The cars we loved.
If you have been keeping an eye on the styling trends of current cars, you may have noticed how upright they have become. Sure there are plenty of sleek new coupes and sedans, but these cars in general seem to be taller than their predecessors of just ten years ago. A 2011 Ford Taurus next to a 95 model looks almost SUV like. With modern cars the trend towards more head room had been going on for at least a decade to accomidate the ever taller/wider (American)driver. Just 30 or so years ago, bigger cars or mid-sized ones aspired to lower and wider dimensions, not to acommidate big people, but as a expression of style. For me one of the last modern cars to exmplify this styling trend was BMW’s E38 7 Series sedan.
When looking for the low and wide in modern cars a few stick out for their width and how close they seem to hug the ground. BMW’s E38 7 Series was one of those cars. Before 1995 the flagship BMW sedan was proportioned like most other big luxury sports sedans. The luxury market was becoming crowded with new players from Asia who had introduced an segment changing cocktail that mixed technology, quality and value. The rise of Lexus in the market sent Mercedes and BMW back to their drawing boards in a rush to re-launch their top drawer sedans. The new S-Class was immediately seen as the class leader after its launch in 1992, but it no longer was the first name in quality. There was added pressure on BMW to uphold the sporting values of the 7 Series while matching Japanese comfort and build quality.
There was plenty of speculation that BMW would follow the Japanese luxury route and make their new 7 Series a technological tour de force. What appeared on the auto show circuit of 1994 revealed a 7 Series with more sporting proportions than the outgoing E32. The low beltline made the new 7 look lower and wider, although it was not much wider than the old car. The 7 Series responded to the Japanese competition with more than its share of technology. The list was long with enough acronyms to have made any 80’s Japanese car proud. All season traction (AST), Adaptive Transmission Control (ACT), Electronic Damping Control (EDC) was just a few of the technical highlights of the E38. There was a broad range of engines available in European markets including inline 6 cylinder powered cars (725 and 728). These models never made it to America. Instead a typical North American 7 Series would have either V8 or V12 power.
There were two models named, like all BMW’s by their engine displacement. The entry cars were called 740i and used either 4.0 or 4.4 V8s good for up to 285 hp. The 750i V12 models shared engines with the Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph. It’s throttle by wire system channeled 322 hp to the rear wheels with a ZF 5 speed automatic transmission. All 7 Series cars sold in the US were automatic only. Wheel sizes ranged from 16 to 18in, although all but the most basic 740i could be seen with 16’ wheels. Many cars with 17’ wheels came with run-flats, some of the first on any BMWs.
The 7 Series came with two wheelbase sizes: 115.4 inch normal and a long wheelbase 120.9 for the most extreme luxury variants (mostly based on the 750i). Although big and comfortable, the 7 Series was still a BMW and that meant that its MacPherson front and semi-trailing arm rear suspension would provide as much control as any 3 or 5 Series when driven aggressively. Most of the media was impressed with the 7 Series’ performance, as it offered more driver feel than the S-Class and certainly more than any Lexus.
The 7 Series of course had a lot of heft. At over 4,000 lbs., it was the heaviest BMW during a time before any SUV would wear the propeller badge. Weight did not hinder performance as much as one might think. 0 to 60 times of 6.3 seconds for the 750i were impressive, but more performance was available from tuner Dinian. There was never a M version of the 7 Series, so it was reasonable to assume that BMW did not intend the 7 Series to be nothing more than a big comfortable executive sedan. The creature comforts inside would confirm this. The steering wheel controlled the built-in phone, entertainment and navigation systems. Capable of seating five comfortably, the leather seats had adjustment controls for front and rear passengers.
The E38 marks BMW’s direction towards merging advance technology with luxury. A trend that was more refined by the time the radical Chris Bangle designed E60 came around in 2003. In fact the new funky looking E60 was so poorly received by the buyers that sales of the outgoing E39 spiked up in its final months. The E38 proved that the typical buyer of a 7 Series wanted the understated looks associated with the big sedan in the past. The E38 also marks the last of the ‘traditional’ looking big BMWs with squared off angular styling that had become so popular (and imitated) during the 90’s and early 0’s. Used 7 Series can be quite affordable, but beware of cars that have not received proper scheduled service. The amount of technology in these cars can be cause for concern if not serviced properly (by BMW technicians no less).