Written by Boz
The E31 8 series BMW is commonly billed as the most technical car of its time. Introduced in 1989, it was the first to offer a 6-speed manual with a 12-cylinder engine. It had an integral rear axle and even integrated lights – the only car to squeeze low beams, high beams, and fog lights into a pop-up lamp box. The 12-cylinder had two CPUs such that the car could run on 6 cylinders in the event of a serious engine malfunction. Add to that the myriad of electronics providing stability control in just about all physical parameters, and you may think this BMW would suffer from the technological plagues of its current brethren. But not so.
At its introduction, the 8 series was offered in only one flavor – the 5-liter 850i, but plummeting sales forced BMW to spice it up a bit. From that came the more accessible 840i and the M-Division improved 850CSi. The 840 received a 4-liter V8 with 286 bhp while the CSi boasted a 380 bhp S70 motor (thus officially making it an M-car). Alpina eventually got their hands on about 100 850Ci’s and CSi’s. BMW experimented with an 830i and a “true” M8, but both ideas were scrapped at the prototype stage. By 1993 the 850i became the 850Ci, but aside from the badge, the change was nearly impossible to notice. The engine was upped to 5.4 liters and 326 bhp, but the 6-speed manual was dropped for a 5-speed automatic. Here in the states, even the 840 was only allowed the automatic. The exclusivity factor of the 850CSi was confirmed when production ceased in 1996 with barely 1500 models produced. The 840 and 850Ci continued hitting dealerships until 1999. While the technology inside the 8 series was cutting edge, the exterior received almost no changes throughout the entire production history. In my eyes, the 8-series did not need much improvement – I still think it’s gorgeous. But n the eyes of buyers, the newer facelifts of the Mercedes SL seemed a more desirable option.
Open the door and notice the window drop slightly to balance the air pressure inside and out. Inside the functions of the 8-series were best left to the driver to use. Much of the center console was angled toward the driver’s right hand and all door and window controls could be controlled by his left. In true racing fashion, the accelerator was floor-mounted. And though the 8 was not a convertible, the absence of a B pillar meant that all the windows could be dropped for an unobstructed view out of each side. Keep them closed and you are rewarded with the isolation common to the classy GTs of today.
My first jaunt in an 8 series was in 1997 with a new (at the time) 840Ci. If you do the math from my profile, then you will see that I was 17 years old. Being the most unique car I had driven to date, the floor-mounted accelerator took some getting used to – very often what I thought was “burying the throttle” was merely pressing it half-way. Since I obviously needed some training on how to properly drive the car, we went to a lonely but freshly paved set of roads to do some experimentation.
Straight line throttle is a no-brainer. By today’s standards (and even by yesterday’s standards) the 8 series was not blindingly fast, though the CSi could reach 60 in 6 seconds. Simply having a manual transmission will improve your 0-60 times from 7.4 seconds to 6.8. But don’t completely dismiss the automatic transmission. I’ve seen it described as an “intellectual” transmission and the title fits. While most transmissions require sequential upshifts and downshifts, the automatic in the 8 series did not make you wait for arrival in the proper gear. If you punch the throttle at any speed, the engine computer will decide which gear is appropriate for the amount of throttle you’ve requested and immediately shift to it. This allows for non-sequential shifting – fourth to second, fifth to third, etc. The 8 series automatic is certainly more intuitive than most automatics today – including those in the Maseratis or Astons. The biggest drawback to the tranny is that it forces a second-gear start, much like the SLs of the same year. If you want to sample first gear, draw the lever down to the “1.”
Nor should you completely dismiss the performance. While the numbers may not be stellar, some rogue 8-series owners have stealthily modified their ride. The third 8-series I drove (a ‘94 850Ci) had a mysterious M badge on the engine’s valve cover, suggesting a little bit of playful tampering. Whatever the previous owner had done, a quick stretch of my ankle resulted in the afore-mentioned 4-2 shift and Chris being thrown back in the passenger seat so hard that he gave our third passenger a bruise on his knee. In the few seconds it took me to realize what had happened, we were crossing 70mph. Incidentally, Chris later used this car to (inadvertently) set our record for the longest patch of rubber laid in a BMW. Not bad for a car with space age traction control.
Handling, however, is where the 8 series excelled the most. Despite its bulky 4000-lb weight, the car performed flawlessly in the turns. Even in sharp corners in your subdivision, the humble 840 could cross 60 in the turn if it was long enough. And when you hit 60, go ahead and slam on the brakes. The car held its line perfectly. If you don’t want to hold your line, turn in, approach 60, slam on the brakes, and turn the wheel the other direction. It will simply go in that direction. I learned the concepts of balancing the car in a turn, performance handling, and performance braking (similar topics discussed at BMW’s driving events) during my single drive in the 840. Communication between myself, the car, and the road was crystal clear and informative. And though I was perfectly aware of the speed and direction of the car, I was never thrown around in the seat; in fact, quite the opposite. The 8 series was designed to communicate all of the right sensations to you without moving your body. It is truly a driver’s car. And guess what BMW? No electric side bolsters jabbing your kidneys in the process.
I have driven three 8 series Bimmers over the years and it remained my GT of choice for nearly a decade, though were I to buy one, I would insist on an 850 as well as a 6-speed. Its unfortunate lack of popularity next to its rival Euro GTs has simply made it paradoxically accessible (i.e. inexpensive) and rare. After 5 years in NYC, where Mercs and Jags are a dime a dozen, I will see on average one 8-series a year on the road. The entire production run barely crossed 30,000.
I have been saddened to learn that the “8-series” moniker has been designated to adorn BMW’s answer to the Merc CLS, Aston Rapide, and the 4-door Porsche whos-a-whats-it. I can assure you that the two versions are not at all comparable – I mean really, how many 17-year-olds are going to rush out and drive the new 8?
Most reviews that I have seen about the 8 series conclude that the CSi is the only model worthy of being considered a performance car. But I learned performance driving in the 840 and learned it well. The true 8-series dynasty was produced throughout the golden age of BMW’s production history. If that does not make it a performance car, I don’t know what does.