The legend that BMW Germany almost said ‘nein!’ to

The legendary BMW E23 745i racecar on the Aldo Scribante racetrack. Picture: Rob Till/BMW SAWhile the BMW M760Li might be at home on the track, it is not a real track car, unlike the 1984 E23 745i, writes Mark Smyth.

If you are fortunate enough to be one of those who wafts to the office in the morning in a BMW 7 Series, then you will appreciate all the comfort and technology that you are surrounded by.

You will probably also appreciate that as a BMW it has a certain level of driver dynamics should the mood take you, but it’s a seven, it’s not a racecar is it? There was a time, though, when it was.

Back in 1984 Bernd Pischets-rieder was in charge of production, development, purchasing and logistics at BMW SA. He went on to become chairman at BMW AG, then boss of VW before his present position on the board of Daimler and chairman of Munich Reinsurance.

Pischetsrieder is a powerful man in the auto industry and one who likes a unique project. Granted, his decision to buy Rover while at BMW was not a great item on his CV, nor was his purchase of Land Rover, but he did buy Mini and that worked out rather well.

In 1984 BMW in Germany was manufacturing the E23 745i. Like the BMW M760Li we feature elsewhere in this issue, it was the closest the company would come to building an M7, but it was turbocharged and the layout would not work for right-hand drive markets such as SA.

The famous M88 engine in the racecar. Picture: Rob Till/BMW SASo BMW SA did its own thing and dropped the legendary M88 engine from the M1 supercar into the locally built 745i. Word is that BMW AG was none too thrilled about it because the engine revved higher than the smooth unit in Europe and made the South African 745i noisier than its European counterpart.

From 1984 to 1987 just 209 were manufactured, the majority featuring an automatic transmission. Just 17 received a five-speed manual gearbox and a limited-slip differential, but it is believed that only four of the manual models have survived.

Two of those manual derivatives are real legends as the only BMW 7 Series racecars built. They were the brainchild of the late Tony Viana and BMW SA Motorsport, but initially BMW AG refused to approve the racing project as it did not fit with its idea of what a 7 Series should be about. Reluctantly and after pressure from Pischetsrieder it agreed and what were initially the Gunston-liveried 7 Series racing models were born.

One was developed to Group One (Group A in Europe) specifications for South African Saloon Car Championship and the other to Group Two spec. Fitted with the M88 engine the Group One version developed 335kW and featured a five-speed dog-leg close ratio gearbox. In line with regulations, much of it had to remain standard, including the standard 745i interior.

Alec Ceprnic, left, has meticulously restored the car along with his team at Evolution 2. Picture: Rob Till/BMW SAThe cars were ready for what their current owner and Viana’s former team-mate Paolo Cavalieri refers to as "the golden era of South African motorsport". And they conquered. Re-liveried in the famous Winfield colours, Viana took the 1985 Group One championship in a season in which he competed against the Alfa Romeo GTV, Mazda RX7 and Ford Sierra XR8.

In 1986 the other racing model took the Wesbank Group Two championship, again with Viana behind the wheel.

At the Aldo Scribante racetrack near Port Elizabeth, we finally had the chance to get close to these legendary cars as Cavalieri took us for a few laps of the circuit in the Group One version. It is a handful, but the car has been meticulously restored after being bought by Cavalieri in 2006.

Alec Ceprnic of Evolution 2 managed the restoration of the car. He says it was purchased as a rolling chassis and that provided a parts headache. They found a damaged 745i and salvaged parts from it, including the M88 engine. BMW AG wanted too much money for the electronic control unit so they had to opt for a Motec one.

The interior is also gone, mainly because the rules changed during its racing life after a Nissan Sentra caught fire and the motorsport authorities decided it was a good idea not to have full interiors in the cars.

Originally the car raced with a full interior, but the rules were changed after a Nissan Sentra caught fire. Picture: Rob Till/BMW SACeprnic says the car develops around 242kW at the rear wheels, together with 420Nm of torque, a little down on its 1984 output. He says Viana also used to rev it to 8,500r/min, but in the interests of preservation, today it revs to 7,500.

BMW AG did keep an eye on the racing car’s success though, even coming out to SA it to see it in action at the Goldfields Grand Prix track in Welkom. However, Ceprnic says they arrived to find that Viana had fitted three side-drafts to the car and told him to stop racing. A switch to the fuel injection system of the European model allowed it back on to the track.

The car continues to take part in historic racing events and Cavalieri says he is hoping to receive an invitation to show it at a major international event such as Goodwood. If that illustrious invite arrives then the car that BMW Germany almost said no to will finally get the attention it deserves as the only 7 Series racecar in the world.

[Written by Mark Smyth for the Business Day Newspaper and Website on Thursday 8th June 2017]