Undoubtedly one of the most desirable modern classic BMW coupés, we take an 850i for a sunset drive along Table Mountain.
Story by Wilhelm Lutjeharms
Photos by Simon Luckhoff
The BMW 8 Series was quite a tour de force when it was released. I fondly remember a pull-out advertisement in CAR magazine all those years ago which left quite an impression on me, and so did the 8's design and the claimed performance. As a child it was usually sportscars that piqued my interest, but this sleek German GT really drew me in.
The model range included the 840i/Ci with two engine derivatives, the 850i/Ci (also with two engine derivatives) and the most collectible version in the range, the 850CSi with the six-speed manual transmission.
The 850i came fitted with the 5.0-litre V12 engine. Don’t mistake this engine with the unit from the CSi. The V12 in the CSi was the more powerful 5.6-litre unit. If you are an engine fanatic, you will immediately connect the CSi’s engine with that of the 6.1-litre, V12 BMW powerplant that was used in what has become one of the most valuable and lauded cars in automotive history, the McLaren F1.
Back to the 850i, where the V12 engine still delivers a healthy 220 kW and 450 N.m of torque. What grabs you first about the 8 Series is the styling. The sleek lines have sharp edges while the wedge-shaped front can be immediately interrupted by flicking a switch to the right of the steering column which activates the pop-up lights. It is very '90s!
At the rear there are four exhaust pipes to signal its performance intent, while the doors are also pillarless.
The '90s onslaught continues inside with a plethora of buttons dotted all over the facia. That said, the overall dashboard design is attractive, and the centre hangdown section sloped ever so slightly towards the driver.
Behind the wheel
The seating position is not as low as I had expected, while the sunroof, as with any modern car, doe steal some headroom. Even so, the seats are comfortable and offer some lateral support, while the view over the smooth bonnet towards the pop up headlights leave you in no doubt that you are behind the wheel of a front-engined GT.
A few turns of the starter motor and the V12 catches and then settles into a smooth idle. Even as I pull off and thread through Cape Town’s afternoon traffic, it is evident that there is sufficient torque on hand. Small throttle inputs see the revs rise momentarily while the V12 makes relatively light work of the heavy car. Even at 2 000 to 3 000rpm there is plenty of performance on offer.
There are E, S and M settings for the drivetrain. E (probably for Economy) allows for the most relaxed kind of gearchanges and is the laziest throttle setting. S (Sport) improves this and also makes the throttle pedal slightly more sensitive. It is actually this setting which I would use permanently, as it feels more responsive than in the E setting.
The beautiful blade-like (and relatively small by modern standards) 16-inch wheels are wrapped in 245/45 ZR16 tyres which, together with the suspension, result in a pleasant and pliant ride. There is some body roll, but through some twisties the 850i turned in with a sportier intent than I had anticipated.
It is only during the kickdown function (when the throttle pedal is pressed to the floor) that the engine will offer all of its performance. Then the laziness of the engine mostly disappears and the engine is happy to rev past 5 000rpm and then you realise that the car is definitely more suited to the open road and faster corners.
With just under 52 000km on the odo, this low-mileage example has a lot counting for it. There are a few features of the car that need some attention, but overall it is a beautiful example of a car that represents one of a number of BMW’s highwater marks from the Nineties.
With all four windows lowered and the sunroof opened, it represents a near-cabriolet type of driving experience, while surely being one of the prettiest, modern-classic, pillarless coupés ever produced.
If I remember correctly, CAR magazine mentioned in their road test or driving impression back in the day that at 160kph the windows would automatically move up to just below the closing position, and at 180kph they would close completely. Impressive technology for the day – and maybe worth testing in the future!
In February 1993 the 850i AT had a list price of R586 300, slightly less than a Porsche Carrera 2 Tiptronic and more than a Mercedes-Benz 300SL and Jaguar XJ-S Convertible. Today, expect to pay a little bit more than that for a neat example.
Thanks to The Archive for making this drive possible. Contact them if you are interested in this car which is currently part of their inventory.
Specifications: 1991 BMW 850i AT (E31)
Engine: 5.0-litre, V12
Power: 220 kW at 5 200 rpm
Torque: 450 Nm at 4 100 rpm
Top speed: 251kph
0-100 km/h: 6.8 seconds
Gearbox: four-speed, automatic, RWD
Tank size: 90L
Number made: Around 20 000
Production years: 1990-94