By on October 15, 2011

In the highly unlikely event that my father precedes me into the grave, I will have to come up with another way to describe him besides “the late Kevin Baruth”. The old man’s never been late for something in his life. Nor has he even been a terribly, shall we say, easy-going fellow. One of the medals he received in Vietnam was, if I recall correctly, for single-handedly halting the retreat of a disorganized Marine unit after the death of said unit’s commander and forcing them to turn around and advance towards the enemy. I have no trouble imagining how this might have happened; I’d rather shoot it out with a company of NVA regulars than contradict my father.

I mention all of the above for a reason. When I tell my friends that I learned how to drive in a black 1984 BMW 733i, they say, “That’s pretty cool.” When I explain further that it was the relatively rare manual-transmission variant, they say, “That’s even cooler.” It’s difficult to make them understand that it’s tough to learn how to drive in a stick-shift car, tougher to do it in a $36,000 ($77K in today’s money) BMW, and worse yet to do it with someone sitting next to you who might, just possibly, rip your head off at any moment.

How shall we describe the “E23” 733i? One way to describe it would be like so: in terms of size, weight, power, and transmission choice, it’s about the same as a 2011 Honda Accord EX four-cylinder. Here’s another: like every full-sized BMW since from the “New Six” to the modern 750Li, it was an alternative but inferior choice to the S-Class Mercedes, at a considerably reduced price: $36,000 compared to the $51,200 MSRP of the 1984 500SEL. That was back in the days when you paid more, and received more, for the three-pointed star. W126 Benzos are perfectly capable of traveling a million miles or more in their service lives. By contrast, most E23 Bimmers were sag-assed buy-here-pay-here fodder by the time they clocked 75k. They were disposable garbage and that’s one of the few traditions BMW continues to respect with the 7 Series until this very day.

Not that it wasn’t a joy to drive, particularly once I figured out how to operate a clutch and roll it up to highway speeds. Back in 1987, the year I turned sixteen, the average car on the street was a four-cylinder Chevrolet Celebrity, Plymouth Reliant, or Nissan Stanza. Compared to them, the 181-horsepower BMW was a rocketship with a burnished leather interior and fascinating red-lit gauges. The shifter was long-throw but it was effortless to negotiate, the brakes were powerful without being grabby, and the engine simply radiated competence and character. Derek Kriendler’s notes about the acceleration of affluence apply here as well; in 1987 a “Siebener” BMW was still a relatively rare and prestigious sight. As a teenager I felt like Someone driving it.

How did it handle? In a pair of words, not well. The aforementioned 2011 Accord EX would have no trouble showing it a clean rear bumper in a back-road battle. Not to worry, because racetrack prowess was besides the point. The purpose of the car was to rocket along the ‘bahn at an easy 130mph, sweeping the Golfs and Astras out of your path with a set of staggered-size quad halogen-beam headlamps. Sadly, we didn’t get those here due to US regulations and had to make do instead with the normal DOT-legal small round quads. One feature that BMW would have been smart to leave in Europe: the ridiculous Michelin TRX metric wheels and tires. Many a BMW owner, including my father, discovered to their sorrow that tires for the 390mm BMW TRX wheels were difficult to find and insanely expensive when you could find them.

The US-spec E23s also suffered from big, ungainly impact bumpers that completely trivialized the “shark nose” profile shared with its far more iconic 633i sibling. Nor were we permitted to have the 745i, which wasn’t a 4.5L at all but simply a turbo 3.2 six. Perhaps the best E23 was the South African exclusive “M7” normally-aspirated 745i which replaced the turbo twelve-valver with the fabulous 24-valve six also found in the M6 and M5.

This was the era when BMW had driver-angled center stacks, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I was very impressed by this as a child. Back then, most cars still had wide, flat dashboards. Hell, the Porsche 911 didn’t even have a full console back then, but the BMW 733i certainly did. It was cool, and it seemed special at the time. BMW might do well to re-differentiate itself from the competition by reintroducing the angled center stack.

BMW’s relentless efforts to revise history have painted the mid-Eighties as a seamless part of the company’s inexorable rise to prominence, but at the time the Munich men seemed a little adrift. The 3-Series was at its all-time low point (the eight-valve 318i), the Five was stuck with the 127-horsepower “eta” low-rev six, and the Seven was the car you see above, a distant also-ran to the almighty W126. The products weren’t compelling, the marketing was ridiculously faux-upscale, and the Acura Legend was about to debut and make the mid-size Germans seem a bit over-priced and under-specified. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion at all that BMW would succeed, really.

Faced with this dismal situation, the company started working on quick-fixes. The 325e showed that the 528e’s lackluster six could shine in a smaller car, while the 533i and succeeding 535i pulled the same trick on a bigger, faster scale. A slightly de-powered 256-horsepower variant of the M1 six-cylinder found a home in the M5 and M6, and BMW won the race to put a twelve-cylinder in a German luxury car with the E32 750il. It was all uphill from there.

If the 733i failed to make a terribly lasting impression on the market, it certainly made one on my father. He drove a succession of black BMWs over the years to come, interrupted by the occasional Jaguar or Infiniti, before returning to BMW for his current 528i. I was annoyed that he didn’t buy a 550i or at least a 535i, but he points out that it has more features than the old 733i, costs less in current money, and is a little bit faster. “Fast enough to get me to the airport on time” he notes. Not that I would expect him to ever arrive late.

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48 Comments on “Capsule Review: 1984 BMW 733i (5-Speed)...”

  • avatar

    Having owned both BMWs and MBs of this era, I don’t think there is much in it between them. The BMWs are nicer to drive, the MBs are a little more solid. I will say the W126 is a better looking car than the slightly awkward e23, but it is also a generation newer and more modern. The e23 was in the generation of the w116.

    The problem with all of these big old barge luxury cars is that the epic depreciation made them affordable to buy for the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th owners, but it sure did not do anything about the cost to maintain them. Especially in the pre-internet era, when DIY imformation was a lot less readily available, that was a road to ruin. MUCH easier to keep up with one now. It also helps that as ALL cars have become complicated and expensive to maintain, the big Germans do not seem so bad anymore.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      The E23 ran from 1977 to 1986; the W126 debuted in Europe in 1979 and ran until 1990 in most markets. I’m not sure it’s unfair to compare the two. Maybe the best way to put it is simply that Mercedes and BMW weren’t following the same release cycle. During the yuppie boom, it was definitely E23 v W126.

      I wonder how much of the difference in longevity between the two is down to perception and/or owner attitude?

      • 0 avatar

        It has to be perception and owner attitude. An aging 7 can definitely be a money pit, but I have a hard time believing an S class of similar vintage doesn’t have comparable maintenance bills.

        W126 owners probably had more money and kept their cars longer. When something broke, they just fixed it. E23 drivers probably leased and moved on. Then the 2nd owner jumped ship when the warranty expired, and it was downhill for the car from there. Just a guess.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Love your life stories, Jack. I had to learn to drive in 1993 in one of those Celebritys (1982 model with the Iron Duke) my mother hyperventilating in the front seat with a white knuckle grip on the door handle. What sort of pointers did I get from her? “You drive like your father.”

    3 years later my Dad taught my sister to drive… What words came out of his mouth? A sigh and “You drive like your mother.”

    • 0 avatar
      Joe McKinney

      I learned to drive in 1980 in my father’s 1976 Mazda B-1600 pickup. It was a manual, but speed and handling were not on the option list. This Mazda was the only Japanese vehicle that my parents ever owned.

    • 0 avatar

      The e23 was more evolutionary while the w126 was more revolutionary compared to what came before – the MB just seems like a more modern car.

      I think the difference in owners explains 95% of the percieved difference. The MB WAS a much more expensive car, and was mostly purchased new by much older folks than the BMWs were. I bet they tended to keep them a lot longer too. The poor 7s got traded more quickly and soon were on that 2nd, 3rd, 4th owner death spiral. But a nice e23 is still quite a pleasant car today, one of my BMW Club Chapter buddies has a low mileage minter.

    • 0 avatar

      Hey, I had an 84 Celebrity Eurosport station wagon with the six. Hauled all sorts of crap with it while getting my house built in 89 including 16 ft scaffold planks and a 32 ft extension ladder. I miss a wagon big enough to do that – and cheap enough even new so you wouldn’t mind doing that. At just under 90k miles, it was totaled when a guy ran a stoplight and blew out most of the glass. It was a good accident – I walked away from it.

    • 0 avatar

      I was lucky when it came to learning to drive a manual. First off, I taught myself. Why not? I certainly understood the theory by that time. Who needs an annoyed parent screaming instructions? Secondly, was my choice in cars: A 1937 Buick Special two-door sedan, three on the floor, 248ci straight eight putting out something like 100hp, and . . . . . most importantly . . . . . . the easiest, most forgiving clutch I’ve ever run across in an automobile. Period.

  • avatar

    The E23 and E28 bmws look worlds better with the euro bumpers. The 3.2 turbo motors take very well to lots of boost!

  • avatar

    “They were disposable garbage and that’s one of the few traditions BMW continues to respect with the 7 Series until this very day.”

    It’s striking how true this is, just look at 7-Series BMWs at side lots. BUY HERE PAY HERE 2003 745i EXTRA COLD AC FOR $12995! ZERO DOWN! RIDE TODAY!

    Probably had 4 owners after the lease was up and won’t go a month before going back to the shop.

    Oh yea, great read BTW :)

    • 0 avatar

      My son in law had a 2005 745i he tried to off-load for ever.

      POS of a car, dealer maintained but what a money pit.

      He finally managed to get rid of it with some extremely creative “self financing” .

  • avatar

    My father bought a W126 280SE in 1982. Although I didn’t learn to drive in it, it was still very special for a young man to drive. My driving license was about a year old at the time. I only got to drive it on special occasions with the rest of the family also in the car.

    Dad still has the car. The successors – an E34 BMW and a W203 Mercedes – just never delivered the same experience. He still has both of them as well, but it’s a long story.

    The 280SE has got about 300 000 miles on it now and is still going, albeit just a bit tired. The air conditioner compressor isn’t working well any more, which rules it out as a daily driver. Reconditioned compressors do not last and the MB dealer’s asking price for a new one represents about half of the car’s value.

    • 0 avatar

      For the record, I learned to drive in a 1960 Mercedes 190, a.k.a. Ponton (W121). Jack had it easy. It was Mom’s school taxi and she really loved it, so I had to be careful. Not that hitting anything would have done any damage to a W121. Tank designers liked to brag that their tanks were as solid as a Ponton.

      It was the just the right car for a beginner. Underpowered, drum brakes, cross-ply tyres, manual shift – perfect. The shift was on the steering column as well. Those were the days, but I survived to tell the tale.

  • avatar

    I learned to drive standard on a friend’s Series IIa Land Rover. Interesting experience…

  • avatar

    It seemed to me back then that Mercedes-Benz was the German luxury car with automatics and BMWs were the German luxury car with manuals. Now, they’re all automatics. I wonder if that was just perception or if BMW’s ratio of automatics to manuals has stayed the same?

    • 0 avatar

      Sadly, no, though BMW at least still offers manuals on more many models than MB does. Finding a manual on a dealers lot is another story though. I ordered my ’11 328i Wagon with manual and RWD, my local dealer had NEVER sold one in that configuration.

    • 0 avatar

      Manuals are certainly in decline for BMW, even in their more compact offerings. Searching BMW 3-series’ near my area on Kijiji (Western Canada), there are 145 manuals and 175 autos available in the E46. In the E90, the ratio is down to 71/157, with a 9/21 ratio for 2009 and newer vehicles.

      I can confirm that there are plenty of manuals on the lots of Audi, BMW, Honda, and Mazda dealerships in my region, so it’s no problem to get test drives. Probably not a 328 wagon though. I haven’t seen a current-gen version with auto or manual.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    Thanks for the reminder of the 318’s US introduction. With performance numbers straight out of 1972, it was easy to read between the lines of the various road tests for the then-new platform and hear the collective cry of anguish: “they replaced the 320i with this?”

    Another motor magazine writer attempted to downplay expectations after testing an aftermarket convertible conversion by writing, “the top chop affects the 318’s performance minimally.” Considering its performance was minimal to begin with, I can’t dock the writer any points for any lack of veracity.

    • 0 avatar

      But they said exactly the same thing when the 320i replaced the 2002. The quest to move upmarket and add refinement continues to this day, the new F30 3-series is BIGGER than an e39 5-series of less than a decade ago.

      While the 318i may seem slow to us now, it was still a pretty rapid car for the late malaise era, and rather nice to drive. And it certainly evolved well.

      • 0 avatar

        @krhodes1: “…the new F30 3-series is BIGGER than an e39 5-series of less than a decade ago.”

        Not according to WikiPedia it ain’t. :
        Wheelbase 2,810 mm (110.6 in)
        Length 4,624 mm (182.0 in)
        Width 1,811 mm (71.3 in)
        Height 1,429 mm (56.3 in) :
        Wheelbase 2,830 mm (111.4 in)
        Length 4,775 mm (188.0 in) (saloon)
        4,806 mm (189.2 in) (estate)
        Width 1,801 mm (70.9 in)
        Height 1,435 mm (56.5 in) (saloon)
        1,415 mm (55.7 in) (2000-03 540i saloon)
        1,440 mm (56.7 in) (1997-99 estate)
        1,417 mm (55.8 in) (1997-99 540i saloon)
        1,486 mm (58.5 in) (2000-03 estate)

        So it seems the new 3 is 1 cm (0.4″) wider, but the old 5 is 15-18 cm longer; and both are more or less equally tall.

        I submit that 15 cm is a lot more than 1 cm.

        (What would be really significant to compare would of course be the weight, but that’s not specified for either of them.)

    • 0 avatar

      Here in Europe we also got 316 and 518 models which were even slower.

  • avatar

    My father had one of those as well — it was the “company car” and was purchased lightly used from a local taxi company owner who bought a new BMW every other year. The first owner outfitted it with a Momo steering wheel, a tricked out stereo system and larger BBS wheels with low-profile tires… which meant it could hardly get up a wet hill half of the time. One memory I have is coming down the NJTP on an road trip and we had to stop repeatedly because the not-up-to-Mid-Atlantic-summer-heat AC system kept popping fuses. By the end of the trip the wiper, radio and just about any compatible fuse had been used to keep us from broiling. Also, if I recall, it had rather poor rear visibility when trying to parallel park.

    Sadly, I missed out on getting to learn stick on it, as it was getting into its saggy-ass-7 period and was gone a year before I got my license. I think TTAC is slowly working through my Dad’s car history between this review and the Fiat 124 Spider post from a couple of days ago. Now, if a 1937 Packard 120 capsule review comes up next I’ll start to get worried…

  • avatar

    Interesting history and great insight, Jack. When I was living in Munich in 1995 I bought a couple of 1 year old US spec 528e factory test cars from a used car lot next to the factory. I imported them back to the USA when I moved back. The one I kept for a few years was a manual but it was not a good motor design or a particularly good car. Later I had a E38 740iL (good car) and I recently traded a 2008 750Li (horrible car) for a new S550. I will probably never go back to BMW. Maybe I’m getting old but I think the S blows away the 7.

    • 0 avatar

      It could not have been ’95 if they were 1yo cars, the 528e ended in ’88. Not exciting cars, kind of a German Buick.

      But my Stepfather and Mom put ~250K on an ’83, and it was totally bulletproof other than having the autotragic transmission rebuilt once. He bought it new, she inherited it when he died 6-7 years ago, sold it on four years ago to a friend of mine.

      Boring car, but certainly a good car.

      • 0 avatar

        That was a typo – 1985, not 1995. I agree with you that they were bulletproof. The other 528e was for my mom. She was t-boned by someone running a stop sign. It was such a strong an impact it flipped the 528e upside down but she was uninjured. She always said that car saved her life.

        My comment about the motor design being bad was more about the choked feel it had. It was designed strictly for fuel economy which made it feel almost like a diesel compared to the other relatively brilliant sixes.

  • avatar

    Don’t you mean “the Golfs and Kadetts”? Astra replaced the Kadett in 1991.

  • avatar

    I learned to drive on a 1955 International tractor when I was 14. I can’t recall the model, but I know it was fuel-can red and gasoline powered (probably a 30 or 35hp model). You can’t go fast enough to get yourself into trouble, but those old tractors had you perched high above the chassis on a spindly metal seat with the wheels spinning on either side of you (fenders were slim sheet metal) and the power take-off threatening you from below. If you fell off in any direction you would be promptly mangled, or at least maimed. You got a real sense of HEFT driving one of those. No power ANYTHING thankyouverymuch. Brakes are for sissies – the clutch, lack of power, and sheer weight stops these things well enough. Steering is suitably manly. And crank-start only, which I left to my dad – seeing him get nearly pitched over by a kickback was enough to dissuade me from messing with the crank handle. Later we had an electric start added.

    Oh sorry, were we talking about cars?

  • avatar
    a cat named scruffy

    BMW 7 = disposable garbage.
    I have a buddy who bought a used 7 a year or so ago.
    I wonder if it’s eaten his wallet yet?

  • avatar

    “Back in 1987, the year I turned sixteen, the average car on the street was a four-cylinder Chevrolet Celebrity, Plymouth Reliant, or Nissan Stanza. Compared to them, the 181-horsepower BMW was a rocketship with a burnished leather interior and fascinating red-lit gauges.”

    I graduated in 1984, much the same story in the high school parking lot. Except for me and few others, driving 60’s muscle cars with big old V8’s and drum brakes. Handled like crap, but we could outrun anything built in the 80’s. There’s a reason people are spending 401k money on 1967 Chevelles and the like, lots of good memories.

    Oh, and I learned to drive on a 63 Ford, manual. You wouldn’t find a European car in my neighborhood for love or money. Those were for rich people.

  • avatar
    That One Guy

    I learned to drive on a manual as well. Early 80’s Ford pickup. Fun times for a 12 year old.

    Went pretty well too…until I hit the barn.

  • avatar

    One bright spot during this time was the 533i. I remember going with my dad to test drive one. It was like night and day compared to the Mercedes 300D that the salesman insisted he drive. Old man car versus rocketship. He finally was able to buy the 535iS a few years later. What a fun car! Everything was elegantly simple and direct. How times have changed. Too much weight, too many gadgets, and ugly styling (new 3er and 5er excepted).

  • avatar

    What do you mean about the front consoles? In the 7. I’m really sure it is angled.

    Please tell me what is bad about the current 7.

  • avatar

    A friend of mine bought one of these in the late 90s for practically nothing, and it was in surprisingly good shape. She then used it to haul her multitude of dogs and occasional bales of hay. Every time I saw that car I cried inside. Now I don’t feel quite so bad, sounds like it probably didn’t have long to live anyway.

  • avatar

    Great story Jack. In 1990, I had to learn to drive in a 1983 Citation, and it wasn’t even the X-11. It did have the V6 though. I promptly crashed it into a tree at 25 mph on an icy backroad and put it out of it’s misery. The worst part of the accident was that my mother was in the passenger seat, and she insisted on wearing her neck brace in public for the next 2 months. I’m pretty sure her neck was fine, she just wanted to teach me a lesson. When my father let me drive again, I moved up to an 1987 Celebrity Wagon Eurosport, and that was the car I got to take to college. While it seems contradictory, that car made me pretty popular around campus as you could fit 8 or more people in it. And when you get that many people together, there was a good chance that some percentage would be female.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    I test-drove a grey-market 745 for one of my law partners. While I haven’t driven the current generation 4-cylinder Accord, I have a tough time believing it would be showing its rear bumper to a 745 in a rat race. That said, your comment about the 7-series being money pits was spot on. The 745 came with a (typically) complex auto-box. . . which failed not long after my law partner bought the car, and set him back several thou for a new one to be imported from Germany and installed in the car Back when 4 or 5 thou was serious money.

    As for the S-Class, I considered it to be targeted at a completely different market. The S-Class was not sporting, and seemed appropriate for the mid-50ish doctor or lawyer who wanted to tool down the Interstate in comfort and safety. I never understood the case for the 7-series; it wasn’t that much roomier than the 5. The car I coveted was the 533, not the 7.

  • avatar

    Years ago I “horse traded” for a ’82 733i with the manual and limited slip. The car had 260k on it. Everything worked on it except that crazy vacuum operated HVAC system, it would only blow hot out of the defrost or nothing. As Jack described it was fun, handled poorly in corners but would cruise down the interstate like nothing else. Oddly I always had 5.0 mustang drivers wanting to drag race and when I took the bait I could beat them to 60mph easily. I tried to kill it, although the interior was trashed the drivetrain was bombproof, I never put a nickel in it. I drove the car to California to trade for a Volvo ’85 745 Turbo and a friend drove it out there for several more years were the HVAC system didn’t matter. Last anyone saw of one of his employees girlfriend split for Wyoming with it. Great car.

  • avatar

    Sounds like the old man was a hell of a role model.

  • avatar

    Fun article. I learned to drive in my first car (family hand-me-down) – 1980 Volvo DL, 4 speed +OD manual, terry cloth interior, hand-crank sunroof, four round headlights. I guess it was the year before the taillights went bigger and the headlights went square.

    Anyone ever going to do a review on one of those old workhorses? I loved that I had 4 wheel disk brakes and fuel injection on my beater car while my friends had Chevy Cavaliers but longed for Chevy Barettas. They didn’t realize how good I had it (unless it snowed).

  • avatar

    This was a fun read, really enjoyed it. Thanks.

  • avatar

    The wooden steering wheel looks terribly out of place.
    E30s are good cars, though. OK, the old M10 1.8 litre was past its ‘sell by’ date at the time it came out.

  • avatar

    My first – but not last – BMW was a 1978 733i with a 4-speed manual. Not a great car but the one I really remember. It was hit twice, while stationary, and repaired properly 0 times and with a new job, a new house and a baby on the way it was time to say goodbye. My E30 and E36 experiences were equally vibrant but the first time is the one we ALL remember.

    Patrick Bedard said it best, after the press into at Laguna Seca, in C&D – “Something to do with all of that money that won’t buy happiness.”

  • avatar

    When I was in college 1996 I drove my friend’s 87 528 for a while, it was an automatic with the inline six. It handle’s quite well at the time before the electronic aid age. It was very stable compare to Japanese cars that were very popular at the time. One thing that I do remember about this car is that it has the sensation of going at 100mph when it was actually doing 75-80. And that it felt alot betting doing hard driving than normal ones.

  • avatar
    Dr. Claw

    LOL, this reminds me of my experience learning how to drive, down to the “never mistake for easy-going” Vietnam veteran father.

  • avatar

    Twice this damn site has said I was logged in but when I went to post, it would tell me I had to be logged in to post. And when I open a story from an email link, I am told I have to log in, but when I do, I either have to plow through the wordpress admin page to the TTAC homepage and then hunt for the story, or I have to back arrow my browser. But when I do the latter, I am in a logged out state again, unless I refresh the tab.

    Why can’t you just log in and then be taken right back to the article you logged in from? There are more gyrations necessary than in a Rube Goldberg invention, or than Mr. Peepers had to go through to get his locker open.

    There is a lot I love about this site, but the mechanics of its commenting system isn’t one of them.

    Now to my point.

    Wasn’t it the 750il that earned an article in an ancient R&T about how the car was a combinatorial explosion of different ways to configure its valet key, or something like that.

    While it doesn’t take to many choices for too many options to get above a thousand, as I recall, they came up with a calculation that there was a five or six digit number of ways to configure valet options, and they claimed that this proved that automobile complexity, at least in the BMW, had jumped the shark, though I don’t think they used that term.

    The article was a really good one. I would like to see it resurrected and made available to modern readers.

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