Though the E3 had offered a sizeable sedan, the replacement E23 really stretched BMW’s platforms. The new 7-seres was 6 inches longer overall, most of which fell in a longer wheelbase versus the E3. It was also wider by a few inches and lower, too. Paul Bracq again provided the styling and it was nothing surprising; it carried the torch of many of the design elements of the 3-, 5- and 6-series cars, and that certainly wasn’t a bad thing. But what BMW hoped would help to set it apart from the competition was technology and performance, along with a high-level of material quality in the cabin. Options included Buffalo leather, an on-board computer system, anti-lock brakes, heated and reclining power seats front and rear, and even an airbag late in the run; standard fare today, but way ahead of the curve in the late 1970s and early 1980s. BMW matched this technology with a thoroughly modern driver-oriented cockpit which made the W116 Mercedes-Benz competition feel immediately antiquated.
E23s are hard to come by today but generally affordable, certainly in the context of current 80s BMW pricing. And though only a 733i, this one has some uniqueness to help it stand apart, too:
“IT’S NOT GERMAN!!!”
I know. But since today is the conclusion of Le Mans and occasionally we like to take a look at other cars, let’s check this one out. Because, in many ways, I think it has a lot to offer.
The Renault GTA emerged out of the acquisition of independent boutique sports car maker Alpine by Renault. Renault immediately set upon making a rival to those pesky sports cars from Stuttgart and modernize Alpine’s 1970s A310 model. Let’s not forget, this was a period when Renault was quite active in Formula 1 and Le Mans, so a sporting car wasn’t entirely out of character for them (nor was the competition with Porsche, for that matter!). New lightweight plastic body-pieces were fit, and the 1.7 liter 4-cylinder in the back of the A310 was yanked in favor of the 2.5 liter PRV (Peugeot, Renault, Volvo) V6. In 1985, a turbocharger was bolted on and instantly the GTA was a 944 Turbo competitor with 200 horsepower on tap. However, the rear-drive, rear-engine layout and tricky driving dynamics were more akin to early 911s than the well-balanced transaxle Porsches. As a result, the Porsches continued to sell in droves, while the Alpine GTA remains just an interesting footnote in French automotive history.
But for about the same money as a very nice 944 Turbo these days (and significantly less than the price of a decent 911), you can get the Le Premier Absolutment GTA:
If you really want to stand apart from the standard E30 crowd, some of the limited production models that never came here are a sure-fire bet to draw attention. Late in the E30 run, BMW developed a special run of E30s called the ‘Design Editions’. These were effectively just appearance packages with splashy colors; Daytona Violet, Neon Blue and today’s feature color, Neon Green Metallic 262. Each was matched with a special interior fabric, here in 0464 with Neon Green accents. Underneath, these were effectively stock E30s otherwise, so you got a M42 inline-4 rated at 140 horsepower and here mated to a normal 5-speed manual. While the drivetrain isn’t anything exotic, certainly the limited nature of this model is – as only 50 Neon Green Metallic Design Edition 318iCs were produced:
While the B10 BiTurbo generated the headlines as the world’s fastest sedan, BMW’s replacement M60 V8 motor was making its way into production and the M30 inline-6 was on its way out. Of course that meant it wasn’t too long before Buchloe got their hands on one, and in turn it wasn’t too long before the B10 4.0 replaced the BiTurbo as the top offering. But a year later, Alpina had already punched out the block to 4.6 liters. Now generating 340 horsepower, the new B10 4.6 not only was as quick as the M5, it was considerably cheaper and less complicated than the BiTurbo had been too.
Like the 4.0 before it, the standard 17″ Alpina wheel treatment, upgraded suspension, larger and less restrictive exhaust, aerodynamic tweaks and unique interiors all made their way here. Also like the 4.0, the 4.6 was available as either a sedan or Touring, and as either a 6-speed manual or 5-speed Switch-Tronic automatic. A scant 46 were built before the end of E34 production, of which only 19 were Touring models – making this one of the most limited Alpinas produced:
BMW took a big leap at the end of the 1980s and introduced some pretty extreme design language. First was the E31 8-series, a seeming quantum leap from the outgoing 6-series. That chassis pioneered, for better or worse, a tremendous amount of technical and electronic innovation for BMW. The 8s relied on a bevy of computers to control its chassis, electronic suite and engine. Side by side with the more famous Grand Tourer though was a diminutive roadster BMW produced based heavily on the E30 chassis. Instead of a heavy reliance on computer technology, the futuristic (hence Z for the German word for future – Zukunft) plastic bodied Z1 looked like a supercar even if it didn’t go like one. Park one next to a E30 convertible and you’d never know the two are related!
The Z1 was a complete departure for BMW; while they were not strangers to small cabriolets, their previous efforts were in the 1930s with the 315/1 and the 1960s with the 700. BMW went away from the idea of an integral body and frame to a separate chassis with removable, plastic body pieces. The idea was that the owners could replace the panels themselves to “repaint” the car with minimal effort. It was something the Smart car would be notable for – a car that launched a decade following the Z1. To get the paint to adhere to the bodywork, BMW had to partner with AZKO coatings to develop a flexible paint which they termed ‘Varioflex’, while the bodywork had to be attached using a unique elastic joint technique. The doors didn’t open out – the slid down into the supporting chassis structure. The underbody was flat, not only for aerodynamics, but the tray turned into a diffuser towards the back, assisting in sticking the rear to the ground as speeds rose. In front was nothing new – the venerable M20 from the E30 popped up here, too – but in the rear the Z1 was new with a multi-link rear axle of its own. This new design would later be incorporated into the E36. It’s interesting that with the Z3 BMW opted to go the opposite route and incorporate earlier E30 pieces into the rear of the /7 and /8. While performance was relatively leisurely, the Z1 nevertheless garnered praise for its innovation, unique design and great looks. They never made it to U.S. shores and only around 8,000 examples were ever produced, but a few have crossed the Atlantic now that they’re old enough to be more easily imported:
While the US market had to settle for the RS America, a lightened low-option version of the Carrera 2, other markets enjoyed the full-on Carrera RS. The Carrera RS used the tried-and-true method of more power/less weight, combining a higher output version of the 964’s 3.6 liter flax-six with significant weight reduction – coming in 155 kg lighter than a standard Carrera 2 – to provide the sort of no frills performance that 911 enthusiasts had long craved since the original RS. Under the rear hood was the M64/03 rated at 260 horsepower which doesn’t sound like a lot by today’s numbers. But the lightweight RS made good use of all of them, proving itself not only to be a class-leading sports car but also one adept at racing in keeping with the 911’s heritage. Suspension was lowered half an inch and stiffened, while the limited-slip differential from the Turbo was borrowed. Power steering was dropped for a manual rack, and while there were packages to add back in road-going manners, this ultimately was a bare-bones racer at heart.
Some 2,276 964 Carrera RSs were made, with a fair chunk of those heading to the track. There were a limited group of these cars imported to the U.S. for a failed race series and a few more since 911 mania took off, but the bulk of production still lies in Europe, just like this ’92 being offered today from France:
The E31 was BMW’s first real attempt at integrating lots of computer designs and controls into one of their road cars. The clean-sheet design resulted in a 2-door grand tourer that shared some visual similarities with the great M1, but stood apart as a more practical cruiser. Unlike the E24, the windows could fully drop, revealing a graceful pillarless design to match the sweeping greenhouse. The sharp nose amazingly hid an even larger motor than its predecessor; in fact, it was basically two conjoined M30s. That configuration certainly has some drawbacks, but there was no denying that the 850i had serious presence and credentials with the M70 V12 kicking out 300 horsepower.
However, BMW softened the character of what potentially could have been a screamer. Many were outfit with 16? wheels for a better ride and tied to an automatic transmission. This was truly a GT car, and not the supercar slayer that BMW teased with its M8 Concept. Still, there are a few which were hooked to 6-speed manual transmissions prior to the launch of the manual-only 850CSi, and they’re a whole lot cheaper than the M-modded model is trading for today:
Although the letter “M” attached to a BMW has generally represented the pinnacle of performance for the brand, the reality is the term “M-Sport” has not always denoted the same characteristics. Take the E82 135i, for example. The M-Sport package for that car consisted of slightly different 18″ wheels than the standard 18″ wheels and a black headliner. That’s it.
But zoom back in time to the beginnings of the title “M-Sport” and it meant a bit more. If you wanted a fast, executive super saloon in 1995, your options were dwindling. 1995 was the last year of the Audi S6, and one year after both the V8 Quattro and 500E were taken away. 1995 would also be the last year of the iconic M5, and hints were that it might be a long time before we’d see another. Why? Well, the reality was that with the 6 speed 540i the performance gap between the “super” M5 and the “normal” V8 engined 540 was so close it just didn’t make a lot of sense to have the premium model anymore. The S38 was by now a quite old motor and was getting harder to pass increasingly strict emissions standards; indeed, shrinking sales and high price had resulted in the M5 being pulled from the U.S. in 1993.
As a result, BMW offered a hint at what it could do with the V8 in the form of the M540i in Canada and the 540i M-Sport in the U.S. market. The Canadian model was quite close in spec to the European M5, except that in place of the venerable S38 it ran the M60 V8 out of the normal 540i. If that sounds like a letdown, it wasn’t – mated to the Getrag 6-speed transmission it was a great driver, and with the M5 adjustable suspension, brakes and cosmetic details it was 95% plus of the M5 for most drivers. The 540i M-Sport that the U.S. received differed a bit in not having the trick floating rotors of the M540i, but with nearly everything else out of the M bag of tricks these are cool cars, great drivers, and even more rare than the M5:
Just the other day on my ‘Distinctive Drivers’ page – a Facebook group that looks at unusual automotive finds – I stumbled across a ’92 Honda Accord 5-speed. Here was a rather sedate, base model Accord; yet, because of the rarity of seeing such a car, and its recent complete disappearance from the marketplace, there’s an odd desirability for what was otherwise just an average sedan.
The same holds true today. Here’s a Euro-market Audi 80 TDi. The B4 chassis was nearly a stranger to us and is fairly infrequently seen these days; not many were sold here, especially when compared to the B5 A4 which followed. There were only two configurations they came in; all were 90s, and all shared the 2.8 V6 either driving the front or all four wheels. The 80 had been discontinued after ’92 for the U.S. and it didn’t appear as a B4 here, as there was no 90 model in the ’92 season officially.
But in Europe, of course, the B4 included the 80 model, which was the cheapest Audi you could buy – so they sold quite a few. Engines varied quite wildly from the U.S. models; there were 1.6 and 1.8 models which ranged from 70 to 125 horsepower, then 2.0 models running right up to a high-output variant of the 16V we saw in the GTI and GLI. There was the tried and true 5-cylinder we saw in our 80, and then there were a few V6s – the 2.8 seen in the U.S., but also a lower output 2.6 model for better economy. But if you wanted real fuel savings, you opted for one of the two diesels – the 75 horse 1.9TD or the 89 horsepower 1.9TDi:
Here’s another alternative air-cooled Volkswagen from Brazil. We saw the Brasilia recently – Volkswagen do Brasil’s answer to the Golf platform and intended to extend the life of the Beetle platform. Here was their attempt to modernize the Karmann Ghia – the infamous SP2.
‘SP’ referenced São Paulo where the SP and SP2 were produced. The early model had a 1.6 liter flat-4, while the SP2 moved up to a 75 horsepower 1.7 air-cooled flat-4 mounted in the rear. The proportions of the body styling seemed to suggest the opposite though, with the long, low hood and hatchback GT profile looking more like a traditional sports car than any VW had before. Other period designs were borrowed – the Volkswagen 411, the Porsche 924 and Audi’s 100 Coupe S all had similar angles. But it was probably Volkswagen do Brasil’s own Karmann Ghia TC (Typ 145) that looked the most similar.
Only about 11,300 of these ultra-rare, Brazil-only SP2s were produced. They’re about as legendary as air-cooled VWs get in the U.S., so when one pops up for sale it’s worth a look: