The Forgotten E23
The Rewards Of Owning BMW's First Proper Luxury Saloon
Back in 1977, Mercedes owned the luxury sedan market. Nobody touched them, save for the coach-built cruisers from Cheshire. But those were hardly bought in record numbers, and persistent financial struggles between Rolls Royce and Vickers made Bentley a liability, rather than an asset. But back at Mercedes, the heads and hands behind Stuttgart's finest car maker were happily cruising along into the late 1970's, with hardly any concern about falling market share in the world of luxury saloons.
Then came the E23, BMW's first proper foray into the market of luxury saloons. Up until 1977, BMW was making some fine cars, indeed. But they had failed to penetrate the upper tier of the market, in Europe or otherwise. The 60's and early 70's saw BMW making excellent and well regarded small cars, sports cars, and mid sized sedans, eventually culminating in what they called the 'New Six', otherwise known as the E3. The E3 was a good car. A great car, actually. But it never pierced the bubble that Mercedes had created for themselves in the full size market. It wasn't until the unveiling of its replacement, the E23, that Bayerische Motoren Werke became a legitimate threat to the Stuttgart crown.
Revolution In Munich
While Mercedes was securing its image as the first choice for stodgy, well heeled buyers, BMW was hard at work creating driver's cars, autos that engaged rather than lulled. Indeed, 'the ultimate driving machine' wasn't just a slogan. It was a guiding light, which for most of the company's history, has proven correct and invaluable. The suits at BMW wanted to go head to head with Mercedes with the E3, but the engineers were already working on its replacement as soon as the first E3 rolled off production. They knew they could build a more 'grown up' car, while retaining the youthful charm of the E3, and the exciting driving character of their smaller brethren. That's exactly what the E23 was : a grown up sedan for the nonconformist. A luxury car for the kids who would soon kick their elders out of their plush penthouse offices, and burn down the country clubs. It didn't quite happen like that, but you get the picture. BMW's image as the other luxury German makers was soon to be solidified.
Paul Bracq is quite well known as the man behind some of the most handsome BMWs ever built. His iconic 'shark nose' defined the new image of BMW into the late 1970's and early 1980's, and these designs still maintain that elusive legendary status to this day. Indeed, the 7 series E23 was among his finest, and when they rolled into showrooms around the world in 1977, buyers were immediately taken by the handsome angular lines, a complete assault on those by-then stale and unchanged Mercedes S class rivals (some of which were also designed by Bracq during his stint at Mercedes). BMW had pounced, and the world took notice.
1978 Advertisement for the 733i. Clever marketing, taking a dig at Mercedes, I'd say.
A Full Size Sports Car? Well, Not So Fast...
In designing the new 7-Series, BMW was intent on making a full size car that maintained its reputation as a driving machine. The fuel crisis in full swing, BMW made the choice to abandon plans for a V8 powerplant and instead refine their straight six M30, which would remain the heart of the E23 throughout its run from 1977-1986, except for the earliest 735i models, which used the M90 engine and put down a few dozen horses more than the M30. After 1982, the 735i changed to the M30 as well, making the M30 BMW's longest running and most used production engine ever. In other words, legendary.
Though the earliest 728 and 730 models used a Solex carburetor, the 733i and every E23 after 1979 used fuel injection, starting with the now primitive Bosch L-Jetronic system, and later changing to the innovative Bosch Motronic injection system. Unlike mechanical fuel injection systems being used by many other makers, the Bosch systems proved to be fairly sturdy and efficient, and much more reliable than the Solex units. They were also innovative in their use of electronics to combine multiple ignition and fuel control systems into one streamlined box, thus creating a benchmark for all future injection evolution.
Though only putting down between 175-215 bhp, the 7-series proved to be a powerful performer, easily outpacing comparable Mercedes V8s, due to lighter construction and sportier suspension design. Too big to be a sports car, but sporty enough to provide the driver with a more thrilling experience than the cozy Merc, it's quite easy to see why the 7 Series became Stuttgart's most worthy competitor in the luxury market. It cost less too, always a helping hand.
Though the E23 had notably less 'flash' than the Mercedes options, this proved to be a selling point for younger buyers, who preferred Bauhausian minimalism to the ostentatious bling of the Benz. More neutral, straight-grained walnut adorned small bits of the cabin, while the Mercs used bold and bright burl throughout, a classic symbol of wealth and status. The driver oriented dash layout also served as proof that this was a true driver's car, and not just a plush chariot for its occupants. The early cars had manually adjusted seats, but the adjustments went beyond forward and back. You could create your ideal driving position in all manners quite easily, and without the fear of failing electrics. Power sunroof, power windows, and legroom for days meant that your passengers were also equally comfortable.
Last, but not at all least, was the excellent 3-speed automatic transmission. In the US, autos far outsold the 4-speed manuals, but in the case of the BMW, this wasn't a regression. The auto shifted beautifully, and was geared to elegantly handle the M30's eager powerband, while the manuals were a thrill to drive, especially for those European buyers that wanted more engagement.
Another brilliant ad, likely aimed at disaffected Jaguar buyers, looking elsewhere due to engineering flaws
Like A Fine Wine
So how did these motors fare, 40 years on? I'd say quite well, in fact. I own one and I adore it, so they must've done something right. My 1979 733i gets driven as much as any car we own, and while it may not be the most powerful or nimble car we have, it is certainly a smile maker. It gets comments wherever we go, and whenever I post a photo on ye' old Instagram, the adoration rolls in.
Living with the 733i has been quite easy, to be honest. There are a few things that have given me problems, mostly relating to the early L-Jetronic fuel injection. For instance, it idles quite high until it warms up, and I've zeroed in on the Idle Control Valve as the culprit, but sadly the part isn't available anymore. I have had to spend some time researching a suitable replacement plan, and much to my chagrin, there simply is not a load of information on the earliest systems, or how to usurp problem components that aren't available anymore. Ultimately, it's a livable issue, as the only downside is a loud and fast idle that drinks petrol, but as with anything, I'd prefer it to be correct.
The ignition control module did give me problems early on. The car had been running beautifully, and then one day, out of the blue, it just cut out and refused to restart. I had to utilize roadside assistance to have it towed home, only to spend several days troubleshooting and not finding an answer. New ignition coils, spark plugs, relays, nor distributor solved the issue, so I had to have it towed yet again to my backup shop nearby. It even took them about two weeks to find the culprit, which was the ICM. Fortunately, the part was available second hand, and even if it hadn't been, several companies do rebuild them for a moderate cost. But while I was at it, I bought a backup ECU, which will hopefully prove to be a smart call, for when that critical part eventually goes south.
As for the rest of this 41 year old box, it's all been quite a pleasure. There are small things that I chip away at every week, like the window weatherstripping, and the heater blower that I recently removed and repaired. I also had to remove the main dash binnacle in order to fix all the blown bulbs and non working temperature gauge, but even that wasn't too much of a faff. The biggest pain in the ass so far, is that in the stereo system, BMW decided (like many others) to share negatives on all the speaker leads. So when it came time to replace the sorely outdated Blaupunkt system with a new audiophile system (as I am wont to do in all my cars, considering my profession), it proved to be a massive struggle to get things in the right place. For starters, I had to remove the stupid front to rear fader pot that BMW utilized in its dash, and bypass it to go directly to the amplifier. I also had to run entirely new leads for all of the speakers, which to this day, isn't fully complete. But even half finished, the sound is a colossal improvement over the poor OEM system.
Cosmetically, the car is amazingly sound. There are two areas of minor surface rust, both at the very bottom of the front fender, which coincidentally is where water collects from the sunroof drains, when they plug up with debris. There is also the matter of a silver dollar sized paint bubble at one corner of the sunroof. Other than that, it's quite good indeed, and the styling has held up beautifully, since 1979. The leather seats are still supple and comfortably supportive. The dash has remained crack free, due to previous care no doubt. And the carpets were excellent in 1979, and remain excellent four decades on.
The only real liability of the design of these cars was the silly test panel to the left side of the steering wheel. Back in 1977, that likely seemed futuristic and supremely forward looking, but these days, it feels a bit like a 1980's push button toy for kids. But that is, at least to my eyes, the only aesthetic failure of this car, aside from the US regulated bumper size, which could be avoided by no car maker at the time. One could argue that the climate system is far too complex, and they would be right. But the aesthetic design of the early systems in the cabin was quite cool indeed, and still looks smart in 2020.
On The Road in 2020
As one would maybe expect, the E23 is still a stout performer in 2020. It isn't a speed machine, nor is it the last word in cornering performance. But the fact is, it easily beats most modern cars that you would pay far more for, and as I think I already made clear, it's supremely handsome. Looks may be a big part of the allure, but they aren't everything though, at least not to me. Thankfully, the BMW's 1979 strengths are still 2020 strengths.
The first thing I notice every time I drive it, is how fantastic the steering is. Yes it's heavier and longer than a sports car, and not exactly nimble, but the steering is direct and heavier than most power steering systems. It's heavy, but still gives feedback. You know what the road is doing under you, and that's the key. American cars of the late 70's can be flung around with one finger. You can't do that with the E23, and to me, that's a good thing. It's not numb, and it's not overly loose, but it is eager and reactive.
The powerband is smooth, in characteristic BMW fashion. Though my 733i is sadly an automatic, and I can't exactly drive it the way I would really like to, it still inspires me when I press the throttle. The low end of the straight six is smooth, but not grunty. It's not a rude, vulgar kind of power, but more like a confident elegance. A manual might be different, but my 733i just shrugs off the challenge of acceleration, and completes the job without much consternation. Sure, it may not be the most exciting powerband BMW ever created, but it isn't boring, either.
Because the car is a tall sitter, it does have some body roll. And naturally, being a 4 door sedan made for executives, it doesn't exactly grip the corners like a 911. But it does actually handle quite well, without too much wallow and float. It shares more in common with a Grand Tourer than a sports car, but even still, it may just be its own category. Again, elegance comes to mind. Not in the boring way that Mercedes did elegance, but with a sort of attitude that BMW was clearly aiming for back when the car was new. I call it elegance for punks. That's basically how the car feels, bumper to bumper.
I'd be remiss not to mention the feel of all the little bits on the car. The door handles, both inside and out, feel sturdy and thorough. The stalks for the turn signals and wipers too, feel supple and expertly made. There isn't a single switch or button that feels cheap or like it's an afterthought. I particularly love the way the boot closes. That satisfying, air tight thud. You all know the sound I'm talking about. It's pure quality.
The real pleasure of driving an E23 is in the totality of the experience. It's more than the sum of its parts, and to me, that's always the golden chalice in the car world. That's the thing we want most from these boxes we collect. Every system does its job superbly, even forty years on. And the totality of that performance is the true allure. There isn't one area where the car lets you down and reminds you that it's old and outdated. It never admits that it can't keep up, or that it can't do what you want it to. Is there really any better endorsement of a great and timeless design?
A Modern Buying Guide
Buying an early E23 is not a stupid idea. In fact, given their diminishing numbers, and their general obscurity compared to the ubiquitous 3 series and the excellent 635csi, the E23 remains a fantastic value in the classic luxury sedan world. Their star is rising, as with anything worthwhile but long forgotten. Doubtless the E23 will never rise to the value of the 635csi or the earlier E3, but if short term return is not your primary concern, a 7-series will reward you with a good, if not utterly handsome looking classic to tool around in on more than just weekend sprints. And you'll likely be the only person on the block with one. Bragging rights, eh?
One will naturally want to decide what kind of car to have, be it a manual or automatic. In the States, the manual is significantly harder to find, and while one can occasionally find an auto that has been converted, I would be dubious. As with the notorious 635csi conversions, they were often done by overzealous younger buyers, who fancied the car more than they could afford the car. And that leads me to the next consideration...
3-Series and 5-Series Bimmers have long been the jewel of the young, tuner crowd. These cars could be had for a song not too long ago, and as a result, many kids bought these because they represented a rather punk/yuppie aesthetic that was popular in the early 2000's. Mostly, the 7-Series was spared from these buyers, and remained untarnished by body kits and pillar gauges. But the 7-Series did suffer another sort of fate, and that was the dear expense of maintenance. Once the original owners moved on from their 7's, the cars were traded in or sold on the private market, and the second owners typically had shallower pockets then the original owners, making the inevitable 75kmi-100kmi repair bills a sour weight on their shoulders. Of course, some were able to keep up, and did so throughout their ownership. These are the diamonds in the rough, as we all know. But the rest of the cars weren't so lucky. An expensive timing chain repair might have stationed the car in the back of the driveway until it began to rust and rot, finally being sold for parts, or worse yet, an ill advised project car.
If you're fortunate enough to find that diamond in the rough, I would advise saying no to something older than 1983. By 1983, they had changed over to the much more common Bosch Motronic injection system, and the climate system had been redesigned to be far more reliable, and easier to service. Yes I have a 1979 and I love it, but had I known what I know now, I probably would've tried to find something later, even though I paid very little for my 79. The fact is, the earlier cars are still worthy of consideration if you're prepared for a little extra effort and patience finding parts and information. Mine sort of fell into my lap, so I would've been stupid to say no. If that happens to you as well, then more power to ya.
I love the 733i, but the 735i is truly the papa bear of the lineup. In the States, the 735i put down an extra 20 horses, topping out at 215bhp. it was also available with a 5 speed overdrive, which of course, is as rare as hen's teeth in the US, but a notable performer nonetheless. There is also the rare L7, which was an even more upscale version of the 735i, sporting buffalo hide seats and a leather dash, as well as a driver's airbag and glass moonroof. These only came to the States, and were equipped exclusively as automatics. They are delightfully attractive cars, with all of the virtue of the lower models, but the premium paid might be for naught if you're after value or the absolute performance of a manual gearbox.
The fact is, if gotten at a reasonable price, and with a reliable history of care and maintenance, any E23 will serve you well as a driver and a collector. These cars aren't skyrocketing in price, nor are they under every tarp in backyards around the world. Finding the right one may prove to be a challenge, but they're definitely out there. And while it may take a while for your investment to reward you with a return, the experience of driving it, and the sheer pleasure of looking at it might prove to be all the reward one needs. I'd say that Paul Bracq and company got it very right in 1977, and they're still getting it right today.