Curbside Classic: BMW 850i and 840Ci – Nineties Icon Or Technological Overkill?

 

Ed: Please welcome our latest CC Contributor, “PoGood”, who hails from Poland. This post includes his pictures as well as some shot by me.

Recently I found this BMW 8-Series parked next to my house. As a departure from typical BMW design standards (and somewhat the opposite of essential BMW philosophy), the 8-Series was one of BMW’s riskier moves of recent years. Since the late 1960s, BMW had become synonymous with sporty handling, great dynamics and advanced technology, and renowned for cars designed to engage drivers in the pursuit of ultimate driving pleasure. So did the 8-Series fit that bill?

Well, not at all.

 

The 8-Series was not intended as a direct replacement for the 6-Series, which was a sporty, compact, agile coupe with sleek looks, good weight distribution and, in the case of the 635 CSi, brisk performance. Instead, it was purpose-built for another kind of customer: the 80’s/90’s yuppie crowd. The car was very good looking, well equipped and exceedingly stylish–a stockbroker’s wet dream. A car to be seen in. An “über-machine”. Per the typical Gran Turismo, it was designed more for fast cruising than cornering orgies on mountain roads, and better equipped to spoil you en route from the downtown office, than thrill you on a weekend drive over the nearest mountain pass.

A sort of a luxury-barge. A posh-mobile.  A status symbol of massive and shiny technological overkill.

 

Just one look at the sloping bonnet with pop-up headlights told you it was fast. The wide tires and long and wide stance signified it as a seriously quick machine. Add in the luxurious and roomy interior, with its great seats and hundreds of center-console and instrument-panel buttons and switches, and you had a modern automotive interpretation of the medieval cathedrals that were built to make a crowd feel minor and pray to the lord of power.

 

Oh, and it was powerful. Debuting as the 850i, it was powered by a 300-hp V12 engine–something offered by no other manufacturer at the time. The engine, at once very powerful and torquey and very elegant and refined, propelled the big coupe with ease.

 

If you ask BMW designers and engineers of that era about their targets for this car, they will definitely point to the Porsche 928, another big, strong and heavy luxury cruiser, which had been introduced in 1977 and was built nearly 20 more years. It was a clear benchmark for the 8-Series.

Probe a little further and they’ll also name other cars of the same period that could also have been alternatives to “the Bimmer”, including the Mercedes SL and SEC models and the Lexus SC400. While they couldn’t beat BMW and Porsche in all disciplines, they were nonetheless really good in some. The SL was a luxury convertible and a very advanced car; the SEC, more comfortable and far less sports-oriented, was more suited to “serious men” who didn’t wish to be seen in an “unreasonably sporty car”.

The Lexus was a bargain compared with the others, delivering sleek styling, good looks and great equipment and refinement levels, and a V8 about as smooth as the BMW’s V12. It was a serious contender with only one major downside: no prestige, at least at the beginning. That would change quickly, especially in the U.S. At roughly half the lofty price of the BMW ($78,000 in 1991), the SC 400 undoubtedly impacted the 850i severely. After selling only 7,232 cars in the U.S. over seven years, BMW pulled the plug in 1997. A rather embarrassing disaster.

Today we know a lot about market niches, those specific customer groups willing to pay more to appear individual and stand out from the crowd. We have also become much more focused on the image a car gives us than we were in the early 90s. Clearly, the BMW managers saw those needs much sooner. They chose their customers well, but in the end the whole idea of an über-coupe didn’t pay off.

You need to drive this car to discover its greatest weakness. I had a chance to drive two of them–an early 850i and a very late ’98 840Ci–and boy, are they different…

 The 850i had a rather heavy engine and rather modest-sized wheels and tires (235/55 ZR 16).  It drove like a boat on stormy waters, floating on tip-toes and feeling nose-heavy and very massive. The model I drove had one of the first steering wheels with an airbag, and it was surprisingly big for a sports car; certainly, it didn’t add any sportiness to the ride. And inside there was total silence, with minimal wind noise and nearly none at all from the engine and exhaust.

What was good about it? It was very well made, quite comfortable on harsh roads, and very fast. Not really sporty, for sure, but very, very quick.

I also spent some time behind the wheel of a 1992 Ford Thunderbird LX, and those memories popped up as I was driving the 850i. For me, the 850 was more of an evolution of the American personal luxury car than a real sporty coupe. It was like a guidebook for the designers of  future Thunderbirds/Cougars and even Eldorados/Mark VIIIs. It showed those big, comfy coupes the way they would go as they grew out of their price brackets. Driving a V8 T-bird was in many ways very similar to driving the 850i. Both were big and comfy; quick, but not sporty; luxurious, but somehow not very charismatic. And that’s the biggest sin the BMW 8-Series carries upon its shoulders. It has neither the sex-appeal of a nimble sports coupe nor the refinement of such more mature personal luxury cars as the Bentley Continental GT.

 

Two years later I had a chance to do nearly 200 kilometers in an 840Ci. It was a much younger car  equipped with the best engine available for that model, a light and very compact 4.4-liter V8, which was mated to a five-speed automatic gearbox. This car handled much better than 850i, as its lighter engine was located well back into the engine bay, behind the front axle and very low. It had slightly less power than the V12 (286 hp vs. 300 hp), but nearly the same torque–and a much better gearbox. That made a lot of difference to the driving experience.

With updated suspension and a lovely small, 3-spoke steering wheel, this car felt much more sporty than the earlier model. It rode on 17-inch alloys fitted with properly low-profile tires that greatly improved cornering and grip. In fact, it felt like a totally different car and I loved it very much. It did share one major flaw with the old 850i in that it was far too quiet. I’d love to hear more “V8 songs” than wind noise…

But you know what? This car makes me think: What would I buy TODAY, assuming I were a bloke capable of buying an 850i or 840Ci?  For one thing, I’d be 20 years older, probably with grown-up kids who drove their own cars and mostly visited my house during spring break at university. My wife  would have become a serious lady. Or perhaps I, like some other men, would have to present my manhood to a subsequent trophy wife 20 years hence…what to choose from today’s showroom offerings?

 

One natural move would be a new 6-Series – bigger, less radical and far more luxurious than the recent “Bangle-styled” 6-Series. But will I? I don’t think so…

I think that the customers capable of buying such cars at the time have gone off in three distinct directions: Some went upmarket to a Bentley Continental GT or Porsche Panamera; some older buyers  switched to higher-sitting SUVs like the BMW X6 and Porsche Cayenne, simply to avoid having to bend while getting inside; and others went into a niche occupied by the Mercedes CLS, BMW 6 series Gran Sport or Audi A7.

And what does that leave on the personal-luxury coupe battlefield? In my opinion, only the Mercedes CL series and Bentley Continental GT.

Meanwhile, today you can go out and buy a good 8-Series for anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000. Sounds like the bargain of the century, doesn’t it?