Welcome to Trade-In Tuesday, a regular feature in which I drive a vehicle that has been traded in to Galpin, The Autopian’s sister-company run by cofounder Beau Boeckmann. Today’s trade-in is a 1997 BMW 840CI, a V8-powered, popup headlight-having, B-pillarless swaggermobile that stood at the pinnacle of BMW’s lineup in the 1990s, and was even owned by Michael Jordan. But unlike everything else that His Airness touched, the 8 Series hasn’t really realized true glory, and today it’s largely forgotten by the American public. But, as I learned when I drove the trade-in, the 8 Series deserves so, so, so much better, for it is truly a glorious machine.
Every day I get a list of vehicles recently traded in to Galpin’s many dealerships, and every day, I look attentively for something interesting that I can drive. But what makes a car interesting? Well, that’s a complex formula. Last week’s Dodge Nitro was interesting because it was so “out there” design-wise, it was a fascinating vehicle during a rough time in Chrysler’s history, and it was in such rough shape (a catalytic converter had been hacked out and the interior was gross). This week’s car, a BMW 840i is also interesting, but for totally different reasons. The design wasn’t “out there,” it was streamlined and elegant; the car came out during a glory era in BMW’s history; and, for the most part, this trade-in was in great shape.
More than anything, what makes the BMW 8 Series so interesting is the combination of style, performance, and mystique. It’s a ridiculously badass car on the outside, it’s got ridiculously badass engines under the hood, and yet it’s a machine not nearly enough folks give a damn about. And that’s a real shame.
Here’s a look at my review of the traded-in 1997 BMW 840CI:
Look at BMW 8 Series for sale today, and the prices are all over the place, with mileage, provenance, and engine/transmission options being major deciding factors. But the truth is: If you want to get into an 8 Series, you can score a decent one for about $25,000, and that’s incredible given that the V8-powered 840Ci that I test drove stickered for about $76,000 in 1997; that’s almost $150,000 in today’s money!
I can’t tell you exactly why the 8 Series doesn’t get enough love these days (I’m sure the fact that its performance pales in comparison to modern cars is part of it), but what I do know is that the car did come out with a bang, as Motor Trend writes here:
1990 BMW 850i: An Instant Hit
Immediately, buyers went buck wild. According to some reports, 5,000 orders were plunked down just eight days into the show; by the following summer, the nearly 12,000-unit annual production run was sold out through 1993. Some rabid Bimmer superfans were so smitten they were more than willing to pay well over the asking price—a common practice nowadays for supercars like Ferraris and GT-division Porsches, but almost unheard of at that time.
At launch, the 850i was available only with a 5.0-liter V-12. The 850i was only the second BMW to pack twelve cylinders, after the 1987-1994 E32 750i. The M70 V-12 was a contemporary powerhouse, offering 296 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque through either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. Performance was impressive, with 0-60 mph arriving somewhere in the low six-second range and a top speed of 155 mph.
Visually, the E31 was (and still is) spectacular. Designer Klaus Kapitza aimed for the lowest drag coefficient the design and engineering team could muster, eventually cutting a low, lithe silhouette that sliced the air at needle-sharp 0.29 coefficient of drag.
Per Motor Trend, BMW threw tons of cash into the E31 8 Series program after the Bavarian automaker saw so much success from its 6 Series coupe:
The first-generation 6 Series (E24), from 1976 through 1989 in particular, was a sales darling, racking up over 86,000 units by the end of its 13-year production run.
With dollar signs in its eyes and the precedent set for a successful big-money, hi-tech BMW coupe, BMW fixed its sights on Aston Martin’s and Mercedes-Benz’s top-dollar grand tourers with the initial design and conceptual development of the range-topping BMW 8 Series in 1981. In 1986, engineering and pre-production testing kicked off, and after burning through the equivalent of $900 million in developmental costs, the E31 BMW 8 Series made its full production debut at the 1989 Frankfurt auto show as the BMW 850i.
Oh, and yes, you read that first quote right: You could get an 8 Series with a V12 and a six-speed manual transmission — the first-ever pairing of a V12 and a six-speed stick. In 1992, the 850CSi joined the 850i, and swapped the 5.0-liter V12 for a 5.6-liter that cranked out 375 horsepower – up 99 over the 5.0. The 850i later became the 850Ci and got a 5.4-liter V12 making 332 horsepower. Plus, there were V8s starting in 1992, with a 4.0-liter making 282 horsepower; this was replaced in 1995 with a 4.4 making the same horsepower but 15 more lb-ft of torque.
It was the 4.4-liter V8 that was in the 1997 840Ci that I drove at Porsche Santa Clarita, and its exhaust made a mean burble. Mated to a five-speed automatic, it wasn’t quite as engaging to drive as a stickshift might have been, but the auto just works with this car. It’s a cruiser; the ride quality is exceptional, and while it can handle well enough, it’s not a nimble little sports car. The 8 Series is large, it’s heavy (over 4,100 pounds for my V8 model), but it’s got presence for days.
There are few things cooler than a car without a B-pillar. Add the awesome popup headlights and the gorgeous overall shape, and the E31 8 Series remains a style icon — a tough looking machine that exudes both confidence and power without being over the top:
The interior, with its nice leather seats and clean three-spoke steering wheel, is surprisingly stylish for a 1990s car, and really holds up to this day:
OK, well, mostly “holds up.” The trade-in’s sunroof switch cover fell down, and one of Porsche Santa Clarita’s managers wasn’t thrilled that I didn’t mention it when I returned the car (I thought it was a well-known issue!):
But the rest of the interior was great. Check out the big ski bag protruding from the center of the rear seat:
Behold the ridiculously dainty cupholders in the glovebox!:
How about those satisfying dials for controlling the blower and the temperature of the dual zone climate control (Why someone had installed the radio upside down is beyond me):
Driving the 8 Series makes you feel special. It’s quick, sure (zero to 60 in probably the mid 6’s), and it rides well, and its steering and brakes are lovely enough. But the 8 Series is special because of the way it makes you feel; it’s exceedingly badass, but in a classy way. It’s got the 90s wedge profile that you dreamed of when you were a kid, combined with a beautiful sounding engine, a big long hood to look over, a comfortable seat and suspension, and a side profile that is to die for.
Though I have no doubt trying to maintain a 1990s German car filled with then-state-of-the-art electronics would be borderline masochism, I’d still buy an 8 Series if I could score one for close to $10 grand. It’s that special, but in a very qualitative way that I’m not sure I’m doing a great job of explaining. Just get behind the wheel of one and you’ll understand.