Pop-up headlights are cool. The Cord 810 was first to feature them back in 1936, so it’s not just an ’80s car thing. It was all in the name of aesthetics. It had aerodynamic advantages, but in general cars with pop-ups are just cool! The BMW 8-Series (officially known as the E31) had pop-up headlights, and it is one of the coolest cars to come out of Bavaria, despite being a commercial flop.
The 8-Series was first shown at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1989. It was at this event that the original owner of the car we are sampling here fell in love with it. He promptly ordered this black 850i with a 5.0-litre V12 engine mated to a six-speed manual transmission. Germany only built 98 right-hand drive 850s with a clutch. South Africa’s Rosslyn plant produced another four. This car was imported from Germany.
The owner’s handbook states that the pre-delivery inspection was done on November 21 1991 by BMW South Africa. Just eight days later, the running-in inspection was done at Modern Autohaus Service Centre in then Pietersburg, now Polokwane, with 1 487km on the odometer.
It has spent its life north of the Limpopo. It has been kept in Harare since new. That is something, since the technology in these luxury coupes are often “dealer-only” items when it comes to fixing them. Harare doesn’t have a dealership that can service it.
It had all the bells and whistles. Dual climate control, electric seats, heated seats, electrically adjustable steering wheel and even an early stability control and traction control system. In the early ’90s these things were state of the art.
It was also the first production car to feature an electronic drive-by-wire throttle system, with two throttles providing air to the aluminium V12. The throttle response is anything but brisk. There is a noticeable delay in pushing the accelerator and the engine responding. The engine produces 220kW and 450Nm, but thanks to long gearing and a close on two-ton kerb weight, it never feels like a sportscar that wants to crush your senses with acceleration forces and speed. The suspension wasn’t sportscar-like either. It was the first BMW to feature a multi-link rear suspension setup.
The engine is buttery smooth — from the moment one turns the key and it breathes into life, all the way to the red line on the tachometer. It doesn’t scream, but it hums with the open road. That is where this car makes the most sense. It’s a Grand Tourer in every right. This car was bought by the current (and only second) owner in 1995 and it was used to get to Pretoria and Durban in the quickest, most comfortable manner. It eats up the road.
On a trip to Durban in 2006 the fan didn’t come on in traffic, the engine overheated and it blew the head gaskets. Besides that, nothing major has ever gone wrong with the car. It still has its original clutch. The car is maintained by a mechanic in Harare and has done close on 200 000km. Some electrical gremlins do pop up: these cars are prone to that. It has two big batteries in the boot to power all circuitry. The instrument cluster stopped working in 2011, and that is not the easiest thing to find a replacement for or to fix.
But the 850i is beautiful. The coupe lines are reinforced with the lack of a B-pillar between front and rear. The rear features big red lights and the front is shark-like.
It is rare to find these V12 beasts these days. The 850CSI is the ultimate incarnation of the 8-Series, and is more sought after, thus more expensive than the 850i, but it owes a lot to the original. The V12 engine in the 8-Series also served as the basis for McLaren F1’s engine.
With BMW working on a new 8-Series, we can only hope that it embodies all the good, but none of the bad, of these ’90s cruisers. Right now I feel like hitting the long road in the original 850i though. – Waldo Swiegers