The BMW E31 8 Series Buying Guide – A luxury grand tourer that keeps getting better with age

The original BMW E31 8 Series is still one of BMW’s most stunning designs, it remains all the car you would ever need for long distance touring.

The 1990s BMW E31 8 Series may have been introduced soon after the discontinuation of the E24 6 Series but it wasn’t a direct replacement as its market positioning was even more aspirational; performance, pricing and technology levels all took a big step on from the capable but ageing E24.

To highlight its range-topping status the 8 Series was offered with BMW’s first production V12, producing 296bhp from 5.0-litres it imbued the heavy grand tourer with spirited acceleration. Both a four-speed automatic and a six-speed manual (A first for a road car) transmission were offered, and the high central console and sweeping dashboard design cocooned the driver in the futuristic looking cabin. The exterior was even more impressive, utilising computer-aided design to help achieve a drag coefficient of just 0.29, the 8 Series was as efficient at slicing through the air as it was beautiful to behold.

After the unveiling at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1989, production began the following year. The V12 850i was joined by the lighter 282bhp 4.0-litre V8 840i in 1993 and a year later the most desirable variant of all, the 375bhp 5.6-litre 850CSi, an M-car in all but name it had a thoroughly revised suspension, limited-slip diff, electronically controlled shocks and was available solely with a six-speed manual. In 1995 the 850i got a larger 322bhp 5.4-litre and a name change to 850Ci, the only other significant change to the range was the change to a torquier 4.4-litre V8 for the 840Ci in 1996.

Despite the lack of a B-pillar, which would have made the introduction of a convertible a logical move, the 8 Series was never offered with this body style, another victim of the drawing board dustbin due to the poor economy at the time was an M8 variant. Prototype models of both now reside at the BMW museum in Munich. Back in the world of attainable production-spec models, the ten-year long lifecycle of the 8 Series saw over 30,000 of all variants built, the vast majority being 850is. If you still can’t get your mind off that ill-fated M8 then, aside from BMW’s own 850CSi, Alpina made a B12 model in 345bhp 5.0-litre and manual-only 412bhp 5.7-litre variants in limited numbers. Uprated springs, shocks and a reprofiled gearbox for the auto model gave these Alpinas a harder edge compared to the standard cars.

BMW E31 8 Series Engine

Scary stories of Nikasil cylinder liner issues may put some people off the earlier M60 V8s but it is highly unlikely that any cars with this issue remain on the roads today. Both the V8 and V12 units are reliable and hardy units, they like to use a bit of oil but 250,000-miles between rebuilds is entirely possible with regular servicing, especially oil changes. Water pumps can fail and the plastic expansion tank next to the radiator can crack. Check that the rest of the cooling system is working properly as overheating will lead to big repair bills.

BMW E31 8 Series Gearbox

All early V12s came fitted with either a six-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission, the auto gained an extra cog in 1994 and this transmission was also used on the V8 variants. The manuals can develop worn synchros or feel notchy between changes, regular fluid replacement can alleviate the later issue and delay the onset of the former.

The autos are robust units and few issues have been noted by owners, if there is a reluctance to engage gear or changes are followed by a loud thump you will most likely be in for an expensive repair bill.

BMW E31 8 Series Suspension and Brakes

The 8 Series is a heavy car that asks a lot from its suspension, worn bushes and shocks are common. Check the rear suspension mounts and front lower control arm bushes as these often need replacing. Also have a look at the tyres for uneven wear, a sign that either the alignment is out, or the suspension is in need of a refresh. Brakes are strong and not much goes wrong with them, check the front discs for warping from aggressive use.

BMW E31 8 Series Bodywork and interior

The nose cone is made of plastic and can be damaged easily, check over the rest of the car for any signs of bubbling paintwork or corrosion. Worn boot rubbers can let water into the spare wheel well, check under the carpets in the front footwells too. Replacement trim is not always easy to find and the agents are not shy to charge for original items.

The leather trim will undoubtedly be showing signs of wear by now but even higher mileage cars shouldn’t look too tatty. Faulty dash displays can be expensive to fix and missing pixels on the dot matrix readouts are common but can be repaired by specialists. Check that the frameless door glass seals well within the rubber window frame.

BMW 850i (1991) 4

Model History Of The BMW E31 8 Series

1990:   Production of E31 8 Series commences, initially with a 296bhp 5.0-litre V12 with either a four-speed auto or six-speed manual transmission

1993:   840Ci with 282bhp 4.0-litre V8 introduced. Six-speed manual or five-speed auto ‘boxes offered

1994:   850CSi with 375bhp 5.6-litre V12 goes into limited production. Changes include an extensively modified suspension setup, available solely with six-speed manual gearbox

1995:   850Ci joins range, 5.4-litre V12 offers 322bhp.

1996:   840Ci gets new 4.4-litre M62 V8, producing the same power but more torque than old unit

1999:   8 Series production ends with 30,621 of all variants produced

Production numbers:

840Ci 4.0:        4,728

840Ci 4.4:        3,075

850i:                20,072

850Ci:              1,218

850CSi:            1,510

Which BMW E31 8 Series To Buy

Thanks to a resurgence in interest in these classically styled long-distance tourers the days of a bargain buy are long gone, if you see an 8 Series going for a song be prepared to spend the equivalent of an entire album getting it right.

Enthusiasts will always be on the lookout for the utterly desirable 850CSi but finding a good one thanks to its rarity and the high prices they command will always be barriers to ownership. The sensible money would go on the later M62-engined 840Ci, it performs just as well as the 850i in the real world allied with lower running costs. Manuals are very hard to find (around 16% of the V8s were so equipped) but the auto ‘boxes work well with the laid-back nature of these cars.

Regardless of engine or transmission configuration, the key thing to look for is a decent service history, the last thing you want is to take on someone else’s deferred maintenance costs. Find a good one though and the well-damped ride and torquey engines will have you taking cross country trips just for the enjoyment of it.

BMW 850i (1991)


BMW E31 8 Series Specifications

4.0-litre V8

Power:             282bhp

Top speed:      155mph (limited)

0-62mph:        6.9sec (7.4sec Auto)

Economy:       18mpg


4.4-litre V8

Power:             282bhp

Top speed:      155mph (limited)

0-62mph:        6.6sec (7.0sec Auto)

Economy:       20mpg


5.0-litre V12

Power:             296bhp

Top speed:      155mph (limited)

0-62mph:        6.8sec (7.4sec Auto)

Economy:       18mpg


5.4-litre V12

Power:             322bhp

Top speed:      155mph (limited)

0-62mph:        6.3sec (Auto)

Economy:       18mpg


5.6-litre V12

Power:             375bhp

Top speed:      155mph (limited)

0-62mph:        6.0sec

Economy:       16mpg est.


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Text John Tallodi  Photos BMW Classic, Alexander Schulz

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