The 8-Series was misunderstood from the outset. It’s not as though BMW didn’t have a reputation for building great coupés when it arrived in 1989 – throughout the 1970s and 1980s it had produced one after another.
But when the 8-Series arrived, nobody knew what to make of it. It wasn’t a sportscar so it must be a grand tourer – but it was overpriced, awkwardly styled and it wasn’t even that good to drive. Hardly the hallmarks of a landmark car.
As is so often the way, time has been reasonably kind to the 8-series, because now it’s seen as a classic, bought for its quirkiness – as well as its comfort, usability, performance and build quality – it’s easy to see the appeal. But while purchase costs are invariably pretty low, don’t lose sight of the fact that running costs can be high – so don’t dive in without making plenty of checks first.
Which one to buy?
No 8-Series is especially sporting, but all of them are quick if not as much fun as you might expect, considering the BMW roundel on the nose. With V8 power the 840Ci is the pick of the bunch if you’re a driving enthusiast, while the 850CSi is also worth a look – but this is the rarest of the breed by some margin, so don’t expect to find one easily.
At first the 840Ci got a 4.0-litre powerplant, but from January 1997 there was a 4.4-litre V8 fitted instead. While there’s no difference in power outputs between the two engines, the bigger unit offers better economy and extra torque, so it’s the one to go for.
The original V12-powered 8-Series is the 850i, launched in 1990 with a 296bhp 5.0-litre engine. This was renamed the 850Ci in late 1992, then six months later came the ultimate 8-Series, the 850CSi. Offered for just three years and sold in tiny numbers, the 380bhp 850CSi was fitted with a 5.6-litre V12, lowered suspension and electronic damper control. There was also four-wheel steering as standard.
Performance and specs
Engine 4988cc, V12
Transmission Four-speed automatic
Power 300bhp @ 5200rpm
Torque 332lb ft @ 4100rpm
Top speed 155mph
Fuel consumption 14.4mpg
Insurance group 20
Dimensions and weight
Kerb weight 1975kg
• Modern standards of rustproofing means there shouldn’t be any signs of corrosion anywhere. If there’s any rust – no matter how minor – it’s likely that the car has suffered some kind of accident damage in the past. There are some superb cars out there, so don’t settle for anything less; proper repairs are costly because the panels are so expensive, so check all of the bodywork thoroughly for uneven shut lines, dents, filler or rust.
• As long as they’re not neglected the V12 engines will just keep going. They tend to like to be serviced every 9000 miles or so, although most do it more often. All 8-Series came with a variable servicing system that flags up when maintenance is required.
• Like a lot of big-engined luxury cars in the early 1990s, some of the 4.0-litre V8s were susceptible to Nikasil bore lining wear caused by high levels of sulphur in some fuels, effectively writing off the engine. The 4.4-litre cars don’t suffer from the same problems and most 4.0-litre cars have had new liners fitted already, so you’d be unlucky to get caught out – but it is possible.
• As long as everything is maintained according to schedule, the mechanicals will pretty much last forever. The key thing is to ensure that the oil is changed with the manual gearbox – although most of these cars are autos. The automatic transmissions are extremely reliable.
• While the steering of standard cars should be trouble-free, the 850 CSi was equipped with four-wheel steering, with the rear wheels activated hydraulically. As a result, the pipes to the rear-steering linkage can corrode, and it’s a difficult job to replace them.
• The rear suspension bushes are likely to be worn, especially on hard-driven cars. Any of the shock absorbers can leak while the alloy wheels have a habit of corroding, but they’re refurbished easily enough.
• As you’d expect, the interior is crammed with high-quality materials, so the seats shouldn’t be worn. The headlining can pull away though and repairing it effectively is a pain, so make sure it lines up all the way round and isn’t sagging in the middle.
• All 8-Series are filled with electronics and technology, and while most of tends to keep working, the most common weak spot is the LCD screen in the dashboard cluster.
1990: The 850i is launched, with a 5.0-litre V12 producing 296bhp. The car is only offered with an automatic gearbox at this point.
1991: Manual gearbox now offered for the 850i, but very few were bought with this option.
1993: Most powerful 850 CSi, with a 380bhp 5.6-litre V12. Lower-spec 840Ci also launched, with a 286bhp 4.0-litre V8.
1996: Six-speed manual option now offered on the 840Ci.
1997: 840Ci gets upgraded 4.4-litre engine, although the manual transmission option is also deleted. Sport option offers M Sport steering wheel, suspension, wheels, seats and bodykit.
Owners clubs, forums and websites
Summary and prices
BMW’s 8-Series has always been a very difficult car to understand, and can be a bit all over the place. As with all BMWs, there is a high premium paid for low mileage and exceptional cars, at around £22,000, and especially the top of the range CSIs which can sell for even more than £28,000.
In reality, reasonable cars start from £8000 up to about £15,000, although cars needing a little bit of fettling can in fact be had from around £5000. CSIs start from £15,000, to around £22,000.
Words: Richard Dredge