What does it really mean to be a “luxury flagship,” anyway? For BMW in 1989, it meant this: 12 cylinders, two doors, 300 horsepower, a 4,000 pound curb weight, and an aggressive wedge design. This is the 8-Series, and it is one BMW’s best failed experiments.
Believe it or not, the 8-Series turns 25 this year. (The 90s was a long time ago now, kids!) A quarter-century later, it remains attractive, high-tech, powerful, and kind of fascinating. When the “entry level” car made do with just a V8 engine, you know you’re in for something neat.
It’s also unique in the fact that it remains the only BMW made with an “8-” prefix. 3s, 5s, 7s and even 1s have come and go, but this is the only 8. It doesn’t look like that’s going to change anytime soon.
The 8-Series, or E31, was first unveiled at the International Motor Show in Frankfurt in 1989. While some people believe it to be a successor to the E24 6-Series, which was discontinued around the same time following a 13 year production run, it wasn’t; it was actually aimed higher than that, a flagship coupe above even the 7-Series. (BMW’s naming system used to make a lot more sense than it does at present.)
What the car did get from the 7-Series was its top-level 5.0-liter V12 engine first deployed on the 750i. Essentially two 2.5-liter inline sixes strapped together with duct tape and twine, the 850i put out 300 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque. Those numbers don’t seem that impressive now, especially from a V12, but they were solid in their day.
And the 850i was less about corner carving and balls-out acceleration and more about grand touring, which it did very well. The motor also formed the basis for the powerplant of the McLaren F1, a contribution that can’t be ignored.
The engine was only part of the story, however. The 850i was one of the most high-tech cars of its time. The motor had two engine computers; a cell-phone was hard wired between the seats; the steering column was adjustable and had a memory function; the windows raised and lowered automatically when the door was opened; climate control was programmable to cool or warm up the car when you weren’t in it; and it had both stability control and traction control.
So was it completely amazing to drive? Uh, not really, as Automobile summed up a couple years back:
BMW boasted that the six-speed 850i would hit 60 mph in 6.1 seconds, but most 8-series models came with only four speeds - and an automatic transmission. The automatic added almost a full second to the 0-to-60-mph sprint, and it was recalcitrant in normal driving, reluctant to downshift in response to even the most violent prods of the accelerator pedal. The novel electronic throttle didn’t help, as it offered neither linear nor quick response. The lazy power delivery, long gearing, deliberate steering, and grand-touring suspension made the 850i a grand disappointment for adrenaline junkies seeking a thrill ride.
Recalcitrant is not a word I want to hear to describe my fancy new $70,000 sport coupe. That’s about $130,000 in today’s dollars. Did I mention it wasn’t cheap, either?
Then there was the fact that it was expensive and complex to repair and maintain. Ask a BMW technician about the 850i sometime. They’ll speak with deep regret in their voice, like the car was their White Whale. “I almost fixed one once,” they’ll say between long drags of a cigarette as they look mysteriously off into the distance, “but the son of a bitch got me in the end.”
Sales also weren’t especially fantastic, thanks to rising gas prices and a recession in the early 1990s and, eventually, the market favoring SUVs over big coupes. BMW did add an entry-level, if you can even call it that, 840Ci in 1993 with 286 horsepower. Power and automatic gear count was also later bumped when the V12 was upgraded to 5.4 liters in displacement.
An M version was never commissioned — except in the form of a crazy 550 horsepower prototype that only recently became public knowledge — but the most desirable and rare 8-Series is the 850CSi, done up by the M division to put out 380 horsepower. Prices for those command extreme premiums, but the lesser 8-Series models can be had at hilarious fractions of their original cost.
So yeah, the 8-Series wasn’t exactly a smash success. If it had been, there probably would have been a sequel or two. I maintain it’s still fantastic in its own way, particularly its looks and the 12 cylinders under its hood.
Will the Germans bring back the 8 someday? The BMW Pininfarina Gran Lusso Coupé concept certainly looked like a modern 8, and BMW executives were said to be mulling the possibility. But the challenges in the big, expensive, gran touring coupe segment remain the same as they were in the 1990s.
Who knows, maybe it will come back. This time around it could even get a four-door Gran Coupe version.