BMW’s M-cars have never left a huge impression on me. I hesitate to dismiss the revered M1 on the basis of a frustrating drive through the Surrey commuterbelt circa 1992, but I don’t consider it pretty and it did confirm that, on the whole, I’m not sold on mid-engined cars (other than the Dino) because you can’t see out. I need to revisit the M1, yet I suspect it is no accident that BMW has not repeated the middie adventure. This is a huge generalisation, but I don’t even like the way mid-engined cars handle: their responses are too ‘pure’ for the road and they are uncompromising and unforgiving for most drivers. And can you name a modern one that doesn’t make you look like a posing twit?
There is an appealing honesty about the second-generation 3 Series, but I’m almost ashamed to admit that I’d rather have a 325i convertible than any sort of М3. The M5 and M635 are more my kind of cars, but with the caveat that I don’t want spoilers or badges or sports seats or any of the other bits that justified the ‘M’ identity other than the straight-six (which is glorious) and a manual gearbox, as essential an element in any classic BMW as an automatic ’box is in its Mercedes equivalent.
This rare manual is one of two BMW 745s E23 owned by Marek Letowt. It was used for the brochure, and was future CEO Bernt Pischetsrieder’s daily car when he ran the Rosslyn plant in the ’80s.
I can feel my internal anorak being zipped as I mention this, but you should know that there is one species of (admittedly unofficial) M-car that doesn’t feature in this month’s story: the South African-built 745i. This variation on the still rather unloved E23 theme is not the turbocharged, LHD- only offering we know in Europe. That car had a 3.2-litre single cam engine and was BMW’s restrained response to the thirst and brutishness of the Mercedes 450SEL 6.9 W116, although my only recollection of driving one is that it was a lot less exciting than the Mercedes. I have never owned a 7 Series, although I did sell my 3.0 S to a mate for £100 because he wanted to put the engine in his dead 728, which seemed a cock-eyed thing to do even 20 years ago, particularly because the E3 was pretty solid. I’m fairly sure the person in question never paid me the £100, either…
Intriguingly, the brochure for the 745i flashed up a shot of the prototype V12 engine that BMW had canned in the name of six-cylinder ‘efficiency’ – an unsubtle dig at the profligacy of the 6.9 Benz. Stuttgart was undoubtedly sensitive to the marketing problems this car threw up: note its more streamlined and apologetic 1980 replacement, the W126 500SEL. The new car had to use a lot less fuel than the 6.9, but also be seen to be faster. To ensure that it was, Daimler- Benz built the first few thousand new lightweight 5-litre V8s to particularly tight tolerances.
A manual is as essential an element in any classic BMW as an auto ‘box is in its Mercedes equivalent.
BMW eventually gave us the V12 750i E32 in the late ’80s and I consider these cars, designed by my NSU Ro 80 styling hero Klaus Luthe, to be the best-looking of all the Sevens. Bruno Sacco’s W126 was arguably the most handsome S Class to date; it certainly put the awkwardly proportioned BMW E23 firmly in its place in the luxury-car arena, but today the early 7 Series seems more interesting because it is so much rarer: when did you last see one actually moving along a road?
I’ve certainly never knowingly encountered its South African cousin, let alone got my backside into its Nappa leather driving seat. It was built to the tune of 249 examples for the SA market only, with the twin-camshaft M88 straight-six taking the place of the turbo unit to make space for the right-hand-drive steering box. This rather begs the question as to why BMW couldn’t have built it for Europe, but the policy of not providing ‘M’ versions of the 7 Series survives to this day – and in any case the twin-cam may have been in too short a supply to be used in a third bodyshell.
I can’t imagine the automatics were much fun, but the 14 that were built with the Getrag five-speed manual must have been fairly tasty. These 745s are part of an interesting tradition of unusual SA-specification cars that includes the 3-litre Alfa GTV6 and the V8-engined Ford Sierra XR8, although the only other BMW oddity I can recall is the 1800/2000GL. The Germans liked to export their defunct automobiles for new lives in exotic climes, which is what happened to the old Frua-designed Glas 1700 saloon when it was given a new BMW identity and drivetrain to live out its final years in sunny South Africa. Perhaps our Cape crusader Graeme Hurst should dig one out for a feature.