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Retro drives: BMW E32 and E38 V12 7 Series. Image by BMW.

Retro drives: BMW E32 and E38 V12 7 Series
We take a trip back in time to the first V12 engine in a BMW 7 Series.

 



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| Retro Drive | Munich, Germany | BMW E32 and E38 V12 7 Series |


Twenty five years doesn't seem that long, at least not for this 31-year-old author, but it was a quarter of a decade ago that BMW rocked the world with its flagship 7 Series. Born after a period of depression and a rather inconvenient fuel crisis, in 1987 the firm squeezed a V12 engine under the nose of its Seven for the first time. Celebrating the excess and optimism of the coming years, the Bayern maker was gunning for the top, and its new 750i was to be the company's ultimate showcase of engineering and technology.

Worried that Mercedes-Benz was about to do the same with a V12-powered S-Class, the engineers in Munich set about developing a V16 engine in parallel. If Mercedes won the race, BMW would surely win the cylinder war by trumping them with a further four firing pistons. A look back through history tells us it would be 1991 before Mercedes answered its rival's call to arms, and the 750i was revealed to rapturous applause at the Geneva Motor Show.

Before it even sniffed the showroom floor there were over 3,000 pre-orders, and it looked like the E32 750i and iL models were going to be an instant success. In the end, along with its later E38 iteration, these range-topping 7 Series went on to sell 73,776 examples over their 14-year production run.

And despite us being in Munich to sample the brand new 760Li, like any car launch where old models are present, it's the vintage transport that garners the most affection. Billing it as 25 years of the V12, it would be rude to not at least sample the E32 and E38 models and so it's here we start.

This particular example is one of the last of the E32 generation, built in 1993, but with a design clearly exposing it as a car from the eighties. The de facto BMW details are all present: Hoffmeister kink in the rear window line, circular headlamps and of course the double-kidney grille. It was the E32 7 Series that first paid notice to aerodynamics - look closely and you'll notice the upturned edge on the boot lid - and for cooling reasons the enlarged intake grilles at the front.

But it's not until you swing open the driver's door that you truly realise just what decade this car hails from, revealing a cabin that, despite its technological prowess of the time, is utterly devoid of controls and switches. In fact, for something of a range-topper, this 750iL looks rather basic in comparison to today's models, the slabs of wood and leather surfaces the only items to lift the ambience.

It's all about the driving experience with this car though, the 5.0-litre V12 engine dominating all of the proceedings, not because of the noise (it's almost whisper quiet) or the vibration (there isn't any), but the effortless performance. These days it could be considered leisurely, and certainly compared to the 544hp unit in the current 760Li it isn't exactly quick, but for its time it was unlike anything else.

You do need to rev the engine to get the best from it, somewhere over 4,100rpm where the maximum 450Nm of torque is made, but when it sings like this one that's not really a problem. By far the biggest giveaway of this car's age is the gearbox, the four-speed automatic making for long and lengthily spaced ratios.

It doesn't fall apart at the first sign of a corner though, the E32 also debuting BMW's Electronic Damper Control system. Sure, it's not as multi-adjustable as current models, the simple rocker switch changing from normal to sports mode (three times as stiff), but there's a definite and noticeable change in ride and handling. Push hard and you feel the weight and notice the roll, but grip levels are surprisingly strong and you soon learn to trust the E32 - though of course it was never really built as anything but a relaxed ride.

Jumping from the E32 into the E38 seems like a giant leap. From the outside there's little different: the modern car clearly a continuation of the former, but in the cabin it's all change. There are switches, buttons, screens and controls everywhere, though admittedly the general layout and main instruments are very similar.

But it's not the cabin that marks the biggest jump forward; that comes from only a few minutes behind the wheel. While the previous car felt very much a classic, albeit a modern one, the E38 750iL feels simply modern. Body roll is far better controlled, despite featuring a similar two-stage electronic damper system, and the steering feels far more direct. Arriving before the advent of run-flat rubber the ride on this 1994 model is better than the later E65/E66 cars with genuine comfort available.

With 26 more horsepower and 40Nm extra torque the 5.4-litre V12 engine offers more sprightly performance too, and the responses to your right foot are much sharper. Part of this change of pace has to be attributed to the five-speed automatic gearbox, the extra ratio offering added flexibility and quicker changes. There's even the option to change manually, though steering wheel mounted shifters wouldn't arrive until the next generation Seven.

Choosing between these two cars was never the original intention, but there's something about the first generation E32 750iL that proves infectious. The later car is clearly incredibly competent, a great example of engineering and technology, but the experience behind the wheel is just too close to that found n the firm's current models. That first car, the one that heralded the start of V12 super saloons for BMW and others, is the one that leaves the lasting impression. Full of character, its relaxed pace is a perfect utopia of escapism for today's drivers, so we suggest you sit back, relax and celebrate its very existence.

Key Facts

Model tested: E32 BMW 750iL
Engine: 5.0-litre, V12 petrol
Transmission: four-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Body style: four-door saloon
Economy: 19.3mpg
Top speed: 155mph
0-62mph: 7.4 seconds
Power: 300hp at 5,200rpm
Torque: 450Nm at 4,100rpm

Model tested: E38 BMW 750iL
Engine: 5.4-litre, V12 petrol
Transmission: five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Body style: four-door saloon
Economy: 21.6mpg
Top speed: 155mph
0-62mph: 6.8 seconds
Power: 326hp at 5,000rpm
Torque: 490Nm at 3,900rpm


Graeme Lambert - 3 Dec 2012









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E32 BMW 750i. Image by BMW.E32 BMW 750i. Image by BMW.E32 BMW 750i. Image by BMW.E32 BMW 750i. Image by BMW.E32 BMW 750i. Image by BMW.

E32 BMW 750i. Image by BMW.E32 BMW 750i. Image by BMW.E32 BMW 750i. Image by BMW.E32 BMW 750i. Image by BMW.E32 BMW 750i. Image by BMW.



E32 BMW 750i. Image by BMW.
 

E32 BMW 750i. Image by BMW.
 

E32 BMW 750i. Image by BMW.
 

E32 BMW 750i. Image by BMW.
 

E38 BMW 750iL. Image by BMW.
 

E38 BMW 750iL. Image by BMW.
 

E38 BMW 750iL. Image by BMW.
 

E38 BMW 750iL. Image by BMW.
 

E38 BMW 750iL. Image by BMW.
 






 

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