Join us this week as we venture into the plush leather seats of the ultimate retro techno-toy: BMW’s 8-Series. In order to pay proper tribute to the veritable king of rapid luxury, we’ve tracked down Taylor Patterson’s pristine example of the line-topping, limited-production 850CSi.
While BMW was revealed to have been making a bonafide go at an M8 variant of the big grand touring coupe back in the early ‘90s—and in fact the company’s sole box-flared beast of a prototype still exists, complete with carbon-fiber wheel covers—that car never made it to the masses, or at least to that portion with the taste and means to acquire such a car that would have likely carried an MSRP somewhere in the Ferrari territory it was aimed at.
Luckily for those people though (and for the second and third and fourth owners), M still left some incriminating fingerprints on the 8-Series, and as with most stews stirred by its hand, the result was an unmatched vessel of prowess that they simply called the 850CSi.
At the time of its reveal in 1992, the peer group for this car was almost nonexistent, and on a more abstract scale, there have been very few in its wake to attempt a similar blend of substance and poise. It never claimed to be a sporty coupe, yet it could outperform many of them. The car’s true domain however was a lengthy trip with the room to show off how comfortable 100+MPH can be; this was the kind of car whose essence was understated, yet its presence never went unnoticed.
Though any form of the E31 chassis was and is a genuine rarity, the CSi stood even further apart. At the time, this was the end-all, be-all, the award-winning stew of a high-tech ecosystem paired to a taut motor that could push the impressive package well past the imposed safety speed threshold of 155 MPH. Further boosting the desirability of the CSi model was the inclusion of special staggered forged M-System wheels with the distinctive “throwing star” bladed covers, a more robust and direct suspension, extra interior options, and a host of upgrades to the exterior paneling, as is the fashion for cars with the M treatment.
It was a truly special car, and its production run reflected that. Exorbitantly expensive, and unable to continue production in line with updated emissions standards, only 1,510 units of the model were produced the world over. And to add enthusiast clout to such rarity, each of these cars came fitted with a six-speed transmission bolted to the back of a 5.6-liter V12 stamped with the fastest letter in the alphabet.
The 380-horsepower heart that resides under the hood of Patterson’s—and every—CSi has an interesting family history, and can claim to this day its title as the rarest production engine in a BMW road car. In a reversal of the typical German logic, BMW’s M-tuned and -built motors will often trade their “M” designation for that of an “S.” Such is the case with the S70B56 found in the CSi. Variations of this motor—which was essentially a pair of straight-sixes fused together—would go on to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans outright, in both the McLaren F1 GTR, and in BMW’s own V12 LMR.
Too often the 8-Series is categorized in that group consisting of once-expensive luxury cars that are now prohibitively costly to maintain, and so are left to wallow, undriven. Sure, it checks a lot of those boxes (the V12 E31s have an ECU per half-dozen pistons, which is just a piece of the massive amount of interconnected systems in this car that required the creation of a bespoke network to operate), but somehow it just doesn’t belong in the dealer lots full of S-Classes with all their trick bits already broken. Perhaps the 840Ci automatic that’s been given a hard life is beyond the rational point of saving, but cars like Taylor’s immaculately displayed CSi prove that the time when these cars become “dated” is still a long ways off yet.
It’s understandable that one can look at something like the 850CSi and mistakenly view it as a compromise between two worlds, as an object somewhere on the muddled boundary between the disciplines of Motorsport and luxuriant indulgence. Of course it lives at such a meeting point, but the very fact that it does bring together these disparate worlds into a coherent package is the evidence that the last thing at play in a car like this is compromise.
Revisiting what made the first E31 a high watermark for the burgeoning world of luxury GTs in the 1990s makes us supremely excited for the modern interpretation of the flagship Ultimate Driving Machine, but no matter what comes next, the 850CSi will always be significant for what it stands for, and how good it looks doing so.