Dream Garage: BMW 850CSi
BMW 8 Series. All photos from bmw.com
Previous editions of the Dream Garage include my favorite car of all time, the first factory-approved, batshit crazy Mercedes, the greatest supercar ever built, a barely-legal Lotus, and a stunning Ferrari supercar. To that list, I add an early ’90s BMW meant to be driven everyday, even when the spotty reliability and high cost of maintenance may send off warning bells to prospective buyers. It has a German V12 that, in standard form, produces too little power and moves too much weight, and it is far too expensive to use as an everyday GT. And I love it for reasons that are hard to explain in words.
The 8 Series (E31) was a range-topping flagship for the BMW brand, a showcase for all of BMW’s technical innovation and a spiritual successor to the stunning 6 Series (E24). In contrast to the E24, however, the 8 Series was far more powerful and luxurious (read: expensive) than the older coupe, making the E31 more of a grand tourer than its predecessor. In contrast to the 6 Series’ plethora of straight sixes, the 8 Series initially shipped in MY 1990 (1991 in the US) as an 850i with a 5.0L V12 that developed 296hp. The cost of that V12 was pretty steep, roughly $75,000 in 1991 dollars, or about the price of a 2013 M6. A bespoke platform was part of the substantial cost, as was the monstrous V12 (and a paired six-speed manual, the first time this combination was used in a roadgoing car) and top-of-the-line accoutrements like remote keyless entry and dual zone climate control. It also featured a drive-by-wire throttle and a wind tunnel-shaped extreme wedge body style that caused the 8 Series to have a drag coefficient of only 0.29. Plus, it has the two features that defined 1990s style and luxury: flip up headlights and a car phone.
David Hockney’s 8 Series Art Car
The 850i was joined by the V8 840Ci in 1994. Its 4.0L engine developed 282hp, or only 14 less than the V12, making it seem like a better value proposition for both the original owners and secondhand buyers. Buyer beware, though, as the engine cylinder liner was made of Nikasil, which tended to not agree with the high sulfur content of some American gasoline at the time. The problems with Nikasil were erased by 1996, when a new 4.4L V8 debuted with slightly more torque and a cylinder liner made with Alusil.
Back to the V12s for a while. The high-end 850CSi debuted in 1994 and was produced for only two model years, and this is the model to get. Its 5.6L V12 was developed by the legendary M division and pumped out slightly less than 400hp. It was paired exclusively with the six-speed manual transmission, a welcome departure from the four- and five-speed automatics that graced lesser 8 Series models. It was also fitted with a sport suspension and 17-inch tires, which probably seemed large before the days of Cadillac Escalades with 30-inch rims and rubber band tires. The CSi is the version for driving enthusiasts who liked the 840i/850i but were unimpressed by its cruising nature and lazy engine response (especially since the V12 at this time was mated to the four-speed auto). In the used car market, expect to pay an extra 25-100% for an 850CSi compared to a normal 850Ci.
The standard 850Ci received a 30hp power bump in 1995 when the 5.0L was replaced by a 5.4L and an extra cog was added to the automatic transmission. Slowing sales in the US led to its discontinuation here in 1997, while the coupe continued to be sold in other markets for another two years. The slowdown is what likely caused BMW to cancel production on the proposed M8 supercar, which existed as a sole prototype only before BMW shelved the project. As BMW Blog details, the M8’s V12 was very similar to the one used in the McLaren F1, and would have produced about 550hp, a groundbreaking amount of power for BMW at the time. The M8 is never shown outside of the vault, to the extent that many thought it was completely dismantled and relegated as a mere footnote in BMW’s history. BMW showed off the car during an industry event, and the pictures are very much worth taking a look at.
Aside from the aforementioned 850CSi, 8 Series models are relatively inexpensive to purchase. As the fuel economy is in the pitiful low teens, and due to its expensive repair and maintenance costs, the coupes usually don’t carry too many miles, and typically vary between $8,000-$15,000. Avoid the 1994-1995 840i with the Nikasil liners, especially if the car is low mileage. The sulfur buildup is cumulative, so problems will be more pronounced as the car is driven.
The exceptional beauty and powerful GT nature of the BMW 8 Series with the sporting pretense of the 850CSi make that specific model part of my dream garage. Yes, the fuel economy is exceptionally terrible, and upkeep expenses can easily exceed the cost of the car in the short term, but the 8 Series is about so much more than number crunching. It was a worthy competitor to the Mercedes 560SEC (which I also love), and paved the way for the 6 Series GTs that BMW makes to this day. V8 and V12 touring cars have been a staple of high-end European brand for decades, and with the 8 Series, BMW joined their esteemed ranks.