BMW recently displayed a handful of historic models at a franchised dealership in Parramatta in Western Sydney. BMW aficionado and motoring editor Mike Fourie photographed the collection for SentiMETAL and explains the significance of each of the cars within a South African context.
BMW Isetta 1955-1962
Most of us associate the mid-1950s with the golden age of the automobile. In post-war Germany, however, BMW was close to bankruptcy. There was demand for affordable personal transport, but BMW did not have the resources to develop a car from scratch. The Munich-based firm found its solution at the 1954 Turin Show – the Italian-made Iso Isetta. BMW acquired the rights to produce the single-doored bubble car, but fitted it with an extra wheel (it had 4, instead of 3) and a 250cc single-cylinder 4-stroke motorcycle engine. It could accommodate 2 adult occupants at the front (luggage had to be strapped to the car’s exterior rack) and required only a bike licence to operate.
Fun Fact: All Isettas had a canvas roof, similar to today’s sunroof. Not because of customer demand, but because an emergency exit was mandatory since you entered the car “through the front”.
1973 BMW 2002
Introduced in 1966, the “02 Series” has a rich motorsport history and, as a compact, sporty sedan, it made the Bavarian brand more accessible to a younger clientele – it’s regarded the template upon which the first (E21) 3 Series was based. This particular example is a late model-year '73 build, which places it among the last round-rear-light cars produced. The 2002 is painted in the original colour of Colorado Orange (considered one of the signature 2002 colours) and powered by an M10 2.0-litre 4-cylinder engine with a single downdraft Solex carburettor mated with a 4-speed manual gearbox.
Fun Fact: The turbocharged derivative of the 2002 was BMW’s first forced-induction production car.
1984 BMW 528i
The 5 Series is significant from a South African point of view, because the E12-generation model was the first to be built in the Republic under the full custodianship of BMW South Africa. The E12 had a long run in Mzansi (it famously underpinned the unique-to-SA 530 MLE homologation special) and remained in production until 1985, 4 years after it had been replaced by this car (the E28) overseas. The E28, arguably the last truly boxy BMWs to be launched in SA, was only in the market for 4 years, before it was replaced by the E34, which became the 2nd BMW to win the SA Car of the Year title. With the arrival of the M5, the 528i became the middle-of-the-range derivative. It was powered by a 135 kW 2.8-litre inline-6 engine mated with a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic transmission.
Fun Fact: The SA-built E28-generation M5 was the first M model to be produced outside Germany.
1988 BMW 635CSi Art Car
The BMW E24 is the 1st generation of the 6 Series grand tourer, which was produced from 1976 to 1989, exclusively as a coupe. Initially based on the E12 5 Series, the E24 switched to the E28 5 Series platform in 1982. The distinctive Paul Bracq-designed 6 Series, nicknamed “The Shark” by its many fans, was instrumental in establishing BMW as a yuppie-mobile in the Eighties. Aside from the 24-valve M635CSi, the E24 was powered by M30 inline-6 engines. A total of 86 216 cars were built prior to production ending in April 1989, after which BMW mothballed the 6 Series until the Chris Bangle-era E63/E64 in 2003, which was followed by the F06/F12/F13 variants from 2011 to 2018. The 6 Series lives on as the frumpy, wagon-esque G32-generation Gran Turismo today; what a travesty.
Fun Fact: Australian fashion designer Jenny Kee was commissioned by Trivett Classic BMW to design this Art Car in 2007. With the famous Flamingo Park boutique, Kee and textile designer Linda Jackson created Australia’s fashion identity in the 1970s. They formed a partnership creating outfits including bright and colourful pure Australian wool knitted jumpers with fauna and flora emblems. Among them was a knitted koala jumper nicknamed "Slinky" that was owned by Diana, Princess of Wales.
1989 BMW 325iS
The E30 was the 2nd-generation 3 Series and the first iteration of BMW’s now iconic business-class car (also known as compact executive) to be offered in South Africa; its coupe variant, in 325iS guise, is, of course, affectionately known as the Gusheshe. The first-ever M3, an international touring-car phenomenon, was based on the E30, but the left-hand-drive-only M car never made it to South Africa.
BMW South Africa, however, produced the locally developed 333i and 325iS and 325iS Evo 2 in the mid-Eighties and early-Nineties (examples of the latter 2 already form part of the SentiMETAL collection). Outside of South Africa, however, the E30 range didn’t offer much apart from the M3 and the 1.8-litre 16-valve-engined 318iS. The car pictured here is badged a 325iS, but it is powered by a standard, 125-kW 2.5-litre inline-6 motor, not by a 145 kW or 155 kW Alpina-tuned 2.7-litre motor as it was in South Africa. Why? BMW raced an M3 in touring-car racing in Australia in the Eighties, the country didn’t have a Stannic Group N production-car formula, as was the case here.
Fun Fact: The 333i (which was available with either power steering or AC, not both) was never raced.
1990 BMW 735iL
Until the arrival of the 2nd-generation 7 Series (E32), BMW was largely viewed as inferior to Mercedes-Benz (which then produced the W126-series S-Class) in the luxury sedan segment. However, that all swiftly changed when the Bavarian brand’s sleek Claus Luthe-designed limousine raised the stakes considerably – in fact, the E32 was regarded the world’s most sophisticated sedan at the time. For a car that was launched in 1987 (in South Africa), the E32 positively brimmed with technology, including self-levelling rear suspension, electronic dual-zone climate control, electrically adjustable seats and exterior mirrors (with memory function for both), self-dipping rear-view mirror and a comprehensive trip computer, replete with a diagnostic message system in the instrument cluster.
BMW was also particularly proud of the E32’s handling dynamics and the South African subsidiary famously produced the “Beat the Benz” television advertisement featuring a 7 Series in response the Mercedes-Benz safety campaign about a Cape Town man who’d survived a crash after his Benz rolled down Chapman’s Peak. The payoff line for the BMW TV spot, which was filmed at the same perilous location was “Doesn’t it make sense to drive a luxury car that beats the… bends?”
Fun Fact: The 750iL (1990) was the first V12-engined German sedan since the Second World War.
1992 BMW 318i
The 3 Series arguably began its evolution into a fully-fledged compact (business-class) sedan with the E36-generation model, also known as “The Dolphin”. When the 316i debuted in 1992, it sported a host of standard features, from a height-adjustable driver’s seat, power steering, aircon, central locking, an immobiliser and, of course, a toolkit in the bootlid, for a tantalising price of R66 000. To put that in context, at the time, an entry-level executive sedan cost roughly twice as much as the 316i and although it only had 85 kW on tap, the range subsequently gained the first multivalve 4-cylinder engine, a 1.8-litre 16-valve motor, in the 318i (pictured here with factory-standard grey bumpers – most cars in South Africa were colour-coded).
The Dolphin was a sporty yet practical and refined sedan that appealed to almost everyone: yuppies, young families and those in tweed jackets. Not only did it pave the way for the local introductions of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4, but by the time the E36 was in its stride, dual front airbags with ABS and a maintenance plan were standard, too. By way of a rand-for-rand comparison, lower to mid-range Threes offered outstanding value for money. Can the same be said about the contemporary G20-generation 3 Series? Hmm.
Fun fact: The E36 underpinned the first M3 model in SA; the first version had a 3.0-, not 3.2-litre, 24-valve inline-6 motor.
1994 BMW 840Ci
The 8 Series seems to be a hoodoo model for BMW. The first iteration of the grand tourer (the E31 generation) appeared at the end of the Eighties, replete with its computer-designed (a first for BMW) sleek shark-like profile – and popup headlights, which no other Bimmer has had since! The original Eight, which was produced from 1989 to 1999, superseded the 6 Series, much like the 2nd-generation 8 Series, which reappeared in 2018 (again, at the cost of the 6er) – neither models have sold particularly well. BMW South Africa imported a handful of 850i units in manual and automatic guises in the early Nineties and, as a result, E31s are extremely rare in Mzansi and coveted by myriad BMW enthusiasts.
They’re complicated beasts to maintain, though – powered by a velvety-but-thirsty 5.0-litre V12, the 850i has an early-generation high-speed BUS communication network that permeates every inch of its ravishing, but nonetheless over-engineered, design. Each cylinder bank has its own ECU, there’s drive-by-wire throttle control, a Servotronic steering system, self-levelling suspension, ridiculously complicated cooling systems (for both engine and cabin) and banks of flickering LCDs. The 840Ci shown here, was introduced later in the model cycle, with a 4.4-litre multivalve V8 (instead of the V12) and a more modern six-speed automatic transmission. Many BMW aficionados believe that if you want to take the plunge with an E31, an 840Ci is the best bet.
Fun fact: BMW never made an M8, but built the 850CSi, powered by a 280 kW 5.6-litre V12 mated with a 6-speed manual gearbox. You can count the number of those in South Africa on 1 hand.
1999 BMW Z8
It’s the ultimate turn-of-the-century retromobile, the best Bond car ever to be sliced in half by a helicopter chainsaw (in The World is Not Enough, with Pierce Brosnan – it was, fittingly, BMW’s final appearance in the film franchise) – and the precocious lovechild of Chris Bangle and Henrik Fisker (two of the most celebrated car designers in BMW’s history). The Bavarian marque produced less than 6 000 units of the Z8 (it purposely limited production numbers to ensure exclusivity) and the roadster was powered by the 294 kW 4.9-litre V8 from the E39-generation M5 sedan mated with a 6-speed manual gearbox.
Although the motoring media was less than complimentary about the Z8’s dynamics, the car’s iconic status is undiminished. There are several reasons for that: the Z8’s lithe-but-muscular roadster proportions are near-perfect; it features exquisite retro detailing, such as an art-deco steering wheel, centrally-mounted instrument cluster in the dashboard and neon-tube tail-light clusters. It seemed as if, with the 20th century drawing to a close, BMW just threw common sense to the wind and built something totally indulgent, but nonetheless sublime. The Bavarian brand could never recreate the breathtakingly beautiful 507, but it got darn close!
Fun fact: Tuning firm Alpina utilised the 4.8-litre V8 from the first-gen X5 and a 5-speed automatic transmission to transform the Z8 into the Roadster V8 in 2003. It produced only 555 units of the car.