Welcome back to Holy Grails, the Autopian series where you tell us some of the coolest, most underrated cars that you love. You lovely readers have been flooding our inboxes with an astonishing variety of cars. It’s awesome to see that just about every car has someone who loves it. This time, our holy grail is a car that many enthusiasts may not know about because it was sold only in a single country. BMW gave South Africa a special version of the 7 Series that nowhere else got. The South African 745i is an M1-powered highway bomber, and it exists for a silly reason.
Last week, we kicked off Holy Grails with the Mercury Tracer LTS. When the second-generation Tracer made its debut, it was a sensible, practical vehicle for a small family. And today, it’s a car that you’ll probably miss unless you were looking for it. But there was a spicy version, the Luxury Touring Sedan, that turned a sensible sedan into something that might make you smile as you drive the kid to school. Today, we have another performance sedan, and it’s one that enthusiasts might not know about.
But unlike the Tracer, it was never sold in America. In fact, it was never sold anywhere but South Africa.
What Makes South Africa Different
BMW South Africa, a member of the BMW Group, is proud of the timeline of BMW in the country. The company notes that the story of BMW in South Africa began in 1927, when a BMW-powered Dornier-Mercury aircraft landed in Cape Town. This was followed up in 1929 when a German immigrant brought his BMW into South Africa. BMW South Africa believes this to be the first BMW motorcycle in the country. Later, in 1952, a 501 is claimed to be the first BMW car to arrive in the country.
It wasn’t until 1968 when BMW production finally began in South Africa. And this was huge, as the factory in Rosslyn was the first BMW plant outside of Germany, from BMW:
Production at BMW Plant Rosslyn dates back to 1968, when Praetor Monteerders began assembling cars, utilising BMW engines and drive-trains fitted to Hans Glas sheet metal pressed and shipped from Dingolfing in Germany.
In 1973, BMW AG took over full shareholding and established BMW Group South Africa (Pty) Ltd with BMW Plant Rosslyn becoming the BMW Group’s first manufacturing facility outside of Germany.
Since then, the BMW Group has been a major investor in South Africa and its people, with BMW Plant Rosslyn moving from a limited vehicle-production plant that merely assembled vehicles with a few customisation possibilities for the local market, to a world-class plant, capable of producing highly customised cars for customers across the globe.
Praetor Monteerders didn’t just build BMWs, either, as it also built the Jeep Wagoneer and Gladiator for Kaiser Jeep SA. It’s unclear how many Jeeps rolled out of the Rosslyn plant, but Jeep production ended in 1970 after Kaiser Jeep SA ended its partnership. At around the same time, BMW bought shares in Praetor Monteerders, only to take over all shares in 1973, establishing BMW Group South Africa. Despite being coupled to BMW Group, BMW South Africa has maintained some of its own identity, and the result is a number of South Africa-exclusive BMWs.
South African Specials
Those cars include the Alpina-powered 325iS Evo I and II and the rare 333i Turbo, but today, we’re here to talk about the South African 745i, the fastest BMW 7 Series in the world at the time and arguably the closest that BMW has come to a full-fledged M7. Here’s why reader James thinks this car is a holy grail:
I put this in the comments of Mercedes’ latest Holy Grail article about the Tracer LTS… But there is a Holy Grail car that can be considered the holiest of holy grails…. At least to weirdos like me.
The South African BMW 745i.
BMW sold the E23 chassis 7 series from 1977 to 1987 in the US. We got neutered versions consisting of the 733i, 735i, and the L7. The rest of the world got a wide range of models, the government fleet only 725i, the base model 728i… a couple carbureted version like the 728 and 730 (note the lack of the “i”)… 732i, 733i, 735i…
Top of the line in Europe was the turbocharged 745i. But… due to BMW South Africa existing as a semi-independent subsidiary producing cars from CKDs they were able to do their own thing.
They saw a demand for the top of the range 745i, but then couldn’t get the turbocharged engine to work with right hand drive… so they just decided “you know what, we will just stuff the M88/3 from the E28 M5 and E24 M6 into a 7 series and call it the 745i”
That’s exactly what they did.
This unique vehicle has several other things going for it. It was the only 7 series to be entered into factory sanctioned touring car racing, and it did quite well. There were legendary battles between the Tony Viana’s 745i and Ford Sierra XR8s (another South African “holy grail”).
It is currently the only factory M powered 7 series, it’s the closest to a factory M7 that they’ve ever produced.
BMW SA only made between 209 to 249 depending on who you ask, specifically for the South African market… they weren’t officially exported anywhere (though some have made their ways to Australia and Japan, with at least 1 that was gray market imported to Texas and then exported to Australia). They were top of the line luxury sedans powered by a 286hp motorsports engine, with a 4spd auto or an optional dogleg 5spd manual (sadly only 17 buyers optioned the manual). They had an interior slathered in leather. The dash, center console, door panels, arm rests, door caps, a/b/c pillars were all covered in hand stitched leather… it could even be optioned with another South African only option… a heavy duty steel sump guard.
I could talk your ear off about this car, despite living in the US my whole life and never actually seeing one in person. I have found only 3 for sale in the past 20 years of looking.
Amazingly, James’ story checks out, but our reader sort of buried the lede on why this car exists.
Launched in 1977, the E23 marked the first-generation of the BMW 7 Series. More than just a big sedan, as BMW Blog notes, the replacement for the New Six E3 sedans introduced a number of firsts for BMW. The E23 was the first BMW with ABS, the first with a double-link front suspension, and it even included an onboard computer. This car even had an early version of a check engine light. And the 7 Series would become known for more than advanced technology.
Through its generations the 7 Series would become known for big power from big engines. A number of 7 Series generations were offered with optional V12 engines. But BMW has never officially offered up a full M7. The G11 sixth-generation 7 Series came close with the M760Li delivering a 602 HP punch in 2017 thanks to a 6.6-liter N74 twin-turbo V12. But if you count unofficial versions, then BMW built an M7 back in 1983.
As James and BMW Blog point out, the range-topping E23 was the 745i. This wasn’t sold in America and in its home of Europe, it made 252 horses from a 3.2-liter M102 straight six with help from a turbocharger. Back in those days, the second and third digits of numerical model names still referred to displacement, and BMW Blog explains why a 745i would have a 3.2-liter engine:
The 745i designation has a logical explanation. It came from the theoretical assumptions that a 3.2-liter turbocharge engine would have a similar output level as 4.5-liter naturally-aspirated powerplant. The multiplier in this case is 1.4 (45/32 = 1.4).
Today, BMW says that the second and third digits now represent engine performance in kilowatts, or “virtual displacement.” Of course, the letters at the end mean something, too, with “i” representing fuel injection, “d” for diesel, and “e” for hybrid.
The Unofficial M7
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 as BMW Blog notes, the vehicle couldn’t be adapted for right-hand-drive countries. This is 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.
[Editor’s Note: By the way, see that tiny white reflector peeking out from under the bumper there? That’s a South Africa-only affectation. For a long time, all South African cars had to have little white reflectors up front. That’s how you can always spot a car from SA. – JT]
BMW South Africa’s solution to this silly problem was perhaps even more silly. The manufacturer’s engineers set their sights on the M88 straight six, first used in the BMW M1 supercar but at the time was used in the E28 M5 and E24 M635CSi as the M88/3. BMW South Africa shoehorned the 3.5-liter straight six into its special version of the 745i, creating a version even faster than the European version.
While the European version made 248 HP, the M5-powered 745i made 282 HP.
The South Africa 745i went from zero mph to 60 mph in just 7 seconds, and raced on to a top speed of 150 mph. This made it ever so slightly faster than the European turbocharged 745i, which accelerated to 60 mph in 7.14 seconds and topped out at 141 mph.
Period tests, like the one from Car Magazine above, praised the South African 745i for being one of the fastest big cars on the road. Yet, it was comfortable and quiet when you weren’t hammering on the skinny pedal.
These were more than just a beefy engine, too. Bimmer Life notes that these came with the M635CSi’s braking system as well as suspension enhancements and Mahle BBS wheels. BMW South Africa was proud enough of its creation that it entered one in the South African Modified Saloon Car Championship, where it took a win in 1985.
Power was brought up to 450 HP in the racer and BMW notes that Tony Viana was behind the wheel as it beat a Ford Sierra, Alfa Romeo GTV, and a Mazda RX-7.
It’s not known why this version of the 745i never left South Africa and why it was never badged as an M car. Some speculate that it was too noisy for European tastes, or that BMW perhaps couldn’t make enough of them for Europeans. There hasn’t been a confirmation as to why these stayed in South Africa, but I’d say this is part of what makes them a holy grail.
Between 1983 and 1987, somewhere between 209 and 249 of these were built, depending on the source you read. Of those, a scant 17 were equipped with a five-speed manual. One rough estimate says that there are perhaps just 20 of them left. Like the reader that suggested this car, I couldn’t find a single example currently for sale. If you find one of these, I wouldn’t expect it to be cheap. And if you somehow own one, I’d love to drive it!
Do you know of a ‘holy grail’ of a car out there? If so, we want to read about it! Send us an email at email@example.com and give us a pitch for why you think your favorite car is a ‘holy grail.’