The imminent arrival of a new-generation BMW 7 Series has given rise to rumors that Munich may finally green-light a high-performance M7 version of its largest and most luxurious sedan. The reason why this would be a very big deal is because BMW had made it clear it won’t build an M7 ever since the smaller 3 Series, 5 Series, and 6 Series received such updates back in the 1980s. The reasoning is rather simple and logical: the Germans want the 7 Series to stay true to its initial role as a refined luxury sedan. A motorsport-derived engine would not only alter its smoothness, but the stiffer suspension needed to keep the more powerful vehicle on its best behavior would also affect its ride.

Customers after a high-performance 7 Series can always take it to Alpina, which has put together a very capable B7. But owning an Alpina isn’t quite as exciting as having a full-fledged M Power car in your driveway, is it now?

The most popular argument used against a potential M7 is that BMW never wanted to build one and never had. That’s not entirely true though. While Munich openly refused to build an M7 that could tackle the AMG-modified S-Class of Mercedes-Benz, there’s a certain 7 Series that received such treatment, albeit without an "M" badge. I’m talking about the 745i SA, a right-hand-drive sedan BMW sold in South Africa between 1984 and 1987 as part of the first-generation (E23) 7 Series.

It’s three decades old, I’ll give you that, but it’s the genuine M7 you probably never knew existed.

Continue reading for the full story.

The Badgeless M7

How Did It Happen?

 BMW 745i SA - The M7 You Never Knew Existed High Resolution Exterior
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Although the E23 7 Series was sold with inline-six engines exclusively, BMW did experiment with various V-8 and V-12 powerplants. But Munich eventually decided to use a turbocharged version of the existing M30 inline-six unit in the flagship 745i model. That’s how the M102 powerplant with 248 horsepower and 276 pound-feet of torque was born. However, due to packaging restrictions in the engine bay caused by the addition of the turbocharger, the mill could not be fitted to right-hand drive cars, such as those sold in South Africa.

It's not entirely clear why the 745i SA didn't get the brand's most-wanted badge, but several sources say it may have been because of Munich's policy of not building a full-fledged M7.

As a result, BMW decided to create a special version of the 7 Series powered by the the 24-valve M88 engine already developed by BMW Motorsport for the M1 sports car and beefed-up versions of the E24 6 Series and E28 5 Series.

So how come BMW never offered the M-spec 7 Series in Europe, North America or Asia?

Well, it seems the Germans considered the M88 powerplant, which developed its peak power at a relatively high engine speed, was way too noisy for the refined and luxurious sedan. Also, BMW probably feared it could not produce enough M88 engines to satisfy customer demand. Given the market had barely exited the "Malaise Era," the M88-powered E23 would have been a popular choice in North America.

There’s also the question why this sedan was not badged as an M7.

It’s not entirely clear why the 745i SA didn’t get the brand’s most-wanted badge, but several sources say it may have been because of Munich’s policy of not building a full-fledged M7, which BMW maintains to this day. Another reason behind this decision could have been BMW’s wish not to overshadow the turbocharged 745i model sold globally.

What Made It Special?

 BMW 745i SA - The M7 You Never Knew Existed Interior
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Even though it looked like any other 745i on the outside — except for the fact that all SAs were fitted with 16-inch, BBS Mahle wheels — the South African sedan was special in many aspects. Obviously, its most important feature was the M88 engine lurking under the hood. A slightly revised version of the unit launched in the M1, the 3.5-liter inline-six produced 282 horsepower and 251 pound-feet of torque in the full-size sedan, as much as it did in the Euro-spec E24 M635CSi and the E28 M5. At the time of its launch, it was the most powerful 7 Series, outgunning the turbocharged 745i by 34 horses.

Interestingly enough, early examples had their engines simply inscribed "BMW" on their cam cover instead of the usual "M Power" lettering seen on other M cars.

At the time of its launch, it was the most powerful 7 Series, outgunning the turbocharged 745i by 34 horses.

Most cars had their engines mated to a ZF four-speed automatic transmission with three modes (including Sport), a 3.73:1 ratio, and a limited-slip differential. A small batch of sedans were equipped with a Getrag five-speed manual with a "dogleg" shift pattern, and also with a limited-slip differential. These were the only 745i models with a shifter, as all Euro-spec models were equipped with automatics only.

The chassis was also updated to M specifications, including a slightly firmer suspension and a load-leveling rear axle. The 745i SA received the enhanced brakes of the M635CSi and the M5, as well as the ABS system.

While the SA’s exterior was devoid of M badges and any features to set it apart from other 745is, the interior came with many special features. The cabin was noted for the massive amount of Nappa leather that covered anything from the dashboard and center console to the door panels and headliner. This feature became the expensive "Highline" option for other 7 Series models in 1986, the E23’s final year on the market. The center console was also different, with the power window switches placed around the shifter instead of around the parking brake handle. The ashtray was also relocated behind the shifter instead of below the radio.

Another feature unique to the South African-spec 745i was the bespoke instrument cluster with M logos on both the speedo and the rev counter. However, it seems BMW opted to remove it early into production for some reason. Otherwise, the 745i SA was equipped with all the standard features found in the Euro-spec car, including power windows, power mirrors, power front and rear seats, power glass moonroof, automatic climate control, cruise control, an on-board computer, and radio/cassette audio system.

How Many Were Built?

 BMW 745i SA - The M7 You Never Knew Existed Exterior
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Only 209 examples of the 745i SA were produced by BMW South Africa from January 1984 through April 1987. The sedans were assembled in the country from Complete Knock-Down (CKD) kits shipped from Germany and sold exclusively in the domestic market. However, there’s information that at least one example was exported to Europe before production ended.

Of the 209 units produced, 192 were equipped with the ZF automatic transmission, while 17 received the optional, Getrag five-speed manual gearbox. Due to the limited production run, the 745i SA is quite expensive nowadays, especially low-mileage examples in near-mint condition. However, their value as collectibles is somewhat capped by the fact that all cars were built with RHD. Still, it remains the rarest version of the first-generation 7 Series.

Homologation Special

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It might seem hard to believe, but yes, the 745i SA was also built into a race car. The task was performed by noted racer Tony Viana and mechanic Kobus van der Watt to Group A specifications of the South African Modified Saloon Car Championship.

Only one example was built, but it was enough to send the 745i into the history books as the only BMW-Sanctioned motorsport application for the 7 Series.

Only one example was built, but it was enough to send the 745i into the history books as the only BMW-Sanctioned motorsport application for the 7 Series. The sedan won the championship in 1985 against stiff competition from race-spec versions of the Alfa Romeo GTV, Ford Sierra XR8, and the Mazda RX7.

Modifications included an engined tuned to deliver about 450 horsepower, a close-ratio, five-speed manual gearbox, H&R springs and Bilstein shocks, an exhaust system made by Van der Linde systems, and new BBS rims.

Despite being a track car, Viana’s Bimmer continued to use the standard limited-slip differential, Bosch fuel pump, and rear brakes, making its victory in the Saloon Car Championship that much more spectacular.

Noted for wearing a white over red, Winfield-sponsored livery, the race-spec 745i was restored to its former glory in 2006 and brought back to the track for various classic racing events.

Granted, having one race-spec model in nearly four decades isn’t much, but this 7 Series speaks volumes of BMW’s motorsport-oriented philosophy back in the day. It might not be as famous as other racing M models, but it definitely deserves a place alongside the infamous Daytona-winning 3.0 CSL or the "Flying Brick" based on the first-gen 3 Series.

Project Goldfish

 BMW 745i SA - The M7 You Never Knew Existed Exterior
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Although the 745i SA was the one and only 7 Series worthy of the M7 badge, BMW experimented with the idea again in the late 1980s, shortly after it launched the second-generation sedan.

Because of the length of the engine, the cooling system was moved to the trunk and additional vents were added at the rear.

The goal of Project Goldfish was to develop a massive 6.7-liter V-16 engine based on the V-12 powerplant used in various cars, including the McLaren F1 and the BMW V12 LM race car, from 1998 through 2000. The design copied that of the V-12 layout, but had four more cylinders added and an array of modifications.

Development began in July 1987 and was completed in early 1988. BMW mated it to the six-speed manual gearbox of the 8 Series coupe and dropped it in a modified version of the long-wheelbase E32 7 Series.

Because of the length of the engine, the cooling system was moved to the trunk and additional vents were added at the rear. Performance rating included an output of 408 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 470 pound-feet of torque at 3,900 rpm. But the engine never reached production and BMW abandoned the idea of a V-16 altogether.

Although a long-wheelbase 7 Series with a massive V-16 wouldn’t have been likely to receive an M7 badge, Goldfish remains BMW’s final effort toward a high-performance full-size sedan.

Conclusion

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Although the first official M7 remains of the speculative variety, it wouldn’t be shocking to see a high-performance full-size sedan join the lineup with the upcoming 7 Series.

The fact that the 745i SA continues to lurk in the shadows is what actually makes it very special.

Customers have been asking for one for decades now and BMW probably isn’t too comfortable with the Mercedes-Benz S63 and S65 AMG pulling all the strings in this niche.

I’m sure that if BMW green lights a full-fledged M7, the 745i SA would finally come into the spotlight and receive all the love it deserves, particularly because Munich will use it to claim some sort of heritage. But until that happens, it will remain that limited-edition sedan few enthusiasts know about and the proof that BMW once built an M7, although not on official terms and not for global consumption.

The fact that the 745i SA continues to lurk in the shadows is what actually makes it very special. The race car that went on to win the South African Saloon Car Championship is just the cherry on top. To me, it’s also a reason to mourn BMW’s glorious past as a maker of true, lightweight sports sedans that could win races with minor modifications. Pardon my French, but all we get now are home appliances on wheels. And they’re pretty heavy, too.

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