Today, if you walk into a U.S. dealership to buy a flagship sedan, you almost certainly won’t find one with a manual transmission, and you may not even find a sedan. Cadillac’s Blackwings and the BMW M3 (which technically isn’t a flagship) are holdouts of a dying breed. This wasn’t always the case; if you look back far enough in time, you can find a flagship with three pedals. Back in the late 1980s, BMW sold its second-generation 7-Series with a manual transmission right here in America. But good luck finding one because they’re so rare they only seem to exist online (and our Editor-At-Large Patrick used to own one).
Last time on Holy Grails, reader Jack Trade reminded us that the Geo Storm and Isuzu Impulse had versions that weren’t just economy cars. Both of these cars were available as a shooting brake featuring removable rear windows. The Storm was the more common sibling, but if you are lucky enough, you might find an Isuzu Impulse XS Wagonback. This car featured the aforementioned shooting brake design plus a Lotus-tuned chassis with softer springs, stiffer dampers, and larger sway bars. Power came from a 1.6-liter DOHC four making up to 140 HP. If that wagon booty wasn’t for you, even rarer was the single-year 1991 Impulse RS. That one got a 43:57 rear-biased torque split AWD system, a passive rear-steer, and a hotter 160 HP 1.6-liter four.
Today’s grail returns back to the familiar realm of a rare version of a common car.
Usually, there is one reader or two who complains that a chosen “Holy Grail” is too common. Indeed, not every vehicle nominated for this series was made in single, double, or even quadruple digits. Sometimes we do find a true grail, such as the sole Duntov GT, other times, there might be tens of thousands of examples in existence. We try to keep production numbers low. I’m also open to suggestions for a new name for this series if “Holy Grail” has run its course. Remember, this all started when David found a rare Jeep and then kept finding them. Yeah, we sort of ruined the original meaning.
Anyway, today’s trip takes us back to the 1980s and the second generation of the BMW 7 Series, known as the E32. This car is perhaps most famous for the 750iL, which sports the first V12 used in a German passenger car since 1945. However, there is another version of the second generation 7 Series that is even rarer than the V12 and perhaps more approachable for an enthusiast not super excited about maintaining an old German V12 beast.
This is the E32 BMW 735i, and so far as I could tell, it was the last time you could buy a 7 Series in America with a manual transmission.
BMW’s Flagship Sedan For Decades
The BMW 7 Series has stood at the top of BMW’s line of sedans for the past 46 years. Through that time, BMW has packed the sedan with its latest technology and cushy luxury. The controversial 7 Series of today features technology like a curved display as an instrument cluster, displays in its doors, a theater display, an LED ceiling, automatic opening and closing doors, 5G connectivity, and so much more. For today’s grail, we have to wind the clock back through several generations and not too far from the car that started it all.
As BMW Blog writes, the development of the 7 Series was the result of BMW’s success with its New Six platform.
Launched in 1968, the New Six entered into a growing market of luxury sedans. Mercedes-Benz dominated this market and BMW, which had briefly stopped making full-size luxury cars, wanted a piece of the pie. The New Six, known internally as the E3, sold well and its platform was used as the bones for the gorgeous 3.0 CSi. The United States got the New Six in 1969 and in 1971, we got our own version called the Bavaria. That New Six featured the engine of the 2800 but with the features of a 2500. Production of the New Six marched forward until 1977, when BMW had its replacement ready.
The first-generation of the 7 Series, known as the E23, launched in 1977 and was a technological leap forward. The E23 featured a number of firsts for BMW such as an onboard computer.
Owners of the E23 also enjoyed a service interval indicator as well as a check control panel that warned the driver of faults with their vehicle. These are features that you’ll find in modern BMWs but have been around for decades. And BMW didn’t stop there. In 1978, the 7 Series got an electronic climate control system and cruise control. In 1979, BMW upgraded the cars even further with fuel injection and an anti-lock braking system.
The first-generation 7 Series even spawned its own Holy Grail! The South African BMW 745i is basically the M7 that BMW didn’t make. When BMW South Africa wanted to bring the 745i to its country, it ran into a problem.
The 3.2-liter turbocharged straight six filled up the 745i’s engine bay, so much that the vehicle couldn’t be adapted for right-hand-drive. This was reportedly because the turbocharger and its plumbing are on the right side, leaving no room for the steering shaft of a right-hand-drive model. BMW SA’s solution? Drop in the BMW M5’s engine for 282 HP, faster than the European version.
The 7 Series Gets Even Better
In June 1986, BMW followed up the E23 with the E32, which moved the needle even further with technology. BMW’s design head at this time was Claus Luthe. His team, which included Ercole Spada and Hans Kerschbaum, were tasked with following up the E23, which was designed under Paul Bracq and Manfred Rennen. I think the team gave the E32 a sort of timeless design. Give it a set of halos and it could probably pass for an early 2000s BMW design.
Anyway, BMW introduced even more luxuries with the E32. ABS now came standard and the 7 Series was available with a parking distance control system. These sedans also had dual-pane glass and in 1989, owners could get features like a refrigerator and a car phone. In 1991, BMW tossed in some Xenon headlights, claiming to be the first automaker to do so with a production car.
Of course, the top-line 7 Series at this time was the 750i and 750iL (above), which came with a 5.0-liter M70B50 V12 making 296 HP and 332 lb-ft torque. BMW says that this engine was the first of its kind in a passenger car since the end of World War II. But to our resident Daydreaming Designer, the Bishop, this is only one of the grails to come from the E32.
As Bishop explained to me, further down the line was the 735i. Yes, this was the 7 Series’ base model here in the United States, but it had a trick that the later V8 and mighty V12 didn’t have, and that’s a manual transmission.
This grail is a bit of a different one for this series. I’ve actually been researching this car for a month. The 735i with a manual transmission is such a rare configuration that at first, I thought that it had to be non-factory. Few sites have even written about these with manual transmissions. My first clue that Bishop wasn’t pulling my chain was this review from MotorWeek. John Davis reviewed a 1988 BMW 735i with an automatic transmission, but states that a five-speed manual transmission was available.
Later, I found a brochure, which shows the manual’s shifter standing proud.
Focusing on that review for a moment, something that I’ve noticed about some BMWs is that even a base model could be pretty loaded. The 735i still got a luxurious interior with the aforementioned onboard computer, power seats, and driver memory. MotorWeek also notes that the interior has dual-zone climate control and Davis was seemingly excited by the fact that the instrument cluster warns you when it’s cold outside. Other neat luxury touches include window shades and a side mirror that automatically dips when you’re reversing.
Power comes from a 3.4-liter M30 straight six making 208 HP and 225 lb-ft torque. When that power is sent through an automatic, it results in a 60 mph acceleration time of about 9.5 seconds. With a manual? The car’s a second faster.
MotorWeek was also impressed with the engine’s thrust compared to how smooth it felt. Davis notes that hydraulic engine mounts ensure a comfortable cabin, even when the show’s testers were flogging the cruiser. MotorWeek also enjoyed the vehicle’s handling, but not the car’s electronically-controlled steering assist, which made steering heavy when the drivers didn’t want it to be.
In other words, the 735i is as competent as you’d expect a BMW to be. Sure, those features are nothing to write home about today, but remember, this was in 1988! MotorWeek concluded its review by saying “the $50,000 BMW 735i is nearer perfection than ever before.” Davis even concluded that the car was so good that it could sell for thousands more.
Practically A Unicorn
Through all of my research on this car, I could find archived listings for a 735i with a manual but not a single one for sale. Enthusiasts believe that 735is were imported with manual transmissions for just the 1988, 1989, and 1990 model years and that production numbers are in the low hundreds. I’ve found nothing definitive and in an effort to get some answers, I reached out to BMW. After a month I still haven’t heard back.
So, what I can tell you is that these might as well be unicorns. They don’t even show up on Bring a Trailer that often. Should you find one of these in good shape, Bring a Trailer suggests that you’ll be paying closer to $20,000. Of course, if you’re lucky enough to find one on Facebook you might luck out with a cheaper list price. If you own one of these, can I drive it? Drop me a line at email@example.com.
(Images: BMW, unless otherwise noted.)
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https://carsandbids.com/auctions/9WqDdnGV/1994-bmw-730i mid nineties 7 series was my favorite for sure
In the early 1990s, I visited relatives in Austria… and one of them had an E32 BMW 730i with the 5 speed manual… and I got to ride in it! It was the most basic 7 series you could get and he apparently got a great deal on it.
One thing I recall is how the estimated fuel economy gauge would swing one way and back as my uncle shifted gears.
Name option of “Rare Rides”? It would open this writing section up to other vehicles that just aren’t seen as often.
Funnily enough, one of my friends here in Arizona has had two of them. He brought one pretty recently to a little car meet I had at my new shop, it was cool to see in person, he had it slammed and on Jaguar wheels. I’ve seen a few for sale semi-locally over the years as well, you’d be surprised to hear that they don’t sell for all that much. Yes, they’re rare and cool, but the majority of 7 series buyers don’t want a manual transmission, much like when the E32 was new. A friend of mine was selling a 5-speed manual E53 X5 (slicktop too) and he had a really hard time finding a buyer because the manual scared everyone off.
Can easily find a donor 5spd manual tranny from an E24 or E34 to convert one. If you want a V8 E32 with a manual tranny then you can get a 6spd from an E39 5er, now a V8 E32 with a 6spd might be more rare than 735i w/ 5spd.
I have seen a BMW 730i, the later, V8-engined model, with a manual transmission here in NY. Of course, it was imported from Scotland and was at an RHD meetup. Even cooler was that it was the rare Shadowline trim, with blacked out chrome. Delicious.
I can’t understand this continous longing for a manual at all, especially on cars where you do not need it. An E32 with a manual might be a rare car but for a good reason – that is inadequate for this kind of car. I worked for a BMW dealer here in Germany back in the days and I can tell that the smoothest E32 was the 730i with the 3.0 six IL. Ok, it was not fast (188hp, I believe) but it was like silk, regarding smoothness even better than the 750i since the smaller engine had much less moving parts. A manual on such a car? No way. The 5-speed auto transmission was so good.
Agreed. The 7 was designed to be a comfortable, stylish, sophisticated cruiser. It’s not a sports car and doesn’t need to try to be. Same reason I wouldn’t want a manual in my Odyssey.
Yes, but somehow the “true enthusiast” narrative these days is that a good car becomes a great car if equipped with a manual. Simply not true now, and not true for some cars back then (although I didn’t realize E32 got a 5HP)
I’ve seen one in person. A guy would always bring his E32 manual 735i to local chapter BMWCCA events. It was in pretty rough shape, because all 7 series older than the 1st lease are. I knew the manual in that car was rare because I’d never seen another one, but wasn’t aware of it’s unicorn status. I would have taken a picture for proof, if I had.
Now THIS is a holy grail. Just about the perfect automotive form, big sedan, silky inline 6, manual transmission, German road manners. If only it was reliable.
The idea of a big sedan with a manual is something dear to my heart. After my kids were born, I wanted the biggest sedan available with a manual, in order to have room for baby seats. The Maxima at that time was just shy of full-sized and fit the bill perfectly. I called it my “poor man’s M5”.
Drop in the BMW M5’s engine for 282 HP, faster than the European version.
South African 745i was the first passenger car to receive the M88/3 engine in 1983, predating M5 by two years. The same M88/3 engine was fitted to E24 M635CSi in April 1984 and E28 M5 in summer 1985.
I used to have a 1992 E34 535i, manual. Same engine and transmission as the E32 735. I loved that thing, great car. Apart from blowing the radiator on the test drive it didn’t give me a single problem in two years, and it would have been 15 years old when I got it.
Whoever the first owner was had picked cloth seats, manual rear windows, basically no options at all except the big engine and maroon paint.
One weekend I drove it over a thousand miles to the Nurburgring, did some laps of the track as sideways as I dared, and drove home again. Such a glorious machine.
I think my stepdad’s favorite car ever is still his e32 735iL. It didn’t have a manual, but that was still an awesome car. Chrome basketweaves on a black BMW – doesn’t get much more late 80’s than that…
…all of which I would option out if I was in the market for a land barge. Which I’m not.
Now you’re talking.
I had a manual 7 Series, this car’s immediate predecessor the E23. It was junk. You can’t find parts for it to save your life and it breaks all of the goddamn time.
This is me whenever one of my so-called “friends” sends me a Craigslist ad for another old 7 Series:
“it breaks all of the goddamn time” was my BMW experience too.
The E23 and E32 aren’t exactly cars for casual owners, you pretty much have to be committed to ongoing maintenance/repairs to keep one of them running in good shape. Parts availability means you have to get creative with reusing parts or finding somebody that has a stash of old stock parts, that’s inherent to all classic cars really.
To Mercedes’ philosophical point, I like the “holy grail” designation and think it absolutely fits. It’s not just about objective rarity here, but also about context and general autopian-ness as compared to other ways of automotive being.
I suggested the Geo Storm last go-round not b/c there was anything really objectively special about them, but b/c of how popular they were at a given time but are all but forgotten now. I always thought what made them popular was their being primarily about an everyday fun driving experience that was reasonable to buy and own for almost anyone.
To me, what makes them a grail now (but not then) is that that ethos doesn’t exactly exist anymore. So it’s a grail-by-context, if you will.
To me, that’s the autopian-ness of this series, that it’s not just about X of only Y made, it’s about our experiences of the vehicles too!
Great article, Mercedes! Thanks.
BMW made a half dozen or so 1995 735s for the first Transporter movie. A couple were likely destroyed, so there’s probably a couple still around. Maybe in Jason Statham’s garage?
A mate of mine has (or had?) a manual Jaguar XJR of the X300 generation. Unicorn.
Whaaaat? I had no idea those ever existed. I have been looking at old Jaguars on and off. Was pretty close to buying a suspiciously cheap XJS V12 but somebody got it before me. Some days I feel like I dodged a bullet. Other days I feel sad that my car doesn’t have 12 glorious cylinders.
It was even pretty unusual to have a manual 7 series in the U.K. by the late 80s. My dad’s friend had two manual E32 735is in a row, which replaced a Jag XJ6 4.2 manual (probably even rarer). I believe he still dailies a manual 911 these days so has never succumbed to an automatic. Or an SUV.
I think that the following generation still offered a manual (with straight six) in the Canadian market for a hot second… that’s the one I want.
There is (at least) one inherited example for sale on German eBayK, basic but in good nick. 6,500€
I can understand how they wouldn’t be too popular in the US.
Still, Given the advancement of modern auto gearboxes, I can hardly see a point of a flagship barge with one
I had a friend in the late ’90s who had one of these, albeit not running. He also had a manual 528e that was his daily driver, purchased as a stopgap while he fixed the 735i. As far as I know, the 735i was never fixed.
I can attest that have actually ridden in one of these. David Forkosh, owner of Forkosh Hospital in Chicago drove one of these. I was completely blown away that he had a manual 7 series. He was a true enthusiast and where I got my first copies of R&T (thanks again DF).
Amusingly, his wife drove a total POS Dodge Omni. They could certainly afford better for her, but she was such a shitty driver and parked by feel, so he wouldn’t get her a better car. They gave their oldest daughter a vintage Mercedes, but mom drove the Omni.
“They could certainly afford better for her, but she was such a shitty driver and parked by feel, so he wouldn’t get her a better car.”
This is hilarious bc it implies that she (wife), at some level knew she was a shitty ‘Drive by feel’ driver and therefore accepted her Dodge Omni fate ????
Oh yeah, she knew it. Now I will say that they did later get divorced, so it may not have gone over as smoothly as I thought at the time. Lol
Divorce happened when David bought a new BMW for a hot nurse.