The 1991 BMW 850i was blasted by the automotive media and ardent Bimmer-philes as an enormous letdown – a passionless cruiser from the self-proclaimed makers of the Ultimate Driving Machine. The complaints were numerous, and many were valid. But the 8-series’ mission wasn’t to tear up back roads, it was to grab attention on the boulevard – and nearly two decades later, it still turns heads.
The 850i was a technological showcase, boasting cutting-edge luxury features such as remote keyless entry, dual-zone climate control, a power tilt-and-telescope steering wheel, a twelve-speaker stereo, and windows that automatically closed at high speeds. An active five-link rear suspension helped steer the 850i at the limit, and an early form of electronic stability control helped keep the big coupe on course. Under the hood, an aluminum-block, 5.0-liter V-12 used the industry’s only drive-by-wire electronic throttles and was attached to one of the world’s first six-speed manual transmissions.
That’s an impressive list of ingredients, but the 850i weighed a hefty 4100 pounds – about as much as the long-wheelbase 750iL sedan, which shared its engine. And the V-12, instead of snarling and screaming, was a snoozer. The symmetrical aluminum intake manifold is a work of art, but the engine it fed isn’t – in fact, it’s little more than two BMW 2.5-liter in-line sixes joined at the hip. And while those sixes sang a sweet song individually, the tune went decidedly flat when two of them were brought together in a vee.
BMW boasted that the six-speed 850i would hit 60 mph in 6.1 seconds, but most 8-series models came with only four speeds – and an automatic transmission. The automatic added almost a full second to the 0-to-60-mph sprint, and it was recalcitrant in normal driving, reluctant to downshift in response to even the most violent prods of the accelerator pedal. The novel electronic throttle didn’t help, as it offered neither linear nor quick response. The lazy power delivery, long gearing, deliberate steering, and grand-touring suspension made the 850i a grand disappointment for adrenaline junkies seeking a thrill ride.
But for those looking for a high-style V-12 boulevardier, the 850i hits the jackpot. Its raked rear buckets are sized perfectly for a couple of boutique shopping bags – or an anorexic model friend – and the trunk will easily swallow the proceeds of a frenzied shopping spree. The pillarless 850i offers great visibility all around. The four circular gauges are inscribed with a classically simple font and a twin-row surround that are more elegant than those found in any BMW since.
The 8-series was produced for ten years but was sold in the States for just over half that time. For the 1993 model year, the name was changed to 850Ci, and the V-8-powered 840Ci was added for ’94. The 840Ci was some $20,000 cheaper but just as quick, so in response, the 850Ci’s V-12 eventually was enlarged to 5.4 liters, its output bumped to 322 hp, and the four-speed automatic replaced by a five-speed. But neither V-12 ever sated speed freaks.
That job was reserved for the 1994-1997 850CSi. Built by Motorsport GmbH, the CSi wasn’t given an M8 badge because that name was reserved for an even more potent 8-series that was still under development (but never saw production). Still, the CSi’s fire-breathing 372-hp, 5.6-liter V-12 was heavily massaged, as was its suspension and steering, and it was finally the 8-series that hard-core enthusiasts wanted all along.
It still is, and unfortunately that demand is reflected in its price. An 850CSi can command five times as much as a run-of-the-mill 850i. But it’s the lesser 850i’s affordability that makes it so compelling – for less than the price of a brand-new , you can own one of the most visually stunning German cars of the past half-century. Case in point, I recently drove an 850i to the Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. Unfazed by the mundane Bentleys and dime-a-dozen Rolls-Royces surrounding me, the valet attendant asked for permission to park the BMW up front. “I just want to look at it all day,” he said.
Unfortunately, your mechanic will want to park the 850i out front, too, as it’ll likely be his favorite cash cow. The V-12 has two of almost everything (including batteries and fuel-injection systems), so it’s double the trouble. The 8-series is notoriously expensive to maintain by regular BMW standards – although not necessarily by exotic-car standards – and if you’re in the market for one, you’d be a fool not to buy the most well-maintained, best-documented example you can find. One like the spectacular Alpine white coupe in these photographs, for example. Owner Jeff Ivarson has pampered this 1992 850i (which rides on aftermarket AC Schnitzer wheels) like a trust-fund baby since it was new, and like so many trust-fund babies, its net worth has plummeted through the years. But its looks haven’t, making the beautiful 850i perhaps the most affordable entry into the rarefied world of the V-12-powered grand tourer.
Engines: 5.0L SOHC V-12, 296 hp, 332 lb-ft;
5.4L SOHC V-12, 322 hp, 361 lb-ft
Transmissions: 6-speed manual, 4- or 5-speed automatic
Suspension, Front: Strut-type, coil springs
Suspension, Rear: Multilink, coil springs
Brakes F/r: Vented discs/discs, ABS
Weight: 4123 lb
THE INFOYears produced
1991-1997 (U.S. market)Number sold
4170 (U.S. market)Original price
$86,540 (1991)Value today
The starter sound. It exhibits none of the crude rowr-rowr-rowr of an underendowed starter motor struggling to heave pistons high and low. Instead, the 850i’s robust starter engages with the metallic ring of an All-Clad saucepan being struck with a wooden spoon. It spins the V-12 at a constant rate, with a delicate and consistent whir that endlessly captivates onlookers. And, oh, the car is gorgeous.