A quarter century of superiority
By Matthias Knödler and Jens Meiners
A quarter of a century ago, BMW turned the hierarchy in the luxury segment upside down: In March 1987, the second-generation 7 series (E32), itself a marvel of technology, got a range-topping V-12 engine. Rated at 296hp, it utterly humiliated the Mercedes-Benz W126 S class. The Stuttgart competitor managed to reach this level of power only with a non-catalysed version of the 5.6-liter V-8 - an engine which was lacking the smoothness of its 4.2-liter and 5.0-liter siblings.
It wasn't BMW's first attempt at a V-12. In fact, two prototypes had preceded the engine that finally made it into production. As early as 1972, BMW set out to create a V-12 from two six-cylinder engines. The 5.0-liter engine, code-named M33, made 296hp - but it was way too heavy at 694 lbs: The project was stopped in 1974; shortly thereafter, work commenced on another V-12, the M66, this time based on a lighter, new generation of i-6 engines. A 3.6-liter V-12 and a 4.5-liter V-12 was built; the latter one made 271hp and weighed 606 lbs. Prototype engines were built, but due to an unfavorable political and economic climate, BMW went on to build a turbocharged 3.2-liter i-6 instead. It was offered in the E23 745i and later upgraded to 3.5 liters of displacement. At the time, BMW ran elaborate advertisements explaining why a turbocharged six was the preferable choice compared to a V-8 or V-12.
But in 1982, the engineers went to the drawing board again. This time around, it was decided to start from scratch, instead of trying to elaborately weld together two existing six-cylinder engines.
The M70 was created - a marvel of technology that weighs a mere 529 lbs and is so compact that it would fit into a current 1 series. Made from aluminum, it used two identical cylinder heads, it made 296hp at 5200rpm and 450 Nm lb-ft of torque at 4100 rpm - while providing a silky-smooth soundtrack that is not dissimilar to an in-line six and infinitely more delicate and sophisticated than a V-8.
Down the road, BMW toyed with nuew different concepts, including a V-16, and actually built a prototype. A reaction to the 408 PS Mercedes-Benz 600 SEL? The M70, of course, made it into the 8 series; it was used in racing, and in heavily modified form, it powered the McLaren F1. BMW also built an X5 with a high-powered V-12; this engine was supposed to go into an M8, but it was decided the car was "too extreme".
In its original form, the V-12 propelled the E32 7 series from standstill to 62mph in just 7.4 seconds; top speed was a governed 155mph. "We could have reached around 168mph," recalls an engineer, "but the tires weren't ready back then." There's another reason which is at least as worthy, and which is still sensitive today: The German auto industry's voluntary agreement to cut off top speed was agreed upon in order to avoid a discussion on a speed limit.
The 750i was distinguished from the 730i and 735i by its wider kidney grille and according hood contour; there was a rectangular dual exhaust that recalled not only the kidney grille, but also the jet engines of the Concorde supersonic airplane; and there were specific, almost fully covered wheels. As the subsequent 7 series models with V-8 engines received the same grille, and as more commonplace wheel choices were added, the 750i and iL lost their visual edge.
We got some time behind the wheel of an almost pristine 750 iL E32. It still fires up with a beautiful, sonorous sound. The interior styling oozes functionality and "German-ness". Most definitely a driver's car, its biggest letdown is the four-speed automatic which seems inadequate today. And truly comfortable it isn't, at least not with the unusually large wheels and tires on this example from BMW's historic collection.
The E38 7 series, by contrast, still feels competitive today. More plush than the E32 yet beautifully restrained, it received an upgraded engine that makes 322hp from 5.4 liters of displacement. It is fast, precise, quiet and immensely gratifying behind the wheel.
BMW did not provide an E65 760i for comparison, but we have vivid memories of a behemoth that was plagued with electronic overkill that culminated in the counter-intuitive iDrive system, a lack of a driver-oriented interior, and and an oversized body that discouraged dancing through twisty roads. Its direct-injected, four-valve N73 6.0-liter V-12, rated at 431hp, serves as the basis for the Rolls-Royce Phantom's 6.7-liter V-12. In the E65, it couldn't sparkle.
We did get time behind the wheel of the current F02 760 Li - and, compared to the E38, it has completed the transformation from a driver's car to a plush sedan to be chauffeured around in. At 537hp, the twin-turbocharged N74 6.0-liter V-12 is ridiculously powerful, but the car is so big and heavy that you don't get much enjoyment from driving it outside of its natural habitat, which is the autobahn. The ultra-low effort steering and the playful electronic instrumentation did not endear it to us, either.
The V-12 was most successful in its first iteration: Up to one sixth of 7 series production was equipped with the range-topping engine. That number has plummeted into the low single digits. Nevertheless, BMW remains committed: The V-12 has a future, we are assured by company executives. We can only applaud this commitment. "Efficient dynamics" is necessary, but not sufficient.