The BMW 8 Series incorporated the best of BMW in a futuristic coupe – it featured outstanding aerodynamics, digital innovations, high-tech and a powerful 12-cylinder engine. At the time, journalists were unanimous in hailing the 8 Series as one of the standout achievements of the fabled German car industry.
- Jan Wilms
At the 1989 Frankfurt Motor Show (IAA), international industry experts eagerly awaited the highlight of the show: the launch of a new top-of-the-range model by a major German luxury brand, BMW. Not a further development in a current model series, but a coupe, the like of which had not been produced at the company’s Munich headquarters since the mid 1970s. What’s more, it was a pioneering design that would establish a new vehicle class between the sports car and the Gran Turismo.
Even in formal terms, the newcomer assumed a rank above the 7 Series saloon, at the time the most exclusive BMW available. The very name of the BMW 8 Series had a stately and superior ring to it. Its superlative qualities were visible at first glance: an elegant wedge shape that delivered outstanding aerodynamic properties. A drag coefficient of 0.29 was on a par with today’s super sports cars. Starting from the ultra low front end, reminiscent of the BMW M1, the waistline rose gently rearwards like a perfectly drawn brush stroke: from the majestically elongated engine bonnet with its pop-up headlamps, along subtly flared wheel arches and under a clean sweep of glass. The designers were able to forego the B-pillars, lending the opulently spacious, 4.78-metre-long (15.7 ft.) 2+2 coupe an almost filigree look.
In the Top Gear test of the day, a youthful Jeremy Clarkson waxed lyrical about the “Star Wars cockpit” of the BMW 8 Series.
”Star Wars cockpit” and V12 engine
The E31 – as the BMW 8 Series was designated internally – greeted the driver with a level of futuristic luxury that was exceptional by the standards of the day and offered a foretaste of BMW interiors of the 1990s: a seat-integrated belt system, an electronically adjustable steering column, an on-board computer with a “multi-information display” and a precursor of the digital transmission system for instruments and body electrics. The 8 Series was the first car in the world to feature this multiplex technology – in the Top Gear test of the day, a youthful Jeremy Clarkson understandably waxed lyrical about this “Star Wars cockpit”.
The centrepiece of the BMW 850i was its V12 engine borrowed from the BMW 7 Series and boasting 5-litre displacement, 300 hp and 450 Nm of torque. The high-performance chassis also featured numerous innovations: adaptive dampers, speed-dependent Servotronic and in particular the passive rear-wheel steering of the integral rear axle, which improved handling on corners. The Stability and Traction Control (ASC+T) was a forerunner of the DSC system, which would not be launched for another five years. Trade journalists were immediately impressed: the BMW 8 Series, they all agreed, was in a nutshell everything that was good about the German car industry.
More a comfortable GT than a sports car
On the sales floor at the BMW four-cylinder headquarters in Munich, the celebratory mood rapidly subsided after reviewing the modest sales figures: although the 8 Series indirectly supplanted the discontinued 6 Series, it came at a significant extra cost. With a price tag of 135,000 German marks, the 850i was the most expensive BMW of the era. So in 1992 BMW decided to inject even more power into a version called the 850CSi, ramping up output of the V12 to 380 hp and displacement to 5.6 litres. Despite tipping the scales at a hefty 1865 kilograms (4,112 lbs), the lively 12-cylinder unit delivered impressive performance, completing the sprint from 0 to 100 km/h (62 mph) in just 6.0 seconds and continuing upwards from there to an impressive top speed (electronically limited) of 250 km/h (155 mph).
In 1993, the 850i became the 850Ci, initially with identical output, then in 1994 with an additional boost of 26 hp and displacement increased to 5.4 litres. A new base model was also introduced in 1993 in the guise of the 840Ci: BMW’s first V8 coupe since the 1962 3200 CS had a 4-litre displacement and developed 286 hp. By mid 1999, production of the BMW 8 Series models had been phased out, and plans to produce a convertible variant were shelved. In total, around 75 per cent of the 30,621 units sold were the expensive 12-cylinder models, the majority of them in combination with the auto-adaptive automatic transmission. With hindsight, it is clear that the public saw the 8 Series more as a comfortable GT than a sports car.
David Hockney’s Art Car and the legendary M8
In today’s young classics market the BMW 8 Series has transitioned from being an insider tip to an in-demand classic with a rising price tag. But two examples are certain never to come under the hammer, even in the most exclusive of vintage car auctions: the 850CSi designed as a BMW Art Car by pop art icon David Hockney, and the prototype of a BMW M8 with a carbon fibre body, 600 hp and a 6-litre V12 engine, later used in the McLaren F1. For cost reasons this model never went into production, but at the time it would have been the most powerful BMW ever built.