BMW 745i touring car returns!

For decades BMW has stubbornly refused to make a M7. Why? Nobody knows. The only reason its execs have ever given is because a 7 Series should be about refinement, luxury and all that stuff. Then it made the M760Li which to most of us seems to be a M7, except it isn't, not to Munich anyway.

M1 engine in a saloon? Hell yes!
M1 engine in a saloon? Hell yes!
Back in the 80s, in the days of the original E23 7 Series, the company bolted a turbo onto its M30 inline-six engine to create the 745i. The engine became the M102 and pushed out 248hp and 276Ib ft of torque. It was a great package, but there was no M badge.

At the time, South Africa was busy ignoring the rest of the world and doing things its own way. Don't worry, we're not going to get political here, there's enough of that around already at the moment. But what many people don't know is that South Africa also liked to do things its own way when it came to cars, in particular BMWs.

Some of you might have heard of the legendary 333i, but you probably don't know that the country produced a 745i. A 7 Series - so what? But a 7 Series racing car. Seriously, a 7 Series racing car. Only two racing 745i models were ever produced and one was to full international Group A touring car spec. To this day they remain the only racing spec 7 Series models in the world.

Seen a better looking touring car recently?
Seen a better looking touring car recently?
Initially Germany was not impressed and said an emphatic "Nein" to the idea. But under pressure from BMW South Africa's then boss of development, Bernd Pischetsrieder, they reluctantly approved the project. To build a race car though you have to homologate a road car, and so 209 745i models were produced at the BMW plant near Pretoria.

These were not the same versions produced in Germany though. The European models used an in-line six with a turbo bolted on, but the packaging did not work for right hand drive markets, which meant the UK could not have them either. But that's OK because in a seriously clever move, someone decided you could use the M88 engine instead, the M88 being the one that was used in the M1 supercar. Nice.

This meant a 3.6-litre straight six producing 34hp more than the 745i produced in Germany. They all had unique BBS alloys, a Nappa leather interior and initially even a few M badges on the steering wheel and instrument cluster, but those were removed. BMW AG might have allowed the cars to be built, but they could not be called an M car.

Welcome aboard...
Welcome aboard...
Most featured a ZF automatic transmission but 17 were made with a dog-leg five-speed manual 'box and a limited-slip diff. Only four of the manual versions survive today but two of them are the famous race cars. Tony Viana raced in the national saloon car championships in South Africa and he persuaded BMW SA Motorsport to produce them. Germany was not keen on this either, but eventually agreed and so in 1984 they were built in the famous Gunston colours.

The Group A spec model was the most important, featuring that M88 engine producing 450hp. The rules required them to be near standard and so it had the standard interior, standard rear brakes and steering. Up front it got AP racing brakes and the dampers were all upgraded by Bilstein.

It was not only more imposing on the grid than anything else, but in 1985 after being re-liveried in Winfield red and white it beat rivals such as the Alfa Romeo GTV, Ford Sierra XR8 and Mazda RX7 to take the championship. Who knew that a 7 Series could make such a good race car?

Forget the wood and, yeah, jus go!
Forget the wood and, yeah, jus go!
After its championship-winning success it disappeared for a while, but in 2006 it was bought by Viana's former teammate and historic racing enthusiast, Paolo Cavalieri. He handed it over to Alec Ceprnic of Evolution 2 Motorsport who completely restored the car. He was fortunate to find a manual 745i that had been damaged and used various components from it, including that M88 engine and the close-ratio manual box. There was no need for the standard interior though, after a Nissan Sentra caught fire in the championship in the 80s the rule makers decided the standard interior rule was a bad idea and so it was stripped out.

We caught up with the car along with Cavalieri at the Aldo Scribante race track outside of Port Elizabeth. Today the car produces slightly less power and in the interest of preservation it only revs to 7,500rpm instead of the 8,500 in its racing days. Taking to the track with Cavalieri it is still a formidable machine, carrying some serious weight as it pushes into the corners while the rear wheels scrabble slightly for grip to get what was once a top-of-the-line executive limo to clip the apex and power through. The chassis is stock and Cavalieri describes it as very forgiving. It is loud and very un-7 Series like by today's standards, but damn it's great.

Cavalieri is now hoping that he will be invited to show the car at international events like Goodwood, and who wouldn't want to see the only racing 7 Series that has ever been produced?

Alex Ceprnich is the man responsible for this - bravo!
Alex Ceprnich is the man responsible for this - bravo!
There are those that will say that Pischetsrieder made a few mistakes in his time, not least of all buying Rover and Land Rover. He bought Mini too - that one worked out rather well for BMW of course. But persuading his counterparts in Germany to allow the South Africans to build a 7 Series race car was a stroke of genius. It was as dominant as a race car as it was as a boardroom cruiser, and to this day no-one has ever built another racing Seven. Until the arrival of the latest M760Li, the South African-spec 745i was probably the closest BMW ever came to building a real M7, but you aren't likely to hear many admit to that in the corridors of Munich.

[Words: Mark Smyth, images by Rob Till]



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Comments (6) Join the discussion on the forum

  • RPastry 12 Jun 2017

    What a beast! Ironic they removed the M badges when these days everything from a 116 has them plastered all over the place.

  • Zombie 12 Jun 2017

    There's some pics of the road going version at the bottom of this page, if anyone's interested;

  • 0a 12 Jun 2017

    When BMWs were proper cars!

  • samoht 12 Jun 2017

    Awesome story, I really like hearing about cool stuff like this I hadn't heard of.

    What was it about the South African market and BMW that they got bespoke performance models? Big market share, big performance reputation there, or just the local factory allowed more lee-way for 'custom' variants? Damn cool anyway.

  • Zombie 12 Jun 2017

    "M1 engine in a saloon? Hell yes!"

    Not sure why this is so exciting, wasn't it used in the M5 of the same period?

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