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The Resurgence of the BMW 8 Series

It's back. Well, almost back. BMW just recently teased the side profile of their new 8 Series and it's getting people talking. Some of them wondering 'Was the old one any good?'. The answer - like all cars - depends on who's asking. If you tried to explain to your mother why you'd get a car with electronics that required a degree from MIT to diagnose, she'd think you're throwing money down a pit. If you told the same to a BMW fan they'd reply with a predictable query: 'Is it the one with the S70?'. So really, this one is a hard sell for most people. It's temperamental. It's expensive. It's complicated. But it's also beautiful. And it has a V-12. Maybe the new one will turn out to be the same as the old one after all.

Saying the original 8 Series was ahead of its time is an apt observation. Many BMW trademark luxuries were introduced in this car alone. It was their first car with an electronically controlled throttle body, ABS, rear trunk latch, traction control, and steering column for 4-way adjustments. Its frameless windows scooted down when you opened the door and raised back up when you closed them resulting in a better seal. It had a CAN bus system. It was one of the first cars with OBD I. Its rear suspension was a 5-way multi-link setup in place of semi-trailing arms.

However, those conveniences brought as many headaches as it was built to relieve. For instance, when Car and Driver did their road test back in 1991, the steering wheel adjuster didn't work all the time, leading them to question the reliability of the car. The front end used rubber bushings that required a near-full rebuild to replace. A costly one at that. And the 5.0-liter SOHC M70 V-12? It used two ECUs, two electric throttle bodies, and two car batteries. Apparently one ECU was used to control the throttle body while the other kept them synchronized. You also needed to keep the car on a battery tender as the passive draw from the electronics might prevent it from starting up. If you ever had any plans to keep this car running, you'd need to sell a part of your soul to the devil to afford it.

Out on the road, the 850i delivers balmy levels of performance. Its engine produced 295 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque but its curb weight was over 4,100 lbs (1,859 kg). The weight of the car determined its 0-60 time of 6.3 seconds, and a top speed of 155 mph. Unimpressive for a coupe that cost over $90,000 when new. Fortunately straight line figures wasn't its main concern. The V-12 in the 850i was said to be audibly imperceptible, and cruising on highways at 120 mph felt no more exciting than sitting in an anechoic chamber. In fact, salesmen have demonstrated the stillness of the engine bay by placing a glass of wine on top of the motor to show how it remains undisturbed through the revs. A neat show of force usually reserved for a Rolls Royce.

The other variants of the 8 Series weren't as popular, but still notable. At the low end the 840i had a 4.0 or 4.4-liter V-8 depending on the year, and was faster than the 850i - though it's difficult to determine if that was ever intentional. At the top end the 850 CSi featured a 5.6-liter S70 V-12 generating 380 hp while featuring rear wheel steering, sharper suspension, and electric power seats. Although the 850 CSi exists as a de-tuned version of a canceled Ferrari-battling M8 project, its VINs revealed they were still coming from the M factory after all. The prototyping of the S70 engine would eventually make its way into the heart of the McLaren F1 - and there's no denying it wasn't a match made in heaven sitting in the middle of the world's greatest supercar.

Today, the E31 still garners polarizing conversations. Some 8 Series go as low as $18,000 and some go as high as $80,000. For some buyers, the 850 is worth the hassle as a car that dared to ventured so far ahead with technology and luxury. For others, it's a classic car lacking in rawness, noise, and driver connection. For the rest of us, it's one hell of an expensive repair bill.


Photos from Silverstone Auctions