As we've covered in many AutoSpeed articles,
there's now a huge variety of used cars available at very low dollars.
Turbocharged, hi-po four-wheel drive, V8 - even
the performance luxury cars of yesteryear are now within easy reach. Cars like
the BMW 735i, for example. Regarded as one of the best sporting limousines in
the world when it was released, these days you can pick one up for around
AUD$5000. Yes, five grand for an all-leather, all-electric prestige German with
ABS'd four-wheel ventilated discs, an 150kW in-line EFI six, four-speed auto and
roadholding and ride comfort which compares well to even today's new
So what's the catch? Well, of course there are
some. The steering is vague, the body shape old and unaerodynamic. The seats are
rather hard - but we're getting ahead of ourselves.
The 7-series represented a major upgrade for the
marque. The successor to the 2500/2800/3.0/3.3 litre E3 cars (which these days
are almost forgotten), the Seven was BMW's modern coming of age in prestige
performance. After the lean years of the Fifties and early Sixties, then the
success - primarily with small cars - in the late Sixties and mid-Seventies, the
BMW 733i clearly showed that BMW wanted to take it right up to the dominating
Mercedes. In many ways it followed the new BMW look established by the 3 and 5
series, but the 7 was a long way upmarket, especially in the cabin equipment
level. However, many commentators suggest that it took five years before the
model reached full potential.
The 733i was released in Australia in March, 1978
with a 3.2-litre in-line SOHC six cylinder developing 145kW at 5500 rpm and
280Nm at 4300. Much the same engine had been used in the last of the earlier
series (specifically the 3.0si and 3.3Li) and many of the other mechanical
ingredients were either direct carryovers or modelled closely on the previous
cars. The transmission was the old 3-speed auto but the body and interior were
all-new. At around 1500kg (depending on the model) the 7-series was, in modern
terms, quite a light car for its size.
In Australia the car was greeted with a mixture of
praise and criticism - praise for the execution of the mechanicals and interior,
criticism for the way in which on other than smooth roads it didn't quite live
up to its publicity. Incredibly high tech in its interior, the reviewers were
confronted with so many ideas they regarded as overkill they had a hard time
separating what was good and what wasn't. The radio included shortwave and a
'dictaphone' function; the check panel (it used a display to show whether the
brake lights - and many other functions - were performing correctly); the
instrumentation and controls angled towards the driver so much that front seats
passengers complained of being excluded; the dashboard lighting even outlined
the cigarette lighter.
History allows us to assess what were interior
breakthroughs (the check panel) and what were dead-ends (the dictaphone). But at
a price of AUD$38,145 (nearly six times a full-size Holden, which would make it
about AUD$190,000 today), the basics of performance (quarter mile, 17.4 seconds)
and ride and handling on our indifferent roads didn't quite live up to the hype.
August 1982 saw the launch of a facelifted model.
Still with the same 3.2-litre engine, the new car added a full-function trip
computer, a service indicator, cruise control and climate control. However, this
model tested at 17.7 seconds for the standing 400 metres - perhaps the extra
weight of all those gadgets was starting to slow it down... Heavier anti-roll bars
were fitted and the angle of the rear suspension trailing arms was altered from
20 to 13 degrees.
The specification list also showed for the first
time something modern-day buyers should take into account: metric wheels. Yes,
instead of having 14 or 15 inch wheels, the 733i was available with Michelin TRX
390 alloys - that's 390mm or 15.35 inches in diameter. Tyres are still available
in this size, but they're priced at so high a level that many people have gone
back to conventional 'inch' wheels for their BMWs.
The 735i arrived in Australia May 1983. The badge
may have implied a 3.5-litre engine, but the swept volume was actually the same
old 3.2 litres! However, the 735i got some major upgrades - the four-speed
automatic (a ZF 4HP22) and electric seats amongst them. However, again the
suspension was criticised as being more appropriate for smooth roads. And for
the first time, it was suggested that the steering was rather old-fashioned -
probably the most glaring deficiency when the car is analysed today. With four
turns lock to lock and a large diameter steering wheel, the 735i feels vastly
more ponderous than it really is. However the engine, despite being largely
unchanged for many years, continued to attract praise for its smoothness and
The last of the E23 735i models was released in
mid-1985. The engine size now nearly agreed with the badge - it was 3430cc.
Power rose from 145 to 150kW, with torque more significantly increased, moving
from 285Nm at 4300 rpm to 310Nm at 4000 rpm. There were two models available -
the Executive (strangely, it was debadged) and the 'base' model. The base missed
out on the trip computer, electric seats, Buffalo leather, sunroof and
electronic control of the auto. However, both models featured ABS, alloy wheels,
analog instant fuel consumption readout and check panel. Performance recorded in
contemporary road tests included a 0-100 in 9.3 seconds and a standing quarter
mile in 16.6 seconds.
Shown here is a 735i Executive, built in June
1985. As the last of that first generation it's a mix of mid-Seventies design
(the recirculating ball steering is vague and the body has plenty of wind noise)
and continually upgraded technology, especially inside the cabin. The trip
computer looks up to date, the electric driver's seat has memories, and the auto
trans has sports, manual and economy modes. At low revs the engine has more NVH
than even a base model current Commodore, but the sweet six also comes onto cam
at about 4000 rpm and spins superbly to the 6250 rpm redline - something that no
Commodore six does!
The handling - yes even on rough roads - doesn't
really reflect those criticisms made over the years. It's not perfect - with its
strange corkscrewing motion over big cornering waves - but otherwise it's a car
that leans quite a lot.... then grips and grips. The hydraulically-assisted brakes
need a hefty push and the steering (once you get it off-centre) is also
relatively heavy for a power system, but the car is cohesive and feels
well-sorted when being punted fast.
And it has character - character in spades. The
front-opening bonnet, the way in which in later models the rear seat
electrically reclines (yep, the rear seat...), the odd visual mixture of a chrome handle
to release the steering wheel for reach adjustment, and nearby a complex backlit
LCD trip computer.
But it's also a car that is complex and difficult
to fix - not so much in the driveline mechanicals, where the SOHC straight six
and 4-speed auto are these days rather simple. But with the complexity of the
vacuum-actuator climate control system and interior electronic gadgets, paying
someone an hourly rate to work on these wouldn't be an attractive proposition.
The chain-driven overhead cam engine runs forever (although it can get a bit
noisy in the top end) and there are ready sources of non-genuine spare parts -
as you'd expect, especially in Europe and the US and easily available over the
web. Rust can be a problem in early cars but the later ones were much better -
still, before buying it pays to make a detailed inspection looking for body
Five grand for a last-of-series E23 735i Beemer?
Cheap at the price....
Total BMW Buying Guide