Just like Deep Purple sang in Soldier of Fortune, I feel I’m growing older. Not only because of the receding hairline (or what’s left of it, anyway), the back-aches or my firstborn being less than a year away from high school, but also because BMW has just informed us that its creamy V12 has being powering the top versions of the 7-Series flagship saloon for no less than a quarter of a century.
Some of you may point out that other engines, like Porsche’s flat-six, have been around for much longer, while others may wonder what the big fuss is all about. Hopefully, not too many of you reading this article prefer Justin Bieber to Ritchie Blackmore and David Coverdale.
No matter; on February 1987, seven years before the inexplicably successful young singer was born, BMW released the technical specifications of its then brand-new V12 engine that would power the range-topping 750i and make its debut a month later at the Geneva Motor Show.
A quarter of a century ago, the world in general and BMW’s numbering system in particular were much simpler. Therefore, unlike today’s practice of downsizing engines while keeping their larger predecessors’ badges, it was easy to figure out that the designed-from-scratch V12 in the 750i had a 5.0-liter displacement.
The all-alloy Bavarian V12 was described as combining “unlimited power with silky-smooth running”, a fact that was illustrated by an image of coins placed on the engine block remaining upright when the motor was running.
With over 3,000 pre-orders before it was even officially revealed in Geneva, the roundel brand knew that it had a winner in its hands. Powering both the standard 750i and the long-wheelbase iL version, it was visually distinguished by the much wider kidney grille, necessitated by the V12’s cooling needs, and the squared-off tailpipes that were styled to match the shape of the grille.
The new V12 had an angle of 60 degrees between its two six-cylinder banks. It put out 300HP, 450 Nm (332 lb-ft) of torque, weighed just 240 kg and featured two separate electronic management systems, one for each cylinder bank, which interfaced with other functions of the top 7-series model like the ASC and MSR stability programs and the auto transmission controller.
Now, let’s go back to that Deep Purple bit: in 1974, the same year that they released their Stormbringer album, which included the wonderful ballad, BMW engineers built the M33, a 5.0-liter petrol V12 with 300HP. It tipped the scales at 315 kg, though, and was deemed overweight.
The M66 that followed in 1977 was 40 kg lighter and was developed in 3.6- and 4.5-liter versions. The timing, though, was unfortunate as the world oil crisis was not exactly ideal for launching a fuel-guzzling, large displacement V12 and the project was canned.
The third time was a charm indeed: in 1982, with the world returning to more normal situations, BMW engineers began mulling a V12 again. Only this time they wouldn’t merge two six-cylinder, like in their two previous efforts, but start anew.
In 1994, after 50,000 V12s sold (that’s one in six 7-Series in total), the second generation flagship boasted the M73 internal designation and its increase in displacement by 0.4 liters brought maximum output to 326 HP while, at the same time, improvements in technology enabled a 13 percent drop in fuel consumption.
It also had four valves per cylinder, the Valvetronic variable valve timing system, an active suspension with electronic damper control and was connected to a six-speed automatic transmission.
Today’s 760i and 760iL are powered by a V12, too. The N74, which was developed in 2009, still has a 60-degree cylinder bank angle. Technological advancements mean that it now employs BMW’s TwinPower Turbo technology, direct injection, continuously variable camshaft timing and a 544HP maximum output that drives the rear wheels via an 8-speed auto transmission.
BMW boasts that, back in the 1980s, its development chief at the time said, “If the engineers want to go for nothing but the best of everything, we didn’t try to stop them”. In our book, that’s the kind of attitude that the man heading development of the Ultimate Driving Machines should always have…
By Andrew Tsaousis