We gather together an BMW E31 840Ci, E38 740i and E39 540i that all happen to be packing M62 4.4-litre power

2015 Drive-My

The Thirty Somethings. We gather together an E31, E38 and E39 that all happen to be packing V8 power. We sample three of the best before the Bangle era, all sporting the M62 V8 engine and all decked out in silver. Words: Johann Venter. Photography: Oliver Hirtenfelder.

As we arrive at Air Force Base Zwartkop the sun rises over the horizon and snapper Oli springs into action as it creates the perfect backdrop for this 30-something trio comprising an E31 840Ci, E38 740i and E39 540i. Oli wants to record this moment for posterity: three Bavarian stealth cruisers parked on an airbase runway – who can blame him?

BMW E31 840Ci, E38 740i and E39 540i

They say with age comes wisdom but what they don’t let you in on is the sentimentally that goes with it – melancholy if you will, especially when it comes to older BMWs. Growing up as a boy I always revered the BMW marque. I had come to admire the Hofmeister kink, the ubiquitous quad headlamps and the shark-nosed front end. On the inside: a drivercentric cockpit with an orange glow emanating from the instrument binnacle when the lights were turned on. And within that binnacle had to be the four standard gauges. At the time this was best served up with an in-line six-cylinder. Later on I came to appreciate the four-pot to be found in the 2002 and elsewhere, which in fact was more significant, even helping Brabham to secure an F1 driver’s title in 1983. The trio we see here today more or less still represent that impression of what a BMW should be. Thankfully all three are devoid of the Bangle influence including that of sidekick Adrian van Hooydonk; Bangle will however go down in infamy in the motoring world. Despise or secretly admire him there is no getting away from his audacious bravado. Now that Bangle is out of the way let’s focus on the V8 engine.

BMW E31 840Ci, E38 740i and E39 540i

In an austere environment after the Second World War BMW decided to develop its first V8 engine to replace the underpowered 2.0-litre straight-six that was found in the 501. The timing was wrong and underpinnings on which the 1954 502 was based, dawned from the 326 which was itself quite dated. Nevertheless the all-alloy 90-degree V8 overhead valve engine was the first and the last pushrod-driven motor produced by BMW, pushing out 100hp. The V8 did service in the 502, 503, 507 and, finally, in the elegant 3200CS which was designed by Nuccio Bertone, production of which ended in 1965 by which time it developed 160hp. It was the last V8 to be used by BMW until the dawn of the E32 7 Series, when the M60 V8 engine was fitted to the 730i and 740i in 1992 – BMW’s first V8 in 27 years. In 1994 it would be fitted to the E31 and offered as the 840Ci to boost dwindling sales figures, too.

When introduced in 1992 the M60 V8 engine was revolutionary for its time instituting advanced engine technology which included, four-valves per cylinder, quad overhead cams and coil-over-plug ignition making the need for a distributor and HT leads obsolete. The powerplant also included a dual-row timing chain, valve actuation via self-adjusting hydraulic valve tappets and a Bosch Motronic 3.3 ECU was fitted regulating the fuel injection and ignition. Other new innovations included doublewalled exhaust manifolds and cylinder walls that were hardened using a Nikasil (an aluminium, nickel, and silicon alloy) process instead of using the traditional liner. And herein lay the Achilles’ heel of the M60 engine – the Nikasil unfortunately reacted disastrously with fuel with a high sulphur content, which eroded the liners, causing loss of compression and ultimately resulting in engine failure. Engines affected by the problem were mostly changed under warranty and were refitted with new engine blocks. The M60 however produced more power per litre, was more fuel efficient and let off less carbon-emissions. It was offered as a 3.0-litre (M60B30) pushing out 218hp and 214lb ft of torque while the 4.0-litre (M60B40) achieved 286hp and 295lb ft of torque. Both engines were also put to good use in the latter part of the E34’s life-span and did service in the 530i and 540i.

BMW E31 840Ci, E38 740i and E39 540i

With the introduction of the M62 in 1995 Alusil (aluminium, silicon alloy), rather than Nikasil, was used for the cylinders, pistons were cooled via nozzles, spraying oil directed at the piston crown and along the entire movement. It had a new crankshaft due to the increased stroke made from forged steel with a central hollow-cavity reducing weight. Head covers were made from magnesium with lighter hydraulic tappets and valve springs which lowered frictional torque and reduced noise. Significantly the M62 resorted to a single timing chain with plastic chain guides, which proved to be less robust.

The M62 was offered as a 3.5-litre (M62B35) producing 236hp and 236lb ft and a 4.4-litre (M62B44) pushing out 286hp and 310lb ft of torque. The 3.5-litre did service in the E38 735i/L and the E39 535i, while the latter was found in the E31 840Ci, E38 740i/L and E39 540i.

The M62B44 was further enhanced and designated as the M62TUB44 in 1998 taking a major leap forward with the introduction of Vanos. Simply put, Vanos is a variable valve timing system which varies the timing between inlet and exhaust valves by moving the position of the camshafts in relation to the drive gear. This was a single-stage Vanos on each cylinder bank. Further enhancements included electronic throttle control (EML) whereby throttle response was altered depending on driving mode/style thus varying the opening of the throttle butterfly according to speed and accelerator input. The single flaw that was derived by the Vanos system was the fact that the engine was fitted with a more restrictive manifold design.

The M62TUB44 was the epitome of the V8 engine in the BMW line-up. It had loads of low-down torque (with a flatter curve), was more fuel efficient and produced much lower emissions. It was used in a variety of vehicles which included the: E39 540i, E38 740i/L, E53 X5 4.4i and certain Land Rover models. It was even deployed in the Morgan flagship, the Aero 8 as of 2000. Strangely enough it was never offered in BMW’s own flagship 8 Series, the 840Ci, which continued to made do with the M62B44 although the M62TUB44 was available from 1998. The M62TUB44 would ultimately form the basis for the development of the S62 which would be used in the E39 M5 and Z8.

BMW E31 840Ci, E38 740i and E39 540i

Let’s then have a closer look at the three Bavarian sleepers we have here all decked-out in silver and all having been assembled at the Dingolfing School of Excellence. Both the 740i and 840Ci belong to longtime BMW stalwart Willy van Son. His infatuation with BMW started in 1969 when his elder brother imported a 2002 through Club Motors (one of the oldest BMW dealerships in South Africa). Willy even accompanied his brother to the Durban docks so he could be part of the inaugural journey – some 373 miles back to Pretoria. Willy’s first foray into ownership led to a dark blue left-hand drive E9 2800CS manual, which was reincarnated when sold, becoming a black Batmobile racer with a tri-colour stripe which is now a regular on the classic race car circuit. This was followed by an E3 3.0-litre as I suppose necessity would have dictated with the onset of a family and, with the progress of time, an E23 733i. In November 2004 Willy acquired this Arctic silver 740i with 134,000 miles on the clock. He’s clearly a big fan: “I like big beautiful cars and the E38, in my opinion, is the prettiest 7 Series ever made.”

BMW’s intention with the launch of the 7 Series in 1994 was unequivocal; it would be a game changer. It set new standards in terms of refinement with the use of durable high-end tactile materials. Build quality in terms of fit and finish was expected to be excellent and the driving experience was enhanced with electronic aids such as Electric Damper Control (EDC) and Self-Levelling Suspension and more refined engines. The 7 Series was a technological marvel with a plethora of electronic gizmos, some inherited from the 8 Series. It not only set a new benchmark for BMW but for the entire motor industry; those in Stuttgart in the meantime must have been losing sleep over it.

BMW E31 840Ci

Willy’s car was built in August 1997 and therefore it has the 4.4-litre V8 (M62B44) but without the Vanos. It was registered in South Africa in 1998 and is serviced by Willy’s independent BMW specialist. Although it is not the Sport model introduced in 1998 it does feature the 18-inch M Parallel (Style 37) wheels which suit this suave executive limousine. According to the build-sheet this car did not come with many options/extras but then it didn’t have to as the standard equipment list was very comprehensive. Willy’s example does, however, come with doubleglazing and rear-curtain but that is to be expected for the hot South African climate.

Willy has also recently acquired this 1999 Titan silver 840Ci Sport which was initially registered in the UK after making it off the production-line in November 1998 and then found its way to the idyllic shores of Cape Town a few years later. Willy laid claim to it in April 2014 with 118,000 miles on the clock and his reasoning was thus: “I thought the Seven and the Eight would make the perfect pair. Silver siblings with shared DNA!”

The arrival of the 840Ci in 1994 gave the 8 Series, which had been launched in 1989 as the 850i, a much needed boost as sales of the 850 were somewhat stagnant at the time, and not even the launch of the 850CSi in 1992 could spike sales. The 840Ci purchase price was substantially less compared to the 850Ci. It was also more economical in terms of fuel spend and running costs. The V8 engine (M60B40) felt far livelier and drivable as it revved much higher than its 850Ci counterpart and in truth was not that much slower than the V12.

BMW E38 740i - DRIVEN

To further increase the life-span of the 8 Series the 840Ci Sport was introduced in 1997. It borrowed the aero-kit from the 850CSi, which included a lower front bumper with integrated splitter and lower rear bumper with integrated diffuser and quad exhausts, coupled with E36 M3-style door mirrors. The package also included a sports suspension with a firmer ride and improved handling dynamics. Power was derived from the new 4.4-litre V8 (M62B44) which was more dynamic and powerful, making for a rather appealing all-round package.

Staring at Willy’s Eight on the runway with all the windows down and with the absence of a B-pillar it becomes apparent just how achingly beautiful this car is. The flared wheel arches filled with the 18-inch M Parallel wheels and the grille hinting at the 1972 Turbo Concept car just adds to the drama. It truly is epic and has to be seen in the metal to be truly appreciated. And don’t get me started on those übercool pop-up headlights.

You’ll forgive my enthusiasm but the E39 540i Sport six-speed manual in Titan silver belongs to me. It rolled off the production-line in September 2002 and was registered in South Africa on the 6 March 2003 by its first owner, BMW SA, and was initially serviced at the BMW Rosslyn plant. It is my understanding that only six manuals reached our shores from the time the Sport was offered in 1999 and that my car is the only manual for 2003. I acquired it in January 2012 with 111,846 miles on the clock after looking for a replacement for my E46 325Ci for the better part of a year. This is my dailydriver although fortunately I don’t need to drive it every day as I have an office at home. I am the fourth owner and was surprised to find the Five in incredibly good nick. Having said that the trio featured here today were aimed at the upper echelons of the market and are definitely not meant to be maintained on a shoestring budget. In the three years that I have owned the Five I have very nearly spent the same amount that I paid for it, trying to keep it as true to the original in every sense.

BMW E39 540i

There is no doubt that the E39 5 Series launched in 1995 is a direct descendant of the 7 Series. BMW had done such an astounding job with the Seven that it made sense to replicate it through the range. The 5 Series is therefore a scaled-down version of the Seven and nowhere more so than on the inside – it’s as if BMW waved a magic wand and shrunk the interior to fit inside the Five. The same was effectively done with the E46 3 Series. Many, therefore, considered the third generation E38 7 Series, the fourth generation E39 5 Series and the fourth generation E46 3 Series to be the best of their generation and for good reason: these cars were built with quality, durability and drivability at their heart. The immediate generations that followed definitely lacked the build-quality and even some of the key attributes such as the driver-centric cockpit. These newer models also over-exploited the use of modern electronic driving aids resulting in a desensitised driving experience.

My 540i has the usual M trimmings that the Sport came with: on the exterior there’s the M aero-kit, rear diffuser with a single exhaust the size of a drainpipe, Shadowline high-gloss window surrounds and lightweight alloy 17-inch M Parallel (Style 66) wheels. On the inside you’ll find sill kick-plates, the steering wheel and gear lever carry the M badge and Sports seats provide the necessary lumber support. The cabin is nicely finished off with anthracite roof-lining, all of which is in sharp contrast to the wood grain inlays. This car is fitted with the 4.4-litre V8 engine (M62TUB44) with the single stage Vanos and features the M Sport Suspension II (S705A). It is therefore equipped with the same shocks, springs and rear stabiliser bar as found on the E39 M5. Furthermore, the six-speed manual Getrag ‘box is the same unit deployed in the M5.

The question remains, though: what are they like to drive? First up is the 7 Series. Once seated I turn the key. I can hardly hear the engine, there is just a slight hum, as it should be. After all, these cars were intended for captains of industry, statesmen, dignitaries and superstars. Engage the ‘box into Drive, accelerate and… nothing. It takes the gear a monumental time to engage. Pull-away, however, is smooth and plush. The ride is typical BMW firm but not harsh – it does not wallow. Lane changes are easy, as are slow winding ‘S’ bends although one cannot call the steering sharp. Hairpins and 180- degree turns are a different story altogether. You can feel the massive weight succumb to the laws of gravity and somehow you cannot turn the steering fast enough to make the turn while you seem to lose the back end. On the open road, though, the V8 does what it does best: it gets you up to cruising speed without breaking a sweat leaving you with plenty in reserve to deal with any undulation or some low flying when the need arises. These cockpits are made to withstand a nuclear disaster and this particular one is in fine fettle. Wind noise is, however, starting to permeate through the double-glazing, although after 200,000 miles that is about the only fault.

These three steeds are like time capsules as we will never return to normally aspirated V8s.

Next is the sleek 8 Series. It was so sleek for its time (1989), in fact, that it was the most aerodynamic machine in its class with a drag coefficient of 0.29. The Eight truly gives you that sense of occasion. Open the door and you are greeted by an opulent cockpit swathed in leather. Step inside and feel that Sports seat wrap around you offering support in all the right places while the electronic adjustments let you find the perfect driving position. The driver is enveloped in this cockpit with all controls at arm’s length; it really does feel like a special place to be. Turn the key and there is no mistaking that you have a V8 in front of you. It sounds more like a muscle car than a Bavarian thoroughbred; the bass bellowing from the pipes does sound good though. Engage the Steptronic into Sport, accelerate, again a slight hesitation – not as long as in the Seven but still present. Today we have become accustomed to very sophisticated eightspeed ‘boxes from BMW that are ultra-efficient, free of noise and without any sensation when a cog has been swapped. The Eight is 16 years old so I can hardly expect that eight-speed perfection here but this auto ‘box is not great in traffic or when you’re pushing hard between traffic lights. The Sports suspension is quite firm and much better set up than the Seven to deal with slithering mountain passes. This is not a bad car, in fact it’s great but the reality is that the Eight is a GT cruiser that was developed to cross continents in style, comfort and ease – as long as you are seated in the front row and not in the shopping bag placement area in the rear.

So how does the Five stack up to its brethren? I recently was coerced into having a decat performed on the Five, prior to this the exhaust had a rather muted note and could only be heard towards the redline. Now there is a mechanical snarl even at lower revs that builds into a metallic growl as one starts to explore the higher end of the rev range.

Inside and behind the wheel the Five is still a fantastic place to be. It has aged well, is rock solid and the cabin still gives off an air of opulence. I do, however, prefer the Sports seats of the Seven over my own, although the seats in the 540i Sport are a definite improvement over the standard seats found in the 5 Series. Once on the road the Five definitely feels and handles like a smaller BMW – reminiscent of my E46 325Ci. Yes, the steering configuration is not as sharp as that of its smaller siblings that feature the rack and pinion setup and the gear throws might be a tad too long. The 540i Sport, however, shares enough genetics with the M5 to give it a very dynamic ride with plenty of torque which makes it very drivable throughout the entire rev range and loads of fun. Put your foot on the accelerator and it responds immediately… there is no hesitation whatsoever; shove the accelerator into the horizontal position and the Five starts to pull like a freight train.

There is so much torque that under normal driving conditions I change from third to sixth, sounds crazy but that means on a combined driving cycle I get a minimum of 375 miles from the 70-litre tank. Once going to the South Coast on holiday I managed to get nigh on 500 miles on one tank, averaging the national speed limit of 75mph – extraordinary. But for me the biggest party trick that the Five has in its arsenal is the ability at 3000rpm to reach a cruising speed of 100mph while returning almost 35mpg.

Is there a winner among the trio though? For me each car is a winner in its own right. They represent a place in history where BMW was at its absolute best, before it had its eye on world domination. These three steeds are like time capsules as we will never return to normally aspirated V8s or gearboxes that actually require some hand-to-eye coordination.

BMW continued to develop the V8, the most successful of which is to be found in the fourth gen E92 M3, the S65 normally aspirated unit which won five ‘Engine of the Year’ titles in succession from 2008 to 2012. The V8 is still found in much of the range in the bigger Saloons, Coupés and X vehicles (albeit with the use of twin-turbo technology), the most powerful being the S63TU found in the current M5 and M6 pushing out 560hp and 502lb ft.

As I write this feature Brent Crude has fallen to below $50 a barrel, the lowest it has been since 2009 and BMW chairman Norbert Reithofer is adamant that the V8 will continue to do duty in the next generation of big Saloons and Coupés. So if you have missed the opportunity to own a glorious BMW V8 there is hope. Long live the V8!


THANKS TO: SAAF Museum for location photography. saafmuseum. org. za



 E31 840Ci Sport

E38 740i

E39 540i Sport

ENGINE:  V8, 32-valve, BMW M62B44 TU 
CAPACITY:  4398cc 
MAX POWER:(DIN) 286hp @ 5700rpm 
MAX TORQUE: (DIN) 310lb ft @ 3900rpm  325lb ft @ 3600rpm
0-62MPH:  7.0 seconds 7.1 seconds 6.2 seconds 
TOP SPEED:  155mph (limited) 
PRICE WHEN NEW:  £57,470 (1999) £50,570 (1998) £40,450 (2002)

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