We’re taking a look back at one of the most iconic BMWs of the 90s – the BMW E31 8 Series. A low slung, leather lined two-door coupe, the 8 Series was technologically ahead of its time and stood at the top of BMW’s line for a remarkable 10 years. The BMW 8 Series was for the professional athlete, the millionaire who was getting to the airport to catch a ride in their private jet. It was an executive missile on the freeway. Pristine examples of the 8 Series still trade for over $100,000.
Later this year BMW will release their second generation 8 Series, so we are revisiting what made the original 8 Series so special. It first starts with the design that still holds the test of time. The profile of the 8 Series is dominated by a long, low sloping engine hood which tapers even lower at the front end. The long hood houses pop-up headlights and a shark like nose with very small, yet unmistakeable BMW twin kidney grills. For BMW the design of the 8 was important as the function and small details such as wipers which tucked up underneath that long engine hood give it a cleaner line yet also help decrease aerodynamic drag.
The two door coupe interestingly has no B Pillar, the front windows roll up and meet the back glass with just a mere weather strip. Put both windows down and you get a completely open side. While many two door coupes feel cramped, the B pillar-less design gives the 8 Series a very open feeling cockpit. The back rapidly tapers with glass to a reasonable sized trunk and some imposing brake lights that carry into the trunk.
The interior layout of the original 8 Series is very driver centric with a large instrument cluster, a ton of buttons and dials. As far as driver tech goes, BMW in this era was very much into one button, one function. There are several orange pixel screens that display how soon you need to take the 8 Series in for service and how many miles on the odometer. The 8 Series was also the first to have DSC, dynamic stability control, and in the European spec 850CSi, rear wheel steering.
Seats are still extremely comfortable and supportive with loads of electric adjustments. The B pillar-less design was so forward thinking, BMW had to place the shoulder seatbelt anchor into the body of the seat. This was a first for BMW and is still used today in their cars such as the 4 Series Convertible. Behind the driver, BMW somehow managed to fit two rear seats. These are very much 911’esque as you can get in them but there is not much room for your legs.
The 8 Series was BMW’s first car completely designed on a computer. BMW used CAD to create it the 8’s sleek shape that punches through the wind with a low 0.28 coefficient of drag. The 8 Series was designed as a grand tourer, an autobahn bomber. It just simply devours open road and begs for long road trips at high speeds. BMW never released an M8 variant, however the M guys did create one as a test-bed that we found in the M’s secret garage.
BMW launched the 8 Series as an 850i with a 12 cylinder motor. This interesting motor it was literally two 2.5 liter inline-six with separate intakes, separate computers and which necessitated a drive by wire throttle to coordinate the whole thing. This complexity does mean though the V12s can be rather expensive to maintain. Twice the fun, twice the price they say.
The original BMW 8 series could also be optioned with a V8. Regarding shifting gears, the 8 came initially with a 4-speed automatic that was in later years updated to a 5-speed. In addition a 6-speed manual transmission was available. The BMW 8 Series featured pioneering integral rear axel five-link suspension, ASC+T Automatic Stability Control plus Traction, speed sensitive power steering and EDC electronic damper control. In later years, DSC, dynamic stability control was added.
In 1993, BMW added the 850CSi, which has become the holy grail of the 8 Series as just 1519 were made worldwide and of which only 225 made it to the United States. Good examples of the 850CSi can sell for $100,000. The 850CSi was manual transmission only with a 5.6 liter 12-cylinder engine with a power output of 375 hp. 850CSi’s modified suspension included stiffer springs and dampers, and reduced the car’s ride height. The 850Si also had wider wheels, and optional forged M Parallel wheels. The 850CSi’s front and rear bumpers were reshaped for improved aerodynamic performance. Four round stainless steel exhaust tips replaced the square tips found on other 8 Series models. A 6-speed manual gearbox was the only transmission option for the 850CSi and came at a time when most other cars were just 5 speed manuals. Euro 850CSi models came with four-wheel steering
So what’s an original 90s era BMW 8 Series like to drive? I spent about a week behind the wheel of this particular 8 Series that has been obsessively cared for by a BMWCCA member for the last 14 years. It drove much as I expected, namely it loves the open road. It effortless builds speeds on highway on-ramps. It feels like you should just cruise across the United States on the interstate or I can imagine blasting down the autobahn all day. The 8 Series is not the kind of car you would want to autocross or track as it is a rather heavy car.
What blew me away was that even at 108,000 miles and 21 years of age the lack of squeaks or rattles. I was also amazed that the B pillar-less windows went up and down, and met without a fuss. It says a lot about the strength and rigidity of the 8’s chassis that 20+ years later it’s as solid as ever.
Through the years, the owner of this 1997 840Ci has added some tasteful mods to keep the car looking and performing great. My favorite additions are the original Alpina E31 spec wheels and the Eisenmann exhaust. The most important aspect is just how impeccably well maintained it is. Every little switch worked, it fired right up and you really could mistake it for a modern car.
Some interesting statistics on the original 8 series. It was produced from 1989-1999 but was available in the United States only from 1991-1997. 30,621 were produced and about 8,000 were sent to the US. Roughly 20,000 were V12s, making it the most common motor. Only 1519 of the total run of 8 Series were 850CSi models and these are the ones that command the most on the used market. Inexpensive 850s are out there but they can be rather maintenance intensive, especially if not properly cared for.
The original BMW 8 Series never really sold in high numbers, though most seriously expensive coupes never do. BMW used 8 Series to introduce a lot of new technology that we now take for granted. The 90s era BMW 8 Series is a true GT Car, autobahn cruiser, an executive missile.The BMW 8 Series was truly ahead of its time. It was BMW’s flagship and its timeless design is aging well.
Here’s our video review of the original E31 BMW 8 Series: