1996 BMW 850 CSI E31

Black | 6-Speed Manual | 5576cc | 12913miles | HK$1,380,000

In recent years, the i8 has been BMW’s sporting flagship. But it never eclipsed the 8 Series because the two cars are so different: the former a futuristic supercar, the latter an old-school super-GT. The 8 Series turns 30 this year – here’s its story so far.

The E31

First shown at the 1989 Frankfurt Auto Show, the 850i – or E31 in BMW-speak – followed the 750i saloon as the second post-war German car to be powered by a 12-cylinder engine.

According to the company, BMW ‘launched its challenge to the world’s finest sports coupes with a design oozing avant-garde elegance, arresting performance attributes, an exceptional wealth of innovations and a sprinkling of exclusive luxury’. Sounds promising…

A strong start

Indeed, BMW’s flagship coupe made a brilliant first impression. Within eight days of the Frankfurt show, it had received 5,000 orders. By the summer of 1990, it was reported that the entire production of 10,000 to 12,000 cars a year had been sold out until 1993. Some people were prepared to spend twice the showroom price to avoid the six-month waiting list.

The first 8 Series

This was the first time BMW had used the number eight in its model line-up, with the 8 Series breaking new ground for the brand. Power came from a 5.0-litre 12-cylinder engine, which was mated to a six-speed manual gearbox developed specifically for the 850i. A four-speed automatic was optional.

V for victory

It’s not hard to see why would-be owners were seduced by the V12 coupe. The promise of BMW’s legendary driving dynamics combined with an engine developing 300hp and 332lb ft of torque sounded like a match made in heaven. A 0-60mph time of around 6.5 seconds and a top speed electronically limited to 155mph were the kinds of figures likely to set alarm bells ringing in Stuttgart.

Technical tour de force

It might seem a contradiction in terms for a car powered by a 5.0-litre V12, but efficiency was a key target during the 850’s development. Central to this was aerodynamics, with BMW setting out the aim of a drag coefficient (Cd) of less than 0.3. Aerodynamic door mirrors, recessed windscreen wipers and super-tight seals on the side windows were just three of the elements resulting in a Cd of just 0.29.

Pop-up headlights

Other highlights included pop-up headlights, the absence of a B-pillar, speed-sensitive power steering, an electrically adjustable steering column with memory function, remote central locking, auto dimming rear-view mirror, two computers, a mobile phone located in the centre console and safety belts integrated into the seats. This, along with dynamic stability control, represented two firsts for BMW.

A very 90s interior

Given the evidence presented, it’s hard to see how the 8 Series could fail. The cabin was another positive, with the 850i featuring a well-built and driver-focused interior. Writing in Car magazine, Russell Bulgin said: “As a place to pass the miles in, as a tax-free adjunct to an office, a Club Europe ticket and a platinum American Express card, the 850i interior is an elegant, soothing and high-tech minimalist home from home.” The interior shown is a later 840Ci.

A glorious failure?

What, if anything, went wrong for the 8 Series? History will be kind to the 8er, but there’s no getting away from the fact that it represents a glorious failure for Bavaria. Why else would BMW turn its back on the segment for the best part of two decades before taking enough brave pills to try again? For all that talk of waiting lists and production allocated for three years, BMW managed to shift a mere 30,621 examples of the 8 Series before pulling the plug in 1999.

It was too expensive

In 1990, a BMW 850i would set you back upwards of £53,000, which is almost £105,000 in today’s money. For some context, a Mercedes-Benz SEC would be around £60,000 of your finest English pounds. The 850i was cheaper, yes, but it was far from perfect. To compound matters, launching a V12 on the eve of a financial depression wasn’t the best timing.

It was too big and heavy

The 850i was handicapped by its weight, tipping the scales at around 1,800kg. This served to remove any sparkle from the driving experience, while adding roll and floatiness through the corners. With the benefit of hindsight, and when viewed as a grand tourer, these factors are more forgivable, but at the time the 750iL was no less of a driving machine. It was also appreciably cheaper and offered rear-seat accommodation suitable for more than just the offspring of a contortionist.

It lacked the wow-factor

Today, the BMW 8 Series can turn heads as well as any modern classic of the 1990s, but that wasn’t necessarily the case when the car was new. See an 850i in your rear-view mirror and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were being hustled by a banker in a Toyota Supra 3.0i Turbo. There’s nothing wrong with a Supra, but it cost nearly £40,000 less than the BMW. The well-heeled motorist simply must stand out from the crowd.

It wasn’t focused enough

For all its technical wizardry – Active Rear Axle Kinematics (AHK), adjustable suspension and Servotronic steering – the 850i could never really make up its mind what it wanted to be. Drivers could select between ‘Sport’ and ‘Komfort’ modes, but while the 850i was certainly smooth and comfortable, the more practical and cheaper 750i did everything just as well. ‘Good, but not that good’, read the rather damning headline on the front of Car, June 1990.

Introducing the 850CSi

BMW chipped away at the 8 Series, eager to perfect its super-coupe. In 1993, a second version of the 12-cylinder engine was added to create the 850CSi. This 5.6-litre unit offered 381hp and 401lb ft of torque, enough for it to complete the 60mph dash in less than 6.0 seconds. This is the point at which BMW introduced active rear axle kinematics, with the rear wheels responding to speed and steering angle by turning in the same direction.

The 850Ci was revised in 1994, with the coupe now powered by a 5.4-litre V12 developing 326hp. Customers could opt for a five-speed manual transmission, but few did. Only one in six 8 Series sold was fitted with a manual gearbox. The 850CSi, of which 1,150 were produced, was available exclusively with a stick shift.

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