It still works, doesn't it? People talk about a car's power, but there's more to it than just what the engine churns out. Some cars have a power over our imagination, to send us scouring through classifieds, scheming over what assets to sell so the dream can come true. The BMW 8 Series is like that.
There's something timelessly gorgeous about the 8 Series, or E31 to all those factory code completists. That elegant simplicity makes it look like it might have been styled by Giugiaro, who did design the M1 supercar, the nose of which is echoed in the 8 Series by that tiny, squared-off double-kidney grille and pop-up headlights. The actual designer was Klaus Kapitz, who later wrote a book on Alfa Romeos, so it's safe to assume he's a Giugiaro fan.
It's not exactly a gentleman's express, though, like a Jaguar or an Aston Martin. There's an undertone of ruthlessness in its precise lines. But how sweet are those "throwing star" (Style 21M) alloy wheels? And what looks like a B-pillar is actually part of the rear passenger window's frame. With all the windows down, the aperture is completely unhindered.
Produced from 1990 to 1999, although only imported to the United States between 1991 and 1997, this was BMW's flagship coupe and came initially as an 850i, propelled by a 5.0-liter V12 making 295 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque. The auto option was a four-speeder and the car also came with a six-speed manual—a first for that engine/transmission pairing.
However, that was too rich for the blood of many people, even in those heady Clinton-era days. So the company added the 840Ci in 1994 ('93 in Europe), delighting lucky drivers with 282 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque from a 4.0-liter V8. American-spec V8 versions all have a five-speed auto.
Both models were eventually updated with new engines. The 840Ci received BMW's excellent 4.4-liter V8 around 1996; same horsepower but now with 310 lb-ft of twist. The 850 enjoyed a 5.4-liter V12—with 326 hp and 360 lb-ft of torque—from 1995, becoming the 850Ci at the same time.
There's also the '94 to '95 850CSi, which develops 380 hp and 410 lb-ft from its 5.6-liter V12 and was fettled by the M division. It has a sportier suspension tune (no electronic dampers), limited-slip diff and beefed-up brakes. Alpina even got in on the act with its V12-powered B12. But these models are so few and far between that the guy who owns one probably has a unicorn out back as well. The 8 had some innovations, such as drive-by-wire throttles and a multi-link independent rear suspension that became incorporated into the 3, 5 and 7 Series.
While it's easy to decide on whether the design still works, making sure the mechanicals are all behaving as they should is another, more complicated matter. Few examples on sale now will have a full service history and, given their age, things will go wrong. Possibly soon. So consider the purchase price as merely a component of the full budget required to own and run a car like this, albeit a major one.
Potential buys may be in a different part of the country—in which case, factor in gas, food and motels. Or shipping costs if you're happy to buy it unseen except for an inspection by a trusted technician. It's probably still worth a plane trip just for the peace of mind.
The 4.0-liter V8 engines ran into problems with their Nikasil cylinder liners, a substance that did not react well with high-sulfur gasoline. By now, the damage has been done and rectified (a re-bore and Alusil liners should do it). The 4.4 didn't have this issue. But watch for seals and pay attention to the cooling systems of both engines, as these tend to be temperamental.
A pressure control valve (PCV) in the inlet manifold may also fail, bringing smoke at start-up and under acceleration. It's not an expensive part, but it is located at the rear of the engine. The timing chain tensioner should be replaced at 100,000 miles to preserve the plastic timing chain guides.
The SOHC V12 is actually a model of reliability. It was also used in the E38 750i, so it's a well-known quantity, including being known for the quantity of gas it consumes. A full V12 service at the 100,000-mile mark could easily run to $1,000 just for parts and fluids. But to drive a V12 is to experience a different and glorious way of getting around.
In general, the main bugs are electrical. Each bank of cylinders has its own ECU, and the ABS/DSC control module gets iffy. Top-quality transmission fluid must be used—regularly.
The information display in the center console is bound to lose a pixel or three, which is expensive to fix (when possible) and annoying when the current state of the brake pads would be useful to know.
Maintenance won't be cheap: approximately $1,500 for a clutch, plate and bearing; $1,000 for an air conditioning compressor; $1,000 for new brakes. And the brakes are asked to do a lot of work to bring something this quick and heavy (3,951 pounds for the 850i) to a stop.
A hypothetical '96 840Ci with 90,000 miles in good condition is valued by KBB at $11,077. Real-world prices will fluctuate, so approach with a clear head and some healthy cynicism. A look at the classifieds on a nationwide website brought up a clean '94 850CSi with 66,500 miles and dealer service history priced close to $53,000. A '94 840Ci with 140,000 miles was offered for $7,500. And there were something like 85 other examples in between.