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.’
Mercedes, do you know about apartheid?
It was a law that segregated native black south Africans during this period that you are so lovingly reminiscing about. These cars were exclusively made for those white supremacists who supported that regime.
Being a multiracial couple was a crime. It was hell on earth for decent human beings.
The cars are cool, but the implications are quite disturbing.
I understand if you simply didn’t know about this dark chapter, and I implore you to learn more.
The Volvo S70R would be another good feature for this column.
And yet another South African holy grail is the factory V-8 MkI Capri
Weirdly, the V6 Perana Capri is even rarer. I didn’t even know it existed til I saw one someone had imported at my local garage.
The Perana? I remember reading about that in high school when I had a MKII Escort and dreamed of more power than the tired 1600 Kent could provide.
There’s quite a few Capris local to me that have Windsor V8s swapped in, but they all are set up for drag racing and don’t think any are road legal.
I love this series and am so excited to see what other cars my fellow Autopians nerd out about. I have at least 5 more vws to write about. 😀
Polo G40? That’s my holy grail.
These were very exclusive. Only Afrikaners were allowed to own them, dream of owning them or even glancing at them. Ah the good old days…
now we just have entire boer families being slaughtered with impunity on their farms.
The turbo 745i is the mirror image of the R34 Skyline GTR, which couldn’t be made LHD, because the turbos were on the left.
For more SA oddity, I was going to mention the BMW engined Defender but also the Ford Sierra XR8, with a 302 V8
Likewise the Datsun Bluebird 510 SSS with its’ dual carbs. The LHD brake booster wanted to be in the same space as the rear carb, so it was only ever sold in Japan, Australia, South Africa and maybe adjacent countries like New Zealand and what’s now Zimbabwe (not sure why UK and Ireland missed out).
I’m not sure why they didn’t do an LHD “American Special” 2000SSS with a single-carb version of the 2000 Sports’ U20 engine, though.
R34 Skyline GTR, which couldn’t be made LHD
That didn’t seem to dissuade a mad Finn who converted his R32 to LHD so he could drive it legally on Finnish road in the late 1990s. His engineering work has shown that it was possible to rearrange the exhaust system to give room for the steering box. Ever since, there’s a several LHD R33 and R34 Skyline GT-R for sale. Please do more research before claiming the impossibility of converting R34 to LHD.
Anything can be done with enough money and time, maybe it was just not worth it for the factory to do so.
I remember seeing references to the Ford Sierra XR8 in my younger days in world car books, and wondering what in the [bleep] was up with them. I can haz holy grail Ford story?
Ford Sierra XR8 wasn’t the only one. Perana did stuff the Windsor 302 V8 in the first generation Ford Granada (muscular European version, not the ghastly American version).
BMW and Ford weren’t only one. Alfa Romeo South Africa had built Alfetta GTV with Montréal V8 engines, calling it Alfetta GTV8, for the same reason as Sierra XR8. About 50 were exported to Germany per German dealer’s commission.
The Sierra XR8 was another homologation special. They built 250 of them because they wanted to enter the SA Touring Car Championship, so they stuffed the Fox Body Mustang 302 engine and T5 trans into the Sierra… the only major exterior difference is they have cooling slats in the front grill to cool the larger radiator.
Perhaps the dullest and most absurd entry for holy grails is Alfa Romeo 1750A Berlina (1971 only). Alfa Romeo didn’t have automatic gearboxes until 2000A Berlina was officially introduced in 1973. However, Alfa Romeo had a little trick up its sleeve: 1750A Berlina built and sold in 1971 only. Understandably, none of them were sold in Italy. Alfa Romeo wanted to weed out any technical issues with the automatic gearboxes prior to the US launch of 2000 and 2000A Berlina.
Between 249 and 251 1750A Berlina were built with ZF three-speed automatic gearboxes in early 1971. None of them have production year stamped on the plate. My father was one of the lucky owners when he bagged the car at deep discount in 1972 and kept it for twenty-plus years. After acquiring the fleet car (1973 Chevrolet Impala station wagon), he passed it down to my mum who passed it down to me when she got her own car, Mercedes-Benz 450 SEL. I drove it for a several years until the idiot stopped in the middle of the intersection, and I couldn’t dodge the bullet. So, the car was written off by the clueless insurance agent. No idea what happen to this car now.
Several connoisseurs didn’t believe 1750A existed until I posted the photos of my car and a scanned cover of German-language operating handbook. I wonder if any of 1750A Berlina survive to this day…
You’ll find a lot of these really high end cars were automatic in SA, manual gear boxes were considered poverty spec so if you really wanted to flex at the country club you’d roll up in an automatic.
I often scoff at most people’s use of the term “holy grail”, but this instance fits my definition of the term in every way. Nicely done!
I’ll stop pestering you guys now, I swear.
Also – two of the three SA 745is I’ve seen for sale, one was a project and listed with a auction price of around $6,000. The other had a fresh rebuilt engine and listed for sale at $13,000…. Surprisingly cheap for Holy Grails.
I have a 745i SA as a restoration project – Car #184
I see you’ve got it on the M Registry, you should upload some pictures there.
“Of course, the letters at the end mean something, too, with “i” representing fuel injection, “d” for diesel, and “e” for hybrid”
Originally the ‘e’ stood for ‘efficiency’… and originally used on models which had a version of their I6 tuned for fuel economy. So in the 1980s, you had models like the 325e and 528e.
One other holy grail from BMW SA is the Land Rover Defender 2.8i. This was (sorta) the replacement for the 3.5l V8 in South Africa, they took the engine out of a 328i (BMW owned Land Rover at the time) and shoved it into a Defender, creating the fastest factory Defender ever (until the latter SVR that come out in 2015?). Weirdly it was only sold in South Africa, these command BIG money especially outside of South Africa, there was one for sale in New Zealand a while ago and they were asking over $200,00NZD for it.
That green 745i is a stunning car! I think the post refresh E23s are among the best BMWs ever. While big and supremely comfortable, they still have a simple direct and mechanical feel, making them more fun to drive than later big BMWs. And as holy grail candidates, I would like to propose the Bitter CD and LaForza.