The Keys To The Executive Floor
The BMW Seven series (E32) signified the moment in time when the Bayerische Motorenwerke at long last successfully entered the luxury sector.
The Petuelring is a decidedly prosaic Bavarian arterial road, which also happens to be where BMW’s Vierzylinder high-rise headquarters are located. But about 30 years ago, its six lanes would have been reverberating with the sound of popping champagne corks for more than one night. Because, after years of vain attempt, the Bavarian brand had finally arrived at the upper echelons of the automotive hierarchy. Key to this eagerly anticipated development was a car that was internally known as E32.
The long wait hadn’t been for want of trying on the Bavarians’ part. For years, they had tried to meet the mighty competition from Stuttgart at eye level, but could never reach beyond the status of an upstart. Thus, while the first iteration of the Seven series was a saloon that could lure Bavarian patriots and successful heads of department out of their Audis and low-spec S-classes, it didn’t stand a chance of getting the Vorstandsvorsitzende of West Germany’s leading DAX companies to wave their SEL-Benzes goodbye.
The E32, however, would change all that. Rigorously. There simply wasn’t anything clumsy or parochial about it. Indeed, the BMW engineers led by product guru, Dr Wolfgang Reitzle, had created nothing less than the blueprint of the perfect yuppie express: a luxury saloon that managed to convincingly convey a dashing, dynamic image. This development process had been started under Reitzle's predecessor, Karlheinz Radermacher, but the end result felt almost like an encapsulation of the values and thinking of Reitzle, the Swabian engineering prodigy, who was still in his thirties by that point.
Stylistically, the E32 turned out to be formative for the BMW brand. Kidney grille, Hofmeister kink, four-eyed frontal aspect and the driver-orientated cockpit had been present before, but with the advent of this second-generation Seven series, the Bavarians perfected their recipe for tasteful agility.
Even though design boss, Claus Luthe, had been in charge for a fair few years by that point, the E32 was in fact the first product to be fully shaped according to his ideas. Based upon themes by former Zagato designer, Ercole Spada, Luthe and his team of stylists created a saloon that achieved the delicate balancing act of combining luxury and athleticism like no other large BMW saloon before or since.
Upon its unveiling in 1986, the press therefore christened the E32 the ‘Bavarian Jaguar’, which was neither completely off the point, nor strictly accurate. Though unquestionably an elegant vehicle, this Seven series nevertheless retained a wide-shouldered stance, which was alien to Coventry cats in those days. Not to mention the fact that the BMW’s styling was decidedly more contemporary than (albeit not necessarily as charming) as that of any Jaguar in production at that time.
When comparing the E32 to the British and Swabian competition, it becomes glaringly obvious how much more modern a piece of design the BMW turned out to be than even those most worthy members of the automotive upper classes. No matter if one decides to look at the crisp creases or very precise panel gaps of its exterior, or the interior, whose appearance is, down to the smallest buttons, utterly homogenous: the aspiration to design a high-quality automobile in every respect is always apparent.
Apart from this Reitzle style pedantry, it is the faint whiff of boldness the E32 exudes, courtesy of Luthe & Spada, that substantially adds to the E32’s charms. The pert curvature leading to the boot’s break-away edge, the sharp-tailored indicators on the front grille’s edge, or the substantial, wide L-shaped rear lights with their sharp segmentation: it is the combination of each one of those racy details that prevents the E32 from drifting into the realms of neat boredom. That this is no mean feat is exemplified by none other than its immediate successor, the E38 generation Seven series, which was certainly a tasteful, but at the same time quite a bit less inspiring variation of the E32 theme.
That a young, dashing, ambitious and highly talented engineer such as Wolfgang Reitzle would shepherd the development of a car catering to the needs (and tastes) of young, ambitious careerists doesn’t come as much of a surprise. And yet the E32 is also about restraint, as exemplified by its remaining (at least in the short wheelbase version’s case) below the five metre threshold. This in turn also increased the danger of the Seven being mistaken for one of its lesser Bavarian brethren (particularly when equipped with Shadow Line camouflage) by the layman. So, despite its inherent yuppie appeal, the E32 thus never quite lost an aura of understatement. Particularly in view of today’s luxury saloons, this trait inevitably conjures a fair degree of sympathy.
Apart from its shape, quite a significant share of the levels of sympathy, admiration and prestige the E32 enjoyed upon its launch was due to the engine that would lend the numerical sequence of Seven Fifty quite an illustrious connotation. This 5.0 litre V12 unit, the first of its kind brought to production in Germany since the war, was not just some marketing marvel, but also stuck two fingers in the direction of Stuttgart, where the engineers had made do with eight cylinders for the past few decades. Through this engine option, the Bayerische Motorenwerke made it abundantly clear that they were serious about staking claim for the automotive crown. The reaction from Untertürkheim - increasing the well-proven V8 engine’s capacity to 5.6 litres, in order to reach power outputs similar to the Bavarian V12’s - served only to highlight the legitimacy of this claim. As did the intended knockout blow: the mighty W140 S-class, with which the Swabians had planned to put the Bavarian parvenu in its place, once and for all, four years after the E32’s launch. The manner of overreaction by the established competition was the sincerest flattery Dr Reitzle, his boss, Eberhard von Kuehnheim, Luthe, Spada et al could possibly have imagined.
Even though the BMW 750i’s performance actually wasn’t that otherworldly, the parking space right next to the grand hôtel’s main entrance was assured, as soon as the doorman spotted the wide kidney grille and square exhaust tips. And if such a Seven happened to be shod with the ‘salad bowl’ alloys a great many of the V12-equipped press cars had been fitted with, there simply was no arguing about the status of most desirable saloon on the planet anymore.
However, the stylistic attention to detail didn’t end with exhaust tips and wide kidneys, but reached even underneath the bonnet, where the V12 engine had also been designed with aesthetic requirements in mind. A jumble of cables and hoses à la Jaguar would have resembled some kind of engineering limbo to the perfectionist likes of Dr Reitzle and his underlings. Thus, a clean, uncluttered arrangement of the V12’s engine block and ancillary units was devised, which turned this engine into a bit of a feast for the eyes - at least by German standards - , even though those efforts stopped one step short of the addition of Italianate polished stainless steel accents. A matter which serves as yet another reminder that E32, despite incorporating superlatives aplenty, never overstepped the mark. Neither in terms of dimensions, nor through the addition of countless V12 badges or the like, or indeed any kind of blatant heft. It was just a very confident car, full stop.
Among all those glorious luxury saloons of the 1980s, be they from Germany or the UK, the E32 unquestionably was the car most in touch with its time. That it wasn’t a mere automotive flavour of the month, but entailed such a massive stylistic legacy, emphatically highlights the quality of its design.
Kidney grille, Hofmeister kink, four-eyed frontal aspect and the driver-orientated cockpit are to be found in most BMWs to this day - not even the work of Chris Bangle could change this in the long term. But a balance of timelessness and trendiness, athleticism and solidity, prestige and discretion similar to what the E32 had achieved would elude all future generations of big BMWs.
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