As a follow-up to last week’s feature of the grand and glorious Mercedes-Benz W140 S420 sedan, I keep finding myself falling down the rabbit hole of classic yet interesting German youngtimer sedans. I’ve said it before and will say it again (and again): I love big, stupid old sedans. Frankly, we TTS’ers like all sorts of sedans from lumbering Cadillac Fleetwoods and Lincoln Town Cars to more svelte saloons with sporting intentions such as today’s subject cars from das Vaterland – THIS 1984 BMW E23 733i available in Orange County, CA for $6,900 and THIS 1973 Euro-spec Mercedes-Benz W116 350SE available in Surrey, BC, Canada for just $100 more at $7,000. Variations on a theme, if you will.
While our subject cars are actually separated by 11 model years, the model series they represent did overlap for a number of years: the Mercedes W116 ran from 1973 through 1980 and the BMW E23 from 1977 through 1987. Heck, both cars are even adorned with lame period aftermarket chrome fender trims – which the new owners will be obliged to remove. Still, although they were contemporaries in their day, the Mercedes is definitely more seventies (think seasons 1-4 of Dallas) and the BMW more eighties (think Back to the Future AFTER Marty had monkeyed with the past).
1. 1984 BMW 733i
BMW’s E23 7-series sedans replaced the E3 sedans which represented the company’s first modern foray into big luxury cars. Designed by Paul Bracq (of Mercedes 600 and Pagoda fame, not to mention the interiors of both the French TGV trains and the Peugeot 205), the E23 drew on BMW’s traditional design language but in a thoroughly modern classic way. The design was purposeful, but definitely had a sportier look than what was coming out of Mercedes-Benz at the time. It was also the car that firmly demonstrated BMW’s chops as a luxury car manufacturing force to be reckoned with – and they’ve never looked back.
BMW didn’t completely reinvent the wheel with the 7er, though. Under the hood was the same basic M30 “big six” inline-six cylinder motor that had been introduced in the E3 sedans and then used subsequently in the E9 coupe and E12 5-series. Early M30s used old-school Zenith carburetors for fuel delivery, but by the time this facelifted 733i hit the streets Bosch Motronic was the word. The M30 ultimately lived on though 1995 in the E32 730i sedan. Needless to say, parts and expertise for these motors is readily available. In this U.S.-spec 733i the 3,210cc version of the M30 delivered 181hp and 195 lb-ft of torque. With the automatic 0-60mph was less than 9 seconds and top speed was about 130mph – nothing to shake a stick at and pretty darned quick in its day -especially considering its 3500lb curb weight.
The driver’s perch in an E23 7-series gives one the feeling of a much smaller car. The biggish seats actually hug the driver pretty well, the tall greenhouse and thin A-pillars coupled with a relatively low-cowl provide a commanding view of the road, and the driver-oriented center stack almost feels aircraft cockpit-like. In true 80s fashion, there are copious buttons and wheels to control everything from seat pitch to climate control, and none of them are intuitive in the least. The steering wheel is large and wood is real, although used sparingly throughout the cabin. Having owned an ’84 733i I can tell you that just looking at pictures of this cabin I can smell its fantastic Germanic leatherness.
While moderately tight compared to what qualifies as a big luxury car in 2020, there is still plenty of space for four adults in the 733i. Heck, you could fit a fifth in the rear middle if you had to, but then you couldn’t lean on that monolithic rear armrest. All of the windows are power-operated, as are the central locks and the sunroof. BMW was also among the first to offer the center rear vent behind the front console to provide rear passengers with a little bit of air circulation. Note there is also a cigarette lighter for folks in back – in those days that meant they could light up on their own, but nowadays it means they can charge their devices. The late-model aftermarket radio likely also means that Bluetooth phone and audio streaming is probably a thing in this car: great if you use it every day, but we’d prefer someone get one of those new old-style Blaupunkt Bremen SQR-26s that look oh, so 80s yet do what you expect from a modern stereo. Stereo aside, the center stack is very old-school cool, especially the period BMW trip computer.
In all, this particular example appears to be in remarkable original condition despite wearing over 161,000 miles. Considering that it is now 36 years old, averaged-out that’s only a paltry 4,500 miles per year. I bought my last 733i with over 170K on it and it still looked and felt new. When cared for these cars can deliver very long miles. For me, the only drawback on this one is the automatic transmission. On cars where a manual was available, we normally lean in that direction. My last one had it. I have a friend in Canada whose 733i has it (and he LOVES it). The M30 + manual transmission is a wonderful combination. But that doesn’t mean this car isn’t fun. First off, clean manuals are getting harder and harder to come by. Secondly, if you enjoy driving, you can have fun with this transmission. No paddles, no sequential shift, but also no rev limiters and you can still use the gears like we did back in the day: by moving a big, clunky lever from cog to cog. It can be more fun that you think. Don’t rule out the self-shifting Bimmer.
This is a clean engine bay. Moreover, as I’ve already said, this is a clean car. It’s also unusual to see a nice one in Bahama brown with what appears to be Nutria leather. So very 80s. These are easy cars to own, and if you are one to wrench on cars yourself they are simply a joy. When I drove my 733i from Dubuque, Iowa to Fairfax, Virginia I learned pretty quickly that the cooling system was toast – much to the dismay of my family who got to endure open windows and heat on in mid-July. Turned out the radiator was bad, and replacement took all of about 45 minutes with my ham hands. A good mechanic could probably do it in half that time. The E23 was arguably the first modern sports-luxury sedan – and one I’d own again without thinking twice.
2. 1973 Mercedes-Benz 350SE
Right off the bat, let me be clear: despite being advertised as a 350SEL (long wheelbase), this is most definitely a 350SE (short wheelbase) car. Also right off the bat, it looks stodgier and more
uptight upright than the 733i. But that’s sort of the BMW versus Mercedes thing, isn’t it? Still this is a pretty unique car even as old Mercedes sedans go: the W116 350s were never officially sold on these shores. We got the 450SE, and in 1973 we even got the small, European-style bumpers instead of the 1974+ “park benches”, but that car also had quad 5 1/4 round headlights and the de-tuned 4.5 M117 V8 in place of this car’s equally as powerful but arguably happier M116 V8.
When the E32 733i (732i in Europe) was first released, this would have been Mercedes’ closest competitor. Engine displacement, despite being a V8 instead of an I-6, is separated by just 0.3 liters. The 350SE is only 4 inches longer than the 733i, all of that, apparently, in the trunk. Power from the 3.5 was 200hp and 211 lb-ft of torque, but the car also weighed about 300 lbs more than the 733i at 3,803 lbs. Performance was 0-60mph in 9.3 seconds and a top speed of 128mph. Again, comparable but the BMW does get the slight performance nod.
This 350SE is equipped similarly to the 733i as well. Like the BMW, this car also has an automatic transmission, although Mercedes used a 3-speed versus the newer BMW’s four-speed. That said, I’d give a slight nod to the Mercedes thanks solely to the gated shifter. Admittedly, a gated-shift Mercedes was among the cars I learned to drive on, but in its day Mercedes’ automatic was just about the closest thing out there to a manual without actually being a manual. Otherwise, both cars have non-intuitive controls, sunroof, power windows, and power door locks. This 350SE is interesting in that it has aftermarket velour as opposed to the BMW’s sumptuous leather. The pedants among us would probably point-out that this car likely started life with leather or MB-Tex, looking at both the upholstery pattern and the fact that the door panel inserts are Tex, and an original velour car would’ve had velour inserts. But it is what it is now, so it really doesn’t matter at this point, does it?
Regardless of what the car came with or its originality, the upholstery work was well done. It is a LOT of green, but as the 733i is very 80s in its brownness, this car is very 70s in its greenness. In truth, I love the light metallic Thistle Green on a Mercedes, and I also like it with the green interior. But I may be in the minority at this stage of the game. Like the BMW, this car also has an aftermarket stereo, and its steering wheel is bigger than the BMW’s by about 20% – or bus big. Compared with the BMW, though, the Mercedes begs to cruise where its cousin from Munich longs to be driven, well, harder. It almost comes down to which flavor you prefer.
Mercedes used a variant of the M116 V8 through the 1991 model year in the 420SEL. It’s a punchy motor for a V8, and as previously discussed a good performer. Where it shines, however, is on the highway. These cars love to devour the miles at super-legal speeds for hours at a time. The suspension is firm but not uncomfortable, same with the seats. It’s not a bad car around town, but be prepared to pay dearly at the gas pump – as the car gets just about 13mpg in the city. Like all Mercedes, you can still nearly build the entire car from the parts catalog, and those parts you can’t find new are generally available used.
Most compelling to me about this 350 is it’s Euro-only motor and headlights, and I think the BBS cross-spoke alloys give it a cool period enthusiast aesthetic. Is that enough to offset all the green? I’d have to ponder that for a while.
So which of these two cars would we bring home at the end of the day? We are totally stupid enough to own either. Frankly, I could see my TTS partner-in-crime buying the BMW while I take the Merc, as that’s how we *generally* roll. Left on my own, however, I think I’d adopt the BMW. It could be because there are 4 Mercedes of varying vintage in my driveway right now and I crave a change, or it might just be that I prefer the BMW’s colors. In truth, I think it’s because I haven’t had a big-six BMW in a long time, and they are just that good.