When BMW Raced a 7 Series – Yes, Really!

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By Mark Smyth

It’s the 1980s, a time when what wins on the weekend sells on Monday. There’s loads of choice if you want to take on Alfa Romeo, Ford and Mazda in national Group A saloon car racing. You want something that’s going to win, that can beat them off the line and keep going to the chequered flag, something that’s fast, agile and sure-footed. You’re BMW and you have lots of choice, so you choose the 7 Series.

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Wait, what? A luxury barge 7 Series, to go racing?

That’s exactly what happened in South Africa in 1984 when BMW wanted to take on the competition in the national saloon car championship. It built a 7 Series race car. Then, the following year, it built another one. They were the only ones anywhere in the world, and not surprisingly no-one has built one since. But they did win, quite convincingly in fact, taking the Group 1 production car title in 1985 and the modified title in 1986.

Initially, BMW AG was not keen on the whole project, but it wasn’t unusual for the development boss of BMW SA at the time, Bernd Pischetsrieder to get his own way and do something interesting. He made a career out of interesting decisions. When he became global chairman of the automaker, he bought Rover. Okay, that one didn’t work out so well, but he also bought Land Rover, oh, possibly not a great choice either. Mini on the other hand, that was a winner.

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The race cars were not built on a regular 7 Series, but on the 745i, a uniquely South African model that used the M88 engine from the M1.

The secret to the racing seven was that it was no ordinary E23 7 Series, nor was the road going version built for homologation that it was based on. It was a 745i which in itself sounds fairly normal. BMW built a few cars of this model in Germany and while they were luxurious, they weren’t the basis for going racing.

Germany used the M30 six-cylinder for its 745i models, bolting on a turbo to make it the M102 engine and later M106, but the layout meant it would not fit in a right-hand drive car. BMW SA had a solution. It stuck the M88 engine from the M1 supercar into its seven and in doing so, unleashed a beast.

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249 models were built, the majority featuring a ZF auto box, but 17 were equipped with a Getrag five-speed dogleg manual and a limited slip diff. The road cars produced 286 hp, 34 hp more than the German version, and BMW claimed a top speed of 149 mph.

They even added a few M badges, stopping short of creating the first and only M7. However, Germany stamped its foot and demanded the M badges be removed. Other touches included unique BBS wheels and Nappa leather upholstery produced by a local supplier who went on to provide leather to other BMW plants in Germany.

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It’s unclear exactly how many of the 249 remain today, although expert and former BMW SA employee, Marek Letowt, reckons on there being only 20 survivors in total. He should know, he still owns a couple. He even owned the original prototype and marketing car, which he sold to BMW and which now lives in the museum in Munich. What we do know for sure is that only four of the manual versions exist. Two of those are the original race cars, bought by their current owner, Paolo Cavalieri in South Africa in 2006 and restored by Evolution 2 Motorsport in Johannesburg.

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Originally the idea of local saloon car champion Tony Viana and BMW SA Motorsport, the first was prepared for Group 1 racing. The engine was tweaked to produce 456 hp and the suspension and brakes were upgraded, but much of the rest, including the interior remained standard. After making its initial debut in the famous Gunston colours in 1984, the rules changed to allow the interior to be stripped. The 745i shed its luxuries and was liveried in Winfield colours for the 1985 season to take on such racing icons as the Alfa Romeo GTV, Ford Sierra XR8 and Mazda RX7. It was a championship-winning machine, but Group 1 racing ended that year.

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In 1986, a 745i was produced for the modified Group A championship. It won the season title again. (Picture credit: motorprint.co.za)

Instead, Viana and BMW turned their attention to the Modified Saloon Car (Group A) series which had started in 1983 and again their weapon of choice was the 7 Series. The new car used the replacement for the M88 engine, the S38, which debuted in 1986 in the E28 M5 and E24 M6 road cars. It was uprated to produce 563 hp and was extensively modified including the bodywork, brakes, wheels and limited slip differential. It won again, taking the overall championship title.

The championships were the crowning achievement for a car that seems anything but suitable for racing. At the time, the 745i was more expensive than a new Ferrari 308 and you had to be seriously wealthy to buy one. Incredibly, it cost the same as one of the most luxurious homes in the most prestigious postcodes in Johannesburg.

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Built in 1984 in South Africa, this BMW 745i won a national championship in its first full season. (Picture credit: Rob Till/BMW)

The 745i is unique and rare (one is believed to be in the UK in bad condition), but BMW South Africa was good at making some very special models at its plant. One of its earliest was the 530 MLE, widely regarded as the first unofficial M car. It made the superb 333i (another of Pischetsrieder’s pet projects), and because the country did not get the E30 M3, it made its own version in the form of the 325is, but those are all stories for another day.

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For now, take in the glory of a luxo-barge turned race car that almost didn’t happen. BMW didn’t really want a performance 7 Series, and has still never made an M7. But the South African 745i with its M1 engine and claim to be the fastest 7 Series in the world at the time, is as close as it ever got.

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