With a 296bhp V12 under the bonnet and a six-speed manual gearbox, you’d be forgiven for thinking the latter. But in fact, BMW intended the E31 8 Series to be a luxurious grand tourer. More than that, though, it was a technological showcase and an attempt to show the world that anything Mercedes could do, BMW could do better.
This, of course, brought fearsome complexity and, together with BMW’s requirement for ultimate luxury, extra weight. The 850i tipped the scales at around 1800kg – 300kg or so more than the old 635CSi. That the 8 Series was never much cop in the handling department should, therefore, come as no surprise. Those expecting the crispness of the 6 Series or a supercar successor to the M1 instead found a sluggish electronic throttle, a lolloping automatic option and soft suspension that did little to control the car’s flab.
What was more, as the 8 Series was launched in 1989, the world went into recession, and the idea of a 5.0-litre GT that weighed almost as much as HMS Ark Royal rather lost its appeal. Sales withered on the vine and BMW realised it had the makings of a failure on its hands.
Fortunately, it acted quickly. Plans for a range-topping M8 were promptly shelved; instead, M division was tasked with fettling the 850i to enhance the driving experience. The sharper 850CSi was the result, and it was joined in the range by a more frugal, 4.0-litre V8-powered 840Ci – no longer a technological tour de force, but instead a burbling, squarejawed grand tourer. The 8 Series had, belatedly, found its place in the world. In 1995 the range was revised.
The V12 was expanded to 5.4 litres and 322bhp, while the V8 was switched out for a new 4.4-litre unit with the same 282bhp as its predecessor, but more torque and better fuel economy. And an 840Ci Sport version was added, taking the 850CSi’s bodykit and stiffer suspension and applying it to the less powerful model.