BUYER’S GUIDE

BMW E32 7 Series Review

The E32 7 Series was BMW’s attempt to break out from the shadow of the Mercedes S-Class…

What Is It?

Think ‘80s BMW and most people will immediately picture the many and various 3 and 5 Series saloons that embody the brand’s signature blend of luxury and sporting character. But the big daddy 7 Series has always had an important role showcasing the brand’s latest design, engineering and innovation.

Then as now, the Mercedes S-Class was a dominant force in this sector but, when it launched in 1986, the E32 7 Series put BMW on the front foot with its crisp, modern styling, innovations like xenon headlights and electronically controlled dampers, the offer of standard- or long-wheelbase versions and introduction of V8 and V12 engines. Often referred to with affection as ‘luxo barges’, cars of this type and vintage have a passionate following among fans of modern classics and the E32 7 Series represents the perfect intersection between traditional engineering and bold, electronically controlled future carmakers were waking up to at the time.

Literally offering a lot of car for the money, saloons of this type are an appealing choice, though not without their potential pitfalls. Here’s how to avoid falling into them.

Corrosive Areas

Rear wheel arches

Sills

Rear subframe mounts

Checklist

  • Some E32s may still be running metric wheels, for which replacement tyres may be difficult to source and expensive to replace
  • The 7 Series is a heavy car and puts a lot of load through its suspension so check bushings, ball joints and connections for wear and listen out for any clunks or slop
  • Automatic gearboxes should shift smoothly – clonks when cycling through D to N to R could be down to worn rear subframe bushes or point to looming issues with the electronic control unit, though any number of issues can flag the dreaded ‘Trans program’ warning on the dash
  • The complexity and vintage of the cars can mean rubber hoses and wiring can all fail through age and throw up any number of faults – more complex models like the 750i can be especially vulnerable here and niggles can be hard to trace and rectify
  • If you’re worried about buying a V8 that may have Nikasil cylinder linings then get a compression check (or ask for evidence of the same) for evidence of damage – if it’s survived this far without damage it may be a safer bet now than it once was
  • Obvious corrosion to doors, sills and wheelarches will be easy enough to spot but lift trim and carpets around the sills, boot floor, sunroof aperture and anywhere else moisture could potentially find its way into the structure and cause rust to spread from the inside out
  • Electronic Damper Control was standard on the 750i and optional on the 740i – it was an attractive feature and technical talking point back in the day but is now just another thing that could go wrong, so think carefully about whether it’s worth the risk
  • Whichever engine you’re looking at check carefully for fluid leaks or unusual noises that could point to poor oil circulation or other issues

How Does It Drive?

The E32 7 Series has all the attractions of a proper luxury saloon but with the sporty edge 80s BMWs were celebrated for. And offers, therefore, something a bit different from wafty, contemporary rivals like the W126 S-Class, or the Jaguar XJ40 that arrived in the same year as the E32. Think of it as a 3 Series for grown-ups and you’re halfway there.

For a model with an apparently small range the spectrum of character is actually pretty broad as well, going from the traditional six-cylinder engine and manual gearbox to a silky smooth V12 with a slick-shifting five-speed auto. With a sporty seating position and a centre console angled towards the driver in the brand’s traditional style, there are plenty of indicators the 7 Series is a limo to enjoy driving yourself. Though for those who preferred to take a back seat there was also an option of an ‘L’ badged long-wheelbase version across the range as well. By modern standards the power outputs look relatively modest, with even the 5.0-litre V12 only delivering 300PS (220kW) but doing so with dreamy smoothness and character.

Introduced later in the model’s life, the 740i with the 4.0-litre V8 and five-speed automatic gearbox is a nice balance of performance and refinement, though the well-publicised Nikasil cylinder lining issues put a lot of buyers off and, for many, the older six-cylinder cars retain a more appealing old-school vibe.

What’s Good?

Late ‘80s and early ‘90s BMW design still has an unadorned freshness about it, looking more modern than many contemporaries but with enough classic cues to draw a link to the brand’s traditions. That modernist streak runs through the E32 and, like every 7 Series that has followed, BMW was keen to show off its latest technology in this flagship model.

In keeping with the times electronic control was embraced as the answer to every luxury need, whether it be the suspension, the gearbox or the climate control while the V12 engine brought status, was the first for a German brand in the post-war era and provided a confident expression of BMW’s engineering prowess. It would later provide the basis for the engine at the heart of the mighty McLaren F1, as well as power BMW to its first and only Le Mans win to date. Mercedes responded with a V12 of its own in the aesthetically and technically imposing W140-era S-Class, and with it arguably regained its lead in the luxury limo field.

Throughout that time, though, it’s fair to say the E32 7 Series always seemed cooler, looked more elegant and retained a sportier image that set it apart from its rivals, and remains attractive to this day.

What’s Bad?

Luxury saloons of this vintage my look appealing in terms of value for money. But the E32 is now of age where the double-whammy of traditional classic car issues like corrosion overlap with more modern ones, like complex electrical systems throwing up fault codes and other problems.

Finding people with the necessary parts, expertise or inclination to solve such issues may prove challenging as well. Well-documented problems include the notorious Nikasil cylinder linings on the V8 engines that were addressed with more durable Alusil replacements on later cars, electronic control units on the automatic gearboxes failing or complex automatic climate control systems going on the blink.

Appealing as the V12 may seem it is, inevitably, a very complicated engine and requires a healthy combination of luck and budget to keep sweet. As such the early cars with the old-school ‘M30’ six-cylinder engines and less complicated support systems may prove a safer way to enjoy the E32’s considerable charms.

Which Model To Choose?

BMW’s usually straightforward model hierarchy is a little confusing with the E32 on the basis that, depending on its vintage, a 730i could be a straight-six or a V8. Other than that the progression is relatively logical, the 735i using a more powerful version of the six before being replaced by the 740i V8 while the 750i V12 sits proudly at the top of the pile.

Performance improves incrementally as you progress up the range or look to later cars but, by the numbers, isn’t wildly different. This means your decision can be driven by more important considerations like mileage, condition and – most importantly – service history.

If we were confident about the latter and satisfied any cylinder lining issues were sorted a late-model 740i with the standard, non-electronic dampers would seem the sensible middle ground of performance and modernity, though going the other way the earlier 735i compensates for its more modest performance by virtue of its proven six-cylinder.  

Specifications: BMW E32 7 Series 740i

 

Engine

4.0-litre V8, petrol

Power

286PS (210kW) @ 5,800rpm

Torque

400Nm (295lb ft) @ 4,500rpm

Transmission

Five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive

Kerb weight

1,790kg

0-62mph

7.4 seconds

Top speed

149mph

Production dates

1992-1994

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