Family Bus

It’s finally here. The highly anticipated and most requested post (well I received at least one polite email enquiry) I’ve ever written. Actually it’s the article I have been itching to write since day one. It concerns perhaps the most complete car ever made.

The object of this truly deserved praise currently resides in my driveway. It is without doubt the best ever work from the pen of a little known Austrian designer who was also responsible for the second biggest disappointment in my memory (the deeply dissatisfying E36- more of this another day). Boyke Boyer (he doesn’t even have a wikipedia page) spent the tail end of the ’80s and the first couple of years of the ’90s honing this sleek saloon shaped slice of perfection. It’s true that both the E39 5 series and the F06/F12 6 series are two of Munich’s finest, however I am convinced that the car we are talking about here remains indubitably the best looking Bavarian of the last 25 years.

Aspen Silver 728i
Unquestionably the best looking Bavarian of the last 25 years.

The E38 7 series was launched in 1995 and was criticized by some motoring hacks (blind, clueless, raving lunatics obviously) at launch for being a little too conservative and evolutionary. Reputedly boasting more computing power than Apollo 11, it was further honed and improved over the following 6 years and it reached the pinnacle of it’s greatness during the run out period in spring 2001.

When I was looking to do what any normal and sane person would naturally do, (purchase an E38), there was a ’98 obsidian black 750Li for sale on a forecourt just 2 kilometres from where I live. 2 straight sixes married together in an impossibly creamy, silky, velvety, luscious, luxurious and glass smooth utopian creation. It had deep pile carpet, double glazing and even veneered picnic tables. The only time I have ever driven (or even been in a V12). I am ashamed to report that despite a limited warranty from the dealer I was way too much of a wuss to really ever contemplate buying it. The other reason I didn’t buy it was because of the car I actually bought.

728i bootlid badge
If I wasn’t such a wuss this would have said 750iL

That car is the Aspen Silver 728i MSport gracing our driveway. A run out model, built in May 2001 less than 4 weeks before production of this glorious car finished. Specced better than 95% of brand new cars this truly is a machine that is all things to all men. If you were given just one car that you had to keep for your entire life (an interesting dilemma, no?) this must surely be it. Admittedly you might not choose the wimpy 728i but what stage of life would this car not suit? What a car to start your driving career in, then becoming perfect “family bus”  with loads of space for up to three kids (you would need to be certified to have more than three!) and a cavernous boot. It’s still quicker than and handles just as well as if not better than almost anything else out there and you’ll never feel a pitying look of disdain from a doorman pulling up at even the poshest hotel. Once you reach middle age chuck a panama hat on the parcel shelf it becomes the perfect old duffer’s barge. Can anything else tick all these boxes yet come in a package slicker than George Clooney? I don’t think so.

18" MSport parallel alloys
18″ MSport parallel diamond cut alloys. Staggered (20mm wider at the back) and dished. It goes without saying that the right wheels make the car. Have there ever been nicer or better suited rims fitted to any other car?

Performance from the M52TU straight 6 is probably just on the right side of acceptable. Power from it’s 2.8 litres is just on the wrong side of 200 hp. It does however waft along with the gorgeous smoothness you’d expect from an inline 6. For those for whom six cylinders didn’t cut it the most popular block was the 4.4 V8. There was a smaller 3.5 V8 and a couple of diesels were also offered. Luckily the oil burners didn’t make it to our shores and I have no further information or interest in these particular powerplants.

Fuel gauge on 7 series
Drop her into Sport and this needle moves with an alarming alacrity from right to left.

In fairness the (relatively wimpy) 2.8 residing under that gorgeously long bonnet is pretty quick if you drop it into sport and keep the revs above 3,500. This however will drop fuel consumption to below 10 MPG. The best you can hope for is a little better than 30MPG on the motorway when the engine spins at around 2,000 at the legal limit. 1st is geared so short that you can squirt off the line much quicker than pretty much anything else and even after over 2 years it still surprises. The gearbox is silky smooth and almost impossible to catch out, however 5th is a bit of a fig leaf to give it some degree of respectability in the fuel consumption stakes. In truth it is leggier than a Rod Stewart squeeze and really struggles to do anything more than maintain your speed (providing it’s flat or downhill. The slightest incline results in a gear change). It’s crying out for a sixth ratio between 4th and 5th. After over 160,000 miles the seemingly bulletproof engine seems to only get smoother never missing a beat. The brakes (for anyone used to a newer car) initially seem to require a little more effort than expected but are actually unbelievably communicative – you can slow and stop the car with incredible precision and accuracy. A couple of people and tons of comment on various boards suggested that the firmed up suspension on the MSport model didn’t particularly suit the car. I admit that it’s no Lotus Elise but it combines the kind of handling you have no right to expect from a 5 metre long bus weighing in at over 1700 kilos with a luxobarge waftiness that is truly astonishing.

Central Console on BMW 7 Series
No faffing about. Just a central console as it should be.

The interior though is somewhere very special. They really don’t make them like this anymore. No fiddly idrive or ipod nonsense. No distracting 42″ TV screen. Just proper buttons that are well laid out and do what needs doing. Sometimes you see a car with nice beige nappa leather or even a tan alcantara and you would be forgiven for (briefly) thinking “that looks nice “.  Seriously though these are not really appropriate colours for the interior (nor any other part of a car). Black leather contour seats and anthracite headlining. A strip of polished birch. 3 spoke sports steering wheel. Need I say more?

 

 

Interior BMW 7 series MSport
A certain Danish beer doesn’t do car interiors but if they did….

This is a really special car, and to be it’s custodian absolutely feels special. Every trip no matter how short is a pleasure. It attracts just the right amount of attention. Unlikely to be vandalised or stolen but it will be appreciated by those who recognise a truly exceptional vehicle. I challenge anyone to find a car that could more completely accompany a life.

Probably it's best angle.
Probably it’s best angle.

13 thoughts on “Family Bus”

  1. Totally agree. One of the most beautiful and aesthetically balanced Bavarians ever minted. Took particular pleasure in watching it in action on Tomorrow Never Dies the other night- a movie that I’m sure is on frequent repeat in your household. The 750 would be a fun but wow you’d need a second job for the petrol and the tax/ insurance – for what a few brief moments of enjoyment? Nah 528 is the pick. Hope you keep it forever.

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      1. The 528 was pretty nice too Clex. Thanks for salving my conscience about the 750 (but my mind still often drifts there ). Love the use of the word “minted”, wish I’d used it! Now where is my copy of Tomorrow Never Dies?

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  2. How is it in the reliability stakes? I expect it’s good which is why the scorn poured on these cars in the US baffles me.
    Can I suggest the Mercedes W-123 in 260 guise as a possible alternative? Or a Volvo S80 mk1?
    I might prefer the S80 because the interior was more accomodating than the BMW though I can see exactly why you are so pleased with the BMW. I’d suggest rotary HVAC controls are better than all the buttons but you need to trade all the way down to an Aygo to get them these days.
    How do you rate the XJ of the same period?

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    1. Thanks Richard, engine and ‘box are bulletproof but there have been many things replaced over the years including even the fuel tank! Must be my ’80s upbringing but love that the HVAC is controlled by buttons rather than dials. I know I’m in the minority but always felt that you can’t have too many buttons. Ever. I’m a big fan of the 123 but will be torn between a 116 and the126 when that day comes. I agree Volvo have the best seats and lovely interiors but that pronounced crease down the side puts me off a little. The first 3 series of XJs were gorgeous (particularly the coupe) but I kind of felt they were stretching Lyon’s design a little towards the end (and of course no straight six anymore).

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      1. With a rotary controller you need only mess with three dials: twist for “on” to some amount, twist for hot or cold and then twist for the desired outlet. The defrost manoeuvre on my car requires only three full clockwise
        twists and I never need to look. Button control for HVAC require too many actions. See Fitts law which explains why small buttons are a problem. For everything else I am in full agreement: more buttons, please.

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      2. Just looked up Fitt’s law there-very interesting. I also miss buttons on mobiles-it used to be possible to send a text with the phone still in your pocket. Fair point about the buttons for HVAC when you are trying to fine tune the environment for comfort (although I usually set the climate and just leave it) but for max demist/defrost only one single button push is required.

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  3. For a manual air-con system three dials works really well. I think car makers got rid of dials when they got rid of the cables connecting the controls to the mechanism. There are some production advantages but not advantages for the user of a multilple button system. The ones I have used have required one to press some small buttons several times to get the fan speed up to the required level, then some more button pushes and more time with eyes off the road to see if the fans are set to the right output and then again more glancing down and pressing to get the temperature right. All in all, that´s not satisfactory.

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    1. Agree with Richard. Dials on an air con system are far more intuitive and flexible. But for everything else give me more buttons any day. The 7 cockpit lit up at night with all the buttons glowing is something to behold.

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  4. Had a feeling I might be in a minority. Fair point with manual a/c and button controls there can be considerable faffing involved with precisely adjusting airflow. Most newer systems though are climate systems which will be less likely to mist up and require single button push to demist. Even with manual system there will be at least one button push to activate a/c compressor.

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