and am developing a temperamental back, I can quite understand their reasoning!”


Ian continued: “Anyway, as I mentioned at the start, I was looking for a suitable E39 Touring on eBay, and had been for a month or so. During that time, a car that kept popping up in the ‘You may also be interested in…’ section, was a 1981 E23 735i. It was only up for just over £4,000, but it obviously wasn’t attracting much interest mainly, I think, because the owner – a private seller – had been quite harsh with his description.

“He listed quite a number of dauntingsounding faults, including a badly-smoking engine, and also pointed out that the tyres were absolutely shot. Evidently this had put a lot of people off, but I remained strangely drawn to the car. Of course, being a 37-year-old executive saloon, it was a million miles away from what I was actually looking for, and certainly wouldn’t make the most practical of dog carriers. Nevertheless, there was something about it that kept pulling me back to the advert.”

At that stage, Ian had literally no experience with 7 Series BMWs, in fact, he’d never even looked at one closely, let alone ridden-in or driven one. Evidently, though, the more he thought about that particular car, the more he knew he wanted it.

“Rhianna wasn’t that keen on the idea, as you might imagine. Even though she’s a real BMW enthusiast, I think she was definitely struggling to see my logic in considering such a vehicle. To be fair, that was understandable! What made things worse was the fact that the seller lived on the Wirrall, up near Liverpool, which, given that I’m in the south-east, meant that even seeing the car would be a major undertaking. But something told me that buying it was the right thing to do. So I took the plunge, paid a deposit online to reserve it and started making plans to head north for a viewing.”


“The owner had sent me about 90 photos detailing all aspects of the car and, although looking at pictures is never the same as seeing a vehicle in real life, they gave me a good impression about what it was like. Also, I appreciated the seller’s honesty; he didn’t shy away from photographing even the slightest of imperfections.

“So, the great day arrived and a friend agreed to drive me up to the Wirral. Normally, I’m used to buying my cars from sellers who live on council estates, so you can imagine my surprise when we turned into a long, tree-lined gravel drive, that took us past a tennis court and enormous flower beds. We actually had to stop and ask a gardener for directions!

“Appearances can be deceptive, though. When we finally met the right person, he was a totally likeable, down-to-earth enthusiast. It turned out he was selling the car simply because he needed the space; he already owned an E24 6 Series, a couple of newer Alpina models, and had a E9 3.0CSL on the way, so the time had come to part with the E23.”

Evidently, he’d owned the car for about seven years, but had covered fewer than 1,000 miles a year during that time. There had been five owners before him, so Ian was set to be the seventh. “It was completely clear to me that I was going to buy the car,” he recalled with a smile, “I knew from the moment I first clapped eyes on it that I would. There was nothing about it that disappointed me, the test drive went smoothly and I was delighted to settle what I owed and drive it away.”


“However, things took a bit of a turn for the worse on the long journey back to Kent. The radio wasn’t working, the temperature gauge only delivered a reading every now and then, and the speedometer was as dead as a doornail. But I knew all this before we set off. What I wasn’t quite so prepared for was a problem with the brakes.

“We were about 100 miles into the journey, and we hit some congestion. As the under-bonnet temperature began to rise, the engine really started to smoke. This go so bad that clouds of it started to blow forward from the exhaust to engulf the whole car! Then that I noticed that the brakes had started to bind, and most of the feel in the pedal had gone – you could push it all the way to the floor with next-to-no resistance. It was at this point that I started to wonder if I’d made a terrible mistake. But we pressed on slowly and, after two stops to top-up the engine oil, we finally made it home.”

All this happened nearly a year ago and, since then, I’m happy to report that things have been a good deal more predictable for Ian and the E23. “Overall, the car’s been running really well and, at the moment, Rhianna uses it more than I do. She’s been running it as her everyday commuting car, although she only has a short drive to work.

“Whenever I’ve had the time, I’ve been working my way through the car, checking and repairing all the way. The braking system was an obvious priority, so I fitted a new master cylinder plus new pads all round and it’s been fine ever since.”


“As far as the smoking engine’s concerned, the previous owner had mentioned that it was using a lot of oil as well as smoking, and I found the same. However, I’m wondering if he was using the correct grade because, on the advice of a friend, I switched to a decent 10W50 lubricant and it cured the problem almost entirely.

“Now the only time I see any smoke from the exhaust is when re-starting a hot engine, which produces the odd puff. So I’m thinking that the valve stem oil seals are probably getting worn, and will need dealing with in due course. As far as oil consumption is concerned, though, I’ve not had to put a drop in since the change of grade, which is great.

“I had a crack at the instrument cluster, stripping and cleaning what I could, but that didn’t improve things. So I admitted defeat and packed it off to a specialist reconditioner. It was returned in decent working order, although the fuel gauge remains a little temperamental at times. As a result I’ve actually run out of fuel once, which was embarrassing!

“I’ve also changed the tyres; the set I bought it with were pretty ancient, and were showing signs of age-related cracking in places. The wheels have been refurbished, too, and I fitted a set of H&R lowering springs. While this has stiffened up the ride a touch, the car does handle much better, with far less body roll when cornering, which is good. The original dampers are still fitted, but I’m expecting to replace these sooner rather than later, probably with a set of Bilsteins.”


“Other jobs I have planned include replacing the distributor cap and HT leads; there are no misfire issues, but I’ll just feel happier with new ones fitted. I also want to change the transmission fluid and its filter in the gearbox, plus the sump gasket which I’ve noticed is leaking slightly. I don’t imagine that this oil has been changed very often in the past decade or so, so I’m sure it’ll benefit from doing that.

“Externally, the bodywork is pretty good, although I can tell that some respray work has been done. The boot lid is a slightly different colour and there’s a small area of corrosion starting to show at the back edge of the front, offside wing to be dealt with. Bodywork isn’t something I can tackle, so I’ll be handing that work over to a specialist. Underneath the car is in remarkably good condition; straight and very clean. I’ve had the carpets up inside, and the floorpans look in perfect condition, as does the boot floor.

“So far, the car really has exceeded all my expectations for it and, in many respects, there’s nothing that I’d rather be driving. Funnily enough, one of the things that gives me the greatest amount of pleasure are the chrome bumpers. For years I’d wanted a car with them, and now I’ve finally got one! It’s just such a classic feature and really sets the car apart, especially nowadays when such trim is all but non-existent.

“My original plan had been to buy the car, do a bit of work on it, use it for a couple of years and then move it on. But the pleasure it gives us both now has changed all that and, to be honest, I don’t think it’ll be going anywhere. Even by modern standards, I find it a remarkably quiet and comfortable car to drive; it’s a really great cruiser, with wind noise only really becoming noticeable at high speed.

“There are a couple of little interior squeaks and rattles but, given that it’s nearly 40 years old, I really don’t think that I can be too critical. One of them is somewhere behind the dash, but I don’t want to start stripping all that out in case the disturbance triggers lots of other issues, so I’m happy to live with things as they are.”

It’s clear that this particular 735i has found itself a sympathetic and caring home in the Hodge household, and the couple are confident that, given suitable seat coverings, the car will work perfectly well as a dog carrier, too. The E23 is one of those models that sneaks under the radar for lots of enthusiasts, and Ian admits that it had never been a vehicle that figured in his thinking.

But now he’s experienced the mix of attractive, understated looks, impressive equipment levels, air of refinement and straightforward affordability of this luxury saloon, it’s a car that’s leaped up in his estimation. The couple are delighted with the E23, and really have nothing but praise for its many, appealing qualities.

“This particular 735i has found itself a sympathetic and caring home in the Hodge household”

“It was only up for just over £4,000, but it obviously wasn’t attracting much interest”

It was at this point that I started to wonder if I’d made a terrible mistake”

The E23 7 Series is a great cruiser, and surprisingly quiet. Left: The electric motors are sluggish when adjusting the front seats (and windows), but work well enough. Note the rare, stalk-mounted, Blaupunkt graphic equaliser to the left of the centre console. Middle: The rear seats are electrically adjustable, and still function as they should. Right: Vehicle check system still fully operational after all these years. Classic BMW instrumentation; clear and extremely easy to read. The air conditioning is more involved to operate than a modern system, but still pumps out plenty of refreshingly cold air. The car is in remarkable condition, both inside and out, given its age and mileage. Costing a little over £4,000 to buy and after spending perhaps another £1,000 on tyres, brakes and instrument repairs, Ian now has a luxury saloon that owes him virtually nothing. The 3.5-litre M30 engine’s oil consumption issues and smoking exhaust were cured by nothing more involved than an oil grade change. Top: The light, metallic paint and chrome trim really work well together. Above: The only rust to be found on this E23 735i is here, along the bottom edge of the offside, front wing. New springs have sharpened the suspension slightly, and improved the handling.


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