The Bavarian über-coupé

Although the Berlin wall came down 30 years ago, it was actually not until the year after, in 1990, that German unification officially happened. In the same historical year BMW launched the 12-cylinder 850, a car that didn’t see a successor until this year, as noted by my co-writer Magnus in his post from February that can be read here. Magnus was far less enthusiastic about the new 850 than the old one, as am I, but unfortunately the first 850 can only be described as a failure, its success notably ruined by another world event a short while after – the first Gulf war. Today you can find a really good BMW 850i or Ci for EUR 2.000 per cylinder – and that, my friends, is a bargain worth writing about.

I have previously covered both mechanical (here) 12-cylinder and more modern 12-cylinder big coupés (here), but the 850 fell between the chairs on those two occasions and therefore now gets its own post, given my weak spot for this wonderful kind of automobile.

Let’s first do away with a misconception, namely that the 8-series coupé was intended as a successor of the 6-series. That was never the case, BMW clearly positioned the 850 higher up in the market, notably thanks to the famously smooth 5-litre, 12-cylinder engine originally developing 300 hp, a modest number today but oh so impressive back in the early 90’s. It was coupled to either a 4-speed automatic or a 6-speed manual gearbox, making it the the first 12-cylinder road car ever to be offered as a manual. From 1992, the 8-cylinder 840 was offered in parallel, but the first Gulf war made BMW cancel the plans for an M8 in 1991. Instead the 850 Ci saw its performance boosted to 326 hp in 1992 (the same year the “C” was added to the name), and the top of the range 850 CSi with 381 hp, produced between 1992 and 1996, was the most powerful version in the series. Production ended in 1999 and by that time only slightly over 31.000 cars had been built, of which only some 7.000 had been sold in the US – far below what BMW originally intended.

Set low with its stretched body, flowing lines, pop-up headlights (a clear tribute to the M1) and frameless doors, the 8-series has a wonderful 90’s look about it that in my view has aged really well. I remember thinking it was a really big car when I saw one the first time – that’s obviously no longer the case given how cars have evolved, but it’s still a 4.8 metre body and a true 4-seat coupé, although the back seats, especially in the leg-room area, are far more cramped than the size would lead you to believe. It was few years back I drove one, but I’ll never forget the smoothness of the engine – in normal speeds you can barely hear it and when pushed, it produces a lovely, classy, deep tone, oh so far away from turbo-charged, modern V8’s. The engine and the whole car quickly lets you know that it’s a travel companion, a true cruiser, intended for long, effortless stretches on a Bavarian autobahn or the sweeping curves of the route Napoléon with those pop-up headlights firmly pointed towards the Côte d’Azur.

The interior is quite a somber place with lots of buttons (we’re still talking pre-digital revolution here) and lots of black plastic, but at least there’s no outdated GPS to live with. If you’re lucky though, you may find one with a pre-historical mobile phone, mounted between the seats on the picture above!

If you’re in the market for an 850, it’s more important to find the right car than whether it’s a manual or automatic, or for that matter if it’s an i (300 hp) or a Ci (326 hp) – both will convey the same impression of superiority, and power will be plentiful. The 8-cylinder 840 with 286 hp will do the job almost as well, but obviously it’s not a 12-cylinder, which is a big part of what makes this car desirable, also from an investment angle. The only version that has shot up in price today is the top-of-the-line 850 Csi, of which only 1500 were built. Otherwise EUR 25.000 will get you a long way in terms of finding a good car, and I very much doubt they will ever get cheaper – especially the manual version. Maintenance cost will obviously be significant, but at the bargain price you get the car for, that’s where you can invest some of the savings from the purchase!