The Magnificent 7s – 1982 BMW 728i Automaic E23 vs. 1987 BMW 730i E32 and 1998 BMW 740iA Sport E38

2020 Simon Thompson and Drive-My EN/UK

The Magnificent 7s: How BMW took on the executive class. BMW’s 7 Series is now a byword for executive luxury. But that reputation was hard-earned… Words Nathan Chadwick. Photography Simon Thompson.


Why BMW’s path to exec glory wasn’t assured

How BMW tackled the executive car establishment with the E23, E32 and E38 – and won in the end

The battle to build the world’s best executive car was a fierce one, as you’ll have seen from our cover feature. The Lexus might have aced it on its first try, but it took nearly a decade to complete. Even now, Lexus struggles to have the brand cachet in the UK, despite the game-Changing LS400 30 years ago.

Membership of the elite executive class can take much longer – just ask BMW.

Photography Simon Thompson.
Photography Simon Thompson – 1982 BMW 728i Automaic E23 vs. 1987 BMW 730i E32 and 1998 BMW 740iA Sport E38

Its take on the executive class as we know it began in the late 1960s with the BMW E3, but fielding a serious Mercedes-Benz Contender would have to wait for the 7 Series line. Even so, it would take Munich around 30 years to break the Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz stranglehold.

Nowadays the 7 Series is up therewith the most prestigious executive saloons you can buy – even if BMW’s current design direction hasn’t gone down well with anyone other than Silence of The Lambs enthusiasts. It’s also under threat from downsizing and a shift away from the saloon form in favour of SUVs.

So before it disappears, we’ve arranged the three greatest eras – E23, E32 and E38 – to chart how BMW went from also-ran to class leader, before it all went slightly awry with the Millennial 7 Series. Which one still cuts the executive mustard? Let’s find out.

1982 BMW 728i Automaic E23 vs. 1987 BMW 730i E32 and 1998 BMW 740iA Sport E38

1982 BMW 728i Automaic E23 vs. 1987 BMW 730i E32 and 1998 BMW 740iA Sport E38



The poise of a GT in a four-door body: meet the E23

Taking on the might of Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz is no easy task. For the vast corporate monolith that BMW now is, back in the early 1970s it was a much smaller concern. After all only a decade earlier the company was in financial dire straits and a takeover from Daimler-Benz was on the cards.

1982 BMW 728i E23

1982 BMW 728i E23

A hefty dose of investment and success with the 700 had righted the ship, but when it came to replacing the E3, there were matters more geopolitical in play during the E23’s development.

The OPEC fuel crisis of the early 1970s meant that developing a brand-new V8 or V12 to take on Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz would have been quite a leap. Where would the economies of scale have come from? Instead, BMW persisted with straight sixes for the executive express, mostly in M30 form; an engine that was first launched in 1968. Crucially, experiments with more cylinders did continue…

The apple didn’t fall too far when it came to styling either – its sharknose design cues carried on from the E3, but appeared leaner, shorter and more in keeping with the 6 Series (E24), which was also penned by Paul Bracq in 1970. It’s a handsome machine that perhaps seems more exotic now than it did back then. It was called old-fashioned in a 1982 edition of CAR, but now – with so few E23s left – it’s almost as handsome as the E24.

If anything, it’s sharper to drive, as an E24 only has effective brakes after your second hail Mary. Not so in the E23. It was the only BMW of the era with four-pot Girling calipers at the front. It was also the first Beemer to offer anti-lock brakes, and optional self-levelling rear suspension. It hasn’t lost the balance and steering feel from the rest of the range. There’s directness and connectedness that give it a playful feeling in the corners that belies its size. It’s by no means a sports car, but it feels more like a GT; there’s a poise that’s clearly of the same blueprint as the E30, E28 and E24.

That was also one of this car’s biggest problems. It doesn’t feel significantly more special, or different, to other cars in the range – it would be entirely familiar to anyone trading up from a 5 Series.

The same goes for the engines – even the UK’s full-fat 735i used a variant of the M90 and M30 units that could be found elsewhere in the marque hierarchy, only in the much heavier Seven environs. As such, even in a 735i the experience feels a little asthmatic compared to the low-down grunt available from a contemporary Jaguar or Mercedes-Benz; that is, unless you wake up the kickdown; its 228lb-ft comes in at a fairly lofty 4000rpm. Such characteristics weren’t what the class demanded; it wanted smooth torque delivery. In Nigel Hole’s fantastic condition 1982 728i we’ve got here today, its 177lb-ft comes in at 4200rpm.

With such characteristics it’s easy to get carried away and forget this car’s primary purpose – with feel some (for box) steering and relatively high-peak torque, the E23 feels more like an E24 with four doors. It also rides like one too – though perfectly compliant and soft, you feel the pockmarks and grainy surfaces keenly through the wheel and slightly-too-hard seats. You have to work to make quick progress, but it is rewarding when you do so; this is very much a BMW first, executive car second.

Sadly, that wasn’t enough for the E23 to overhaul Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar. For true flagship glory, executives demanded imposing looks like the Merc, or chromeladen regality like the Jaguar/Daimler. The ‘7, while beautifully elegant, doesn’t quite have the same impact.

However, in 2020 and taken on its own merits, the E23 is a rare delight that appeals very much because of its inherent BMW-ness rather than its pretensions to the executive car throne. It’s a rare reminder of Munich’s past age. Finding one is the real issue – very few nice ones still exist, and restoring one is a challenge due to the paucity of available trim pieces. It is worth it – though it didn’t topple Mercedes-Benz back in the day, driving one offers a beautifully Bavarian take on the executive class.

1982 BMW 728I (E23)

Engine 2788cc, 6-cyl, SOHC

Transmission RWD, 3-speed automatic ZF 3HP

Max Power 181bhp @ 5800rpm

Max Torque 177lb-ft @ 4200rpm

Weight 1505kg


0-60mph 11.5sec

Top speed 118mph

Economy 23mpg

WHAT TO PAY 728I (E23)

Concours £15,000+

Good £10,000

Usable £5000

Project £3000

{module BMW E23 Club}

Fuel injection added 13bhp to M30B28 engine. Sharknose style inherited from previous E3. First use of a ‘check control panel’ in a BMW.


YEARS BUILT 1977-1984



There were three versions of the 745i, none of which came to UK shores. In Europe, the 745i was top of the tree, and used either a 3.2-litre or 3.4-litre straight six with addition thrust from a turbo The name came from the theory that power produced would be the equivalent of a 4.5-litre engine. Aside from the extra power (248bhp), options included heated and reclining seats, a leather-covered carphone and rear armrest radio controls. The car pictured is for sale with 4 Star Classics (

The South African 745i was a very different beast and used the same engine as the M635 CSI and M5 (E28). BMW used it to compete in the South African Modified Saloon Car Championship, winning the title in 1985 in the hands of Tony Viana.



A leap forward for the range and the marque

The face of BMW and, indeed, the world had changed markedly in the decade or so since the E23 had been launched. Fuel economy fears had slowed, the worldwide economy was booming and BMW was flush with cash thanks to the success of its 3 and 5 Series models. On track, BMW was the pre-eminent force in touring car racing. This all meant Munich was aiming big, And with it, set its sights on toppling Mercedes-Benz’s S-Class (W126). The E32’s initial sketches were made by famed Zagato Aston Martin stylist Ercole Spada, and productionised by Hans Kerschbaum.

The result was a body not only cleaner through the air (0.32 compared to the E23’s 0.44), but also much stiffer thanks to significantly fewer spotwelds and panels. BMW claimed a 50 per cent increase in torsional strength, in a body that was around an inch bigger in all dimensions. The big news came with the engines.

BMW not only offered sixes (and later a V8), but also a V12 – which came as a body Blow to Mercedes-Benz. BMW’s decision to add 12 cylinders to its range caused huge repercussions for the S-Class replacement (W140), delaying it by two years as Stuttgart raced to develop its own V12.

BMW hadn’t abandoned its Ultimate Driving Machine principles. In fact even though the Bavarians had rightly targeted Merc’s aerodynamics and Jaguar’s quietness, according to Autocar one executive admitted ‘regarding chassis and engineering, we don’t think we need to improve the old car much…’

The engine range was vast – from the straight-six 730i you see here from Classic Bahnstormers ( to the 750i, which pumped out 300bhp and do 50mph-70mph in 3.9 seconds.

Mercedes-Benz still had the edge on interior space, though. The E32 was noticeably bigger than its predecessor, but it didn’t feel appreciably roomier. However, if you wanted more space, you could order a longer wheelbase version, a first for the 7 Series.

The instruments are angled towards the driver, and everything is clearly laid out. There is less of the spindly flair of the E23, but there’s a subtle elegance to it all. There’s some interesting tech, too – the Side mirrors tilt down to the floor when reverse parking, there’s also a digital mileometer, speed-sensitive windscreen wipers and, an icon of BMWs of this era, the check malfunction module. LEDs flash with increased severity to highlight 35 possible malfunctions. Just as well – BMW used over a mile of wiring in every E32. All that wiring wasn’t just for interior appointments. The E32 saw the introduction of ‘ASC’, or Automatische-Stabilitats-Kontrolle, a traction control System developed with Bosch and actually announced prior to Benz’s ASR system.

Where Mercedes-Benz uses applied brakes as the first control device to slow a spinning wheel, the BMW uses engine speed to hold back wheel spin. It’s still monitored by the wheel speed and accelerator sensors of the ABS system, but electro-mechanical throttle, ignition and injection control systems manage engine output. You don’t feel it working, but the experience behind the wheel is a great leap on from the E23. Compared to a Jag though, there isn’t the same sense of ‘specialness’ that comes from extensive moo and wood. Then again a similar-age XJ feels like a classic. Instead, the BMW feels subtly of its time – offering a clipped, efficient style without the austere environs of a Mercedes-Benz. Think Business Class lounge rather than Gentleman’s Club (Jag) or holding cell (Mercedes-Benz).

Has it lost its innate BMW-ness, though? The car was criticised for the optional Servotronic speed-sensitive steering when New (it was an option). This was perfect for the car’s main goal – bullet-fast autobahn blasts. While the steering was light and reactive at car park speeds, at higher velocities your inputs were calmed down. Having more numb steering might be heresy to a BMW fan, but sneezing at three-figure autobahn speeds in lesser machines could leave the emergency services tidying you up with a sponge. While there isn’t the same fingertip deftness to the steering that the E23 has, the E32’s more rigid body makes up for it. Push the E32 hard and it responds well – it moulds around you so that it feels like a 5. It still wasn’t enough. The S-Class W126 lasted for two 7 Series generations, but sold 300,000 more than the first two 7s combined. The E32 was a grand leap forward for the range and the marque, proving that Munich had the resources to bring the fight to Stuttgart’s door.

There was one area where the E32 perhaps lacks something – and that was the undefineable ‘specialness’ you got from a Jag. Could the new E38 deliver and topple both Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar?

BMW 730I (E32)

Engine 2986cc, 6-cyl, SOHC

Transmission RWD, 5-speed manual

Max Power 197bhp @ 5800rpm

Max Torque 203lb-ft @ 4000rpm

Weight 1600kg


0-60mph 8.3sec

Top speed 140mph

Economy 22mpg

WHAT TO PAY 730i (E32)

Concours £9000

Good £7000

Usable £5000

Project £2000


YEARS BUILT 1986-1994


Integrated telephone and fax optional. M30/6 produces 197bhp in 730i form.


If you think a V12 is extravagant, then look away now. In what must have been a slow day at BMW’s powertrain department, the boss – Dr Karlheinz Lange – teamed up with the V12’s designer, Adolf Fischer, to deliver their vision of the ultimate 7 Series. In 1987, they decided to add four cylinders to the V12, to create a 6.6-litre, 405bhp monster.

The normal V12 was pretty snug to begin with, so all the original radiators and pipes were junked for two located in the boot. Ducts were cut into the rear panels, and glassfibre scoops funnelled cool air to the radiators. The rear had an enormous metal grille to extract air, and required new lights. The best bit? It used a six-speed manual gearbox. Unsurprisingly, the BMW board didn’t greenlight it. 11mpg in town, anyone? Still, there was one side effect – upon hearing rumours of BMW’s 175mph-capable experiment, Mercedes-Benz tried to go two better, exploring the idea of a W18 W140. Sadly it newer got built…



Years of development helped E38 best BMW’s rivals

Mercedes-Benz had been rattled by BMW. Munich’s decision to build a V12 had led to an extra two years’ delay and hastily added changes to both the exterior and chassis of the S-Class W140. The result was a bit of a mess – it cost a fortune to create, it cost 25 per cent more than its predecessor to buy and was launched slap bang into the middle of a recession.

Slam dunk for BMW, then? Well Munich had its own issues. BMW’s chief designer, Claus Luthe, was jailed for manslaughter after an argument with his drug dependent son in 1990, and external design was taken over by Boyke Boyer. BMW also delayed the introduction of the car for two years – the design was signed off in early 1991. A fortuitous move, considering the negative response to the S-Class W140 and the global recession.

When it appeared in 1994, it was everything the big, bloated Mercedes-Benz wasn’t. It’s one of the great saloon designs – sleek and elegant, yet still packing an imposing, sinister gait. Most importantly, however, it was quite unlike anything else in the BMW range, 8 Series (E31) aside. The interior was something else, too.

While still not an extravagant flight of fancy, the quality of the leather was much improved, and the vast swathes of leather covered surfaces, squishy yet supportive seats and huge advances in technology combined to make this 7 finally come to terms with Jaguar’s ‘specialness’.

The engine choices also reflected a changing worldscape. While petrol powered six, eight and twelve cylinder motors dominated, a choice of diesels joined the 7 Series class for the first time. The 730d monstered the S300/S350 for power and torque, while the V8 Biturbo 740d would toast the petrol-powered S500 for torque. The full-bore V12 was the customary flagship, boasting a thumping 326bhp from 5.4 litres. The 5.6-litre 380bhp engine from the 850 CSI E31 was considered, but no automatic gearbox could handle the torque…

It was the 740i model that took the lion’s share of sales, with 180,254 sold in both short- and long-wheelbase form. Three versions of the M60 series were used, with displacements between 4.0-litres and 4.4, all with a smidge over 282bhp. Critically the torque figure grew from 295lb-ft to 325lb-ft, giving all the outside lane urge you could want.

It drove well, too. Ride comfort was improved thanks to new multi-link rear suspension and optional electronic dampers. The BMW had the measure of its Jaguar rival, and thanks to tightly reined in body control, there was none of the pendulous roll you’d find in a W140. BMW had nailed it, then?

In many ways yes. Other than strong opposition from Audi’s aluminium A8, the BMW was deemed the better executive back in the day. Only it doesn’t quite feel like a BMW from behind the wheel.

It’s still a good steer – responses are direct, and the body control and traction are superb, meaning you can really hustle this 7 along a B-road. However, you do feel detached from the experience. Throttle response and steering feel are dampened down, while the smooth automatic gearbox is less amenable to excitable driving.

Munich itself felt this too, so introduced a Sport model, with stiffer suspension, sportier seats and tastier interior and exterior trim. Some Sports had an altered diff ratio too, plus a modified torque converter that allowed for extra revs to be unleashed.

The S-Class W140 still sold more in its lifetime (more than 400,000), but it never had the critical success that the E38 had. The E38 is revered as the finest 7 Series, and is currently enjoying a renaissance in appreciation and values. The only problem is finding low-mileage examples that haven’t had expensive maintenance neglected for the sake of lowering springs and ‘sikk rimz’. Persevere and you’ll find one of the greatest executive cars ever made, with an engine to suit any purpose. If you’re just looking to cruise, the 728i is more than enough. Our choice would be a 740i – it combines the best bits of Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz into a glorious whole.

BMW 740I SPORT (E38)

Engine 4398cc, 8-cyl, DOHC / M62B44

Transmission RWD, 5-speed auto

Max Power 282bhp @ 5400rpm

Max Torque 325lb-ft @ 3600rpm

Weight 1925kg


0-60mph 7.0sec

Top speed 155mph

Economy 23mpg

WHAT TO PAY 740i (E38)

Concours £8000

Good £5000

Usable £2500

Project £1500


YEARS BUILT 1994-2001


Gadgets galore, but comfort to adore. First European car to get inbuilt satnav.

‘Got any salmon? Sorted! Oh what a carry on…’


Britain’s leading secret agent found himself in a Bavarian licensing deal in the 1990s, and of all the cars that came out of it, this is the one we covet most (the Z8 was an AC Cobra replica…). In Tomorrow Never Dies, our man heads to Hamburg to investigate media mogul Elliot Carver’s nefarious dealings, and has to escape a multi-storey car park full of his henchmen. Jumping into the back of the car, Bond pilots it from the back seat using a mobile phone, taking out his followers with a sunroof mounted rocket launcher, spikes and a BMW badge mounted wire cutter. Unable to escape, Bond jumps out before leading the remaining goons to the roof, whereupon the E38 is driven off the roof and into a rental office.

The chase required 17 740is badged up as 750is, and that wasn’t the only deception. Other than the final shot of the 7 Series falling to earth (which was shot in Hamburg), you’re looking at Brent Cross shopping centre car park. Four E38s were adapted to be driven from the rear floor, using video monitors to see where it was going – it took three weeks to shoot two minutes of action.


The Modern Classics view

Choosing the best 7 Series very much depends on what you’re looking for – do you want the best executive car or the best executive BMW?

If it’s the former, then the E38 is the clear winner. Not only does it look great from the outside, but it feels special to be in too. Despite it not really feeling like a BMW to drive (unless you plump for a Sport model), it’s still a much better steer than the Mercedes-Benz of the same era, and on a par with the grace and opulence of a Jaguar. The perfect 1990s executive car? It’s hard to bet against it.

There’s a but on the horizon – in trading in some of that BMW-ness to master the (S) class, it’s lost a little magic. The E23 has that writ large, from its distinctive sharknose looks to the whine from its big six engine, but perhaps is one saved for the most ardent BMW fans. There are very few left, and running one isn’t the easiest.


They’re a great, characterful experience – imagine an 6-Series E24 with space for five and with proper brakes, and you’re not far off. Values have risen because there are simply so few left, yet still restoration will make no fiscal sense, but we salute you if you do (and people have, and will continue to do so). It’s a great BMW, if not a great executive car.

That leaves the E32, perhaps the best of both worlds. With a wide choice of engines and transmissions, timeless good looks and steering that, when pushed, almost has you believing you’re in an E30 (but with better brakes), it’s a great car to be driven in and drive. It’s also the one to buy now – they’re already becoming scarce, and the very best 3.0-litre cars are now pushing five grand and beyond. Not so long ago even a 750i was in banger territory. It’s such a robust car that, setting aside any corrosion issues, could happily slip back into daily use.

Whichever one you choose, you’ll more than likely be in Seventh heaven.

Thanks to the owners for the very long night!


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Additional Info
  • Body: Sedan
  • Type: Petrol
  • Battery: 12 volt
  • Fuelling: Injection
  • Aspirate: Natural
  • Drive: RWD
  • Type: Petrol