BMW is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the 8-Series coupe. Presented to the public at the 1989 edition of the Frankfurt Motor Show, the 8-Series was billed as the latest in a long line of powerful BMW coupes that traced their lineage back to the 1930s.
From the earliest stages of the project BMW envisioned the 8-Series as a heavier, larger and more powerful successor to the E24 6-Series. Development work began in Munich, Germany, in early 1987 and the first fully-functional prototype was presented to BMW’s top brass later that year.
The 8’s twin kidney grilles made it instantly recognizable as a BMW but it broke all visual ties with other members of the lineup thanks to an elongated wedge-shaped silhouette and pop-up headlights, styling cues that paid a discreet homage to the M1. The story was different inside, where the 8 featured a familiar instrument cluster with easy-to-read analog gauges and a driver-oriented center console topped by rectangular air vents.
Called E31 internally, the 8-Series was introduced across Germany as the 850i. European-spec cars were equipped with a 5.0-liter V12 engine that sent 300 horsepower and 332 lb-ft. of torque to the rear wheels via either a standard six-speed manual transmission developed specifically for the 8 or an optional four-speed automatic unit. Also used in the E32 7-Series, the 12-cylinder mill was potent enough to propel the 3,950-pound (1,790-kilo) 8 from zero to 62 mph (100 km/h) in 6.8 seconds and on to a top speed that was electronically limited to 155 mph (250 km/h).
The 8 was offered with numerous high-tech options including Automatic Stability Control plus Traction (ASC+T), speed-sensitive hydraulic power steering and Electronic Damper Control (EDC). Additionally, the 8 was equipped with seat belts integrated into the seats (a setup also used by the Mercedes-Benz R129 SL) and a power adjustable steering column with a memory function.
BMW expanded the 8 line up with a more powerful model called 850CSi in 1993. It used an evolution of the 850i’s 5.0-liter V12 that generated 381 horsepower and 406 lb-ft. of torque thanks largely to a displacement that was increased to 5.6-liters. The extra grunt helped the 8 reach 62 mph from a stop in six seconds flat.
The 850CSi could be ordered with an innovative four-wheel steering system that turned the rear wheels in the same directions as the front wheels at high speeds. This noticeably improved stability during high-speed maneuvers and on the track.
Throughout most of its production run the 8-Series was the most expensive member of the BMW lineup. In 1992 the 850i cost $78,500, $2,000 more than a V12-powered long-wheelbase 7-Series. That same year an entry-level 318i cost $22,900, a Porsche 911 Carrera stickered for $63,900 and a Mercedes-Benz SL320 (R129) retailed for $78,300.
BMW tried to boost sales by launching an entry-level model called 840Ci that was powered by a 4.3-liter 32-valve V8 engine that made 286 horsepower and 309 lb-ft. of torque. The 840 was more affordable than its V12-powered sibling but it didn’t live up to BMW’s expectations and it remained a relatively slow-seller until the end of the 8’s career. Company records indicate over two thirds of 8s were ordered with the 12-cylinder engine, and most of them were fitted with an automatic transmission.
8-Series production ended in 1999 after 30,621 examples were built. Approximately 7,300 cars were sold in the United States (where the 8 was phased out after 1997) and 24 examples were hand-built in BMW’s Rosslyn, South Africa, factory.
Although the BMW 8-Series was exclusively offered as a coupe, sources close to the automaker have recently revealed engineers toyed around with the idea of building a convertible early in the car’s production run. The project was shelved because off-setting the loss of structural rigidity created by chopping off the roof was too costly and would have added too much weight.
BMW also considered launching a range-topping M-tuned version of the 8-Series called M8. The automaker built several prototypes equipped with a 6.0-liter version of the V12 rated at 600 horsepower but the super-coupe was never given the green light for production for reasons that are still vague today. A modified version of the M8’s 12-cylinder mill later found its way in the McLaren F1’s engine bay.