A group of 61 enthusiasts and 57 BMW 8 Series cars converged upon Greenville, S. C., May 20 to 23, for the East Coast 8-Fest organized by volunteers from the roadfly.org message board. Interestingly, some are members of the BMW Car Club of America (www.bmwcca.org), long the glue that holds U.S. BMW enthusiasts together, but others are not members. This, folks, is globalization in the information age.
The BMW 8 Series, known internally as the E31 body, hit U.S. shores in 1991 with the 850i. Powered by a 5-liter V12 with 8.8:1 compression and producing 296 bhp at 5200 rpm and 332 lb-ft torque at 4100 rpm, the 850i represented the pinnacle of BMW technology at the time.
A new six-speed overdrive manual gearbox was standard but rare as American buyers characteristically opted for the automatic transmission. Never quite able to leave their model naming convention alone, BMW added a "C" to coupe names. The 850i became the 850Ci in 1993. The wonderful six-speed manual gearbox disappeared from the U.S. 8 Series in 1993 also and BMW brought us the V8-powered 840Ci in 1994 - automatic only. In a brief shining moment, BMW gave us the Motorsport massaged 850CSi in 1994 and 1995, but only 200 examples, each costing over $100,000. By the end of 1997, the 8 was gone from the U.S. market.
In America, the 6 Series sold 28,216 units over 13 glorious years of production. BMW struggled to sell 7,232 8 Series cars in 6 years. On average, the 6 Series sold roughly twice as well. The long production life was not uncommon in that era and the 8 Series did run for ten years (1989 to 1999) in the rest of the world.
E31 production worldwide totals 30,621. Models ranged from the extremely rare (18 units) 3.0-liter V8-powered 830i, to the 840Ci, 850i and 850CSi.
In its heyday, the 8 Series met with lukewarm response from many automotive writers as well as the BMW 6 Series owners the company claimed it was not targeting. The E31 was criticized for portly weight (4,123 lb), lack of stunning acceleration and merely acceptable handling and what some called a lack of BMW-ness. We thought then and still think now that those criticisms were unwarranted. The U.S.-specification 8 Series needed only what every other U.S.-specification BMW needed in 1991: Upgrades to coil springs, shock absorbers, sway bars and engine management software. However, there is little question that a V12-powered BMW needs to have incredible acceleration - something BMW has apparently learned given the current 760iL's stunning performance.
Owners of the BMW 8 Series, however, have no misgivings about the car's stellar good looks and adept performance, particularly its suitability for long, high speed road trips. The 8 Series message board on www.roadfly.org is chock full of 8 Series enthusiasts and they have successfully planned and executed two major national meets - the East and West Coast 8-Fests in as many years.
The 2004 East Coast 8-Fest was not a BMW CCA event, but it followed the core activity regimen that makes that club great. The schedule including a production tour at the BMW Manufacturing facility in Spartanburg, S.C., as well as a full afternoon at the BMW Performance Center - a self-contained Disneyworld for driving enthusiasts, complete with drifting pads, autocross courses and slalom courses. Technical presentations took place at the event hotel and the crowning glory was a spectacular 4.5-hour scenic drive on historic Blue Ridge Highway in South and North Carolina.
The 8 Series has proven to be a very popular used car; far more so than it was as a new car. This is likely due to the incredible prices charged for these cars when they were new.
Prices are now dipping into the teens, prompting many who lusted after the cars when they were new to pony up today.
Richard Choi, who owns a 1992 850i, summed it up best: "I always wanted at 8 Series, but I was a student. When I got out of school I had a choice: A sedate Lexus for $32,000, or this 850i for, well, a lot less. Really, there was no choice." That's for sure!
Know Your 8 Series Known major E31 problem areas include the ABS control unit, radiator failures, oil leaks and throttle motors on the V12's, the Nikasil cylinder bore wear problem on V8s produced prior to 3/95 and automatic transmission failures in the 80,000- to 120,000-mile range. Despite the rumor mill, I don't hear of an inordinate number of electrical or electronic problems with the E31, although their low production numbers could have something to do with this. The E31 isn't really terribly more expensive to maintain than any other BMW, but repair work tends to be labor intensive and I think the used car market reacts to high dealership service charges without thinking about the alternative of independent BMW service.
In true coupe fashion, the E31 seems to hold its value better than the 7 Series, but any BMW priced that highly when new is going to depreciate quite a bit.
The automatic transmission 840Ci is the most abundant E31 and they can be had at pretty reasonable prices. Be careful of collision damage--insurance companies rarely pay to fix an E31 correctly. Beware of flood cars from Texas, too. If a flood car runs well, that's fine. But they need an extra careful inspection. At least it was a fresh water flood. White cars with tinted glass always make me worry that they came from Texas.
The automatic transmission 850i is second most abundant and these tend to be a great deal on the used market. Bear in mind that the transmission costs $6,000, so it may be better to buy a high mileage car with a new transmission than a medium mileage car with the original.
The six-speed manual 850i was not brought to the U.S. in sufficient numbers to satisfy demand and they're pretty rare on the used market. I've always felt most are probably owned by enthusiasts. This is the E31 that I would like to own and yes I would buy one if I could find one at the right price (read: very high mileage). Be careful with very low mileage examples, because the manual gearbox had some problems too and most were fixed under warranty. But the warranty is gone now and it's an expensive job. A low mileage car may need some gearbox work.
The ultimate E31 is the six-speed manual 850CSi, with it's 372-bhp BMW Motorsport engine and upgraded suspension. Only 200 were brought to the U.S. and when they appear on the market they tend to be priced north of $70,000. The 850CSi fries radiators too and has a problem with the throttle motors running on after the car is powered down, which drains the batteries. However, there is a factory service bulletin on this and it can be repaired.
The E31 responds dramatically to high-performance tuning. Chips can be found for the engine management systems and Supersprint makes an excellent stainless steel dual exhaust system that sounds great and makes a few more ponies. The best purchase is a set of Bilstein Sport shocks and H&R springs, which really tightens up the cushy E31 suspension, especially once it has aged. You can get sway bars for them too, called K-Bars.
Brake rotors do not seem to be a problem on the E31, except on the 850CSi, where BMW characteristically shorted the U.S. market out of their excellent two-piece floating rotors in favor of a dumbed down single piece rotor. As a result, the 850CSi tends to warp front rotors. Fortunately, the European-spec rotors are a bolt-on deal. But BMW dealers won't sell them; you have to order them from an importer.
The original 235/60-16 tire size doesn't afford many tire choices, but I've always thought the car looked better with 17-in. aftermarket wheels anyway. The 850CSi came with 17s.