While not a successor to the E24, the BMW E31 8-series was still built to be a grand touring car. Its technological firsts and futuristic design have since made it into a collector.
It’s amazing to think that the E31 started development in the 1980s and debuted in 1989–just in time for a new decade and the close of the Cold War. The things the 8-series had were far advanced for its time; far enough that many of the parts we see on it now didn’t become normal until the early to mid-2000s. These things include a drive-by-wire throttle body, a six-speed mated to a V12, a B-pillarless body, a multi-link rear axle, and a drag coefficient of 0.29 were all things that were individually mind-blowing at the time.
The 8-series did all of it in one chassis. It also came with an equally inconceivable price. The entry-level 8-series – like this 1995 840Ci owned by Rafferty Yao – started around $70,000 (or just north of $118,000 calculated for inflation). It would also explain why only 7,232 copies of the 8-series were sold in North America, but we did account for over 23-percent of worldwide production.
Even with its rarity, Rafferty has done some period-correct customization to his 840Ci. The lower lip on the front bumper, for example, is from the 850CSi, and would have been a common upgrade for the 840Ci. Another common upgrade would be a static drop, which Rafferty accomplished using a set of Eibach lowering springs.
The rear bumper lip is also from the 850CSi, and is a nice, subtle statement paired with round exhaust tips instead of the square ones found on the 850i and 850Ci. “I wanted to build a nice, classy, period-correct Autobahn cruiser or SoCal freeway driver,” explained Rafferty, “I wanted it to look very clean, simple, and classy by using all the nice stuff that fits the car.”
“The CSI front and rear valance, combined with the wheels made the big difference and totally changed the appearance of the car,” says Rafferty.
Other than the M1 and the Z1, this is the only other BMW to utilize pop-up headlights on a production car. At the time, pop-ups were the only way to cut the frontal area of the car down for improved aerodynamics. “I have been wanting an E31 since the first time I saw it back in the 90s,” said Rafferty, It was just something so different from other BMWs with the iconic pop-up headlights and B-pillarless sides. Those features totally set it apart visually.”
The interior’s design also set it apart from other BMWs. The E31 is more like a cockpit of a fighter jet than a sports car. Its door panels flow into the dashboard while its center console is aimed straight towards the driver.
Being a grand touring car, it had to seat two in the front and no more than two occupants in the rear. Unlike most GTs, the E31 does give its rear occupants some room, but realistically it’s only enough for a small child.
The beauty, draw, and challenge of the E31 was its “B-pillarless” design. In actuality, it’s technically still there, but it's what most would describe as the C-pillar on normal cars. Most cars, even today, utilize some sort of support for the roof between the A and C-pillars. This also helps with roll-over protection and restraint implementation for the occupants. This results in some interesting engineering solutions when building a car without a true B-pillar. A good example that you can see right away is how the upper portion of the three-point safety belt is placed.
Because there is no B-pillar to mount it, it must go somewhere. Where a few manufacturers used a mount on the roof, the E31 used the seat headrest. What BMW created was a headrest with a single point of attachment to the seat, which was attached directly to the seat frame. It also allowed for a “floating” headrest, adding the futuristic look that the BMW designers were going for with the 8-series.
The gauges are fairly typical for BMW, but include digital readouts for the trip, odometer, and gear indicator.
Unfortunately for those in North America, the only transmission available for the 840Ci was the five-speed automatic. European customers were given the option of a six-speed manual. The cassette player was also an essential part for a new E31 owner.
That’s because the BMW “New Owner Program” guide was on audio cassette. The guide was set to music with a narrator going over your new BMW’s features, and each guide was unique to the model.
However, a slightly more modern six-disc CD changer was located in the trunk.
Under the trunk lid is a full set of tools, should you need to make some light repairs or need to tow your E31.
One of the ways to know which end of the 1995 model year 840Ci Rafferty owns is by its engine. His is an early version since it comes with an M60B40 4.0-liter V8. By mid-year 1995, the 840Ci came with the M62B44. It was an improved version as it came with more torque and better fuel economy over the M60B40. “Since this is a similar V8 from the E34 540, E39 540, and the E38 740, parts aren’t too hard to find, and working on it isn’t as difficult as the V12,” explained Rafferty. However, it points out another issue. What about the parts that aren’t common?
As mentioned earlier, these E31s are rare since less than 7,500 were produced for all of North America. There were less than 32,000 in total for the entire world. This means that gathering replacement parts unique to the E31, like these reservoirs, are almost impossible to come by (even as used parts) from Europe or abroad. “Many parts for this car are No Longer Available (NLA) from both BMW North America and Germany,” says Rafferty, “If stuff breaks on this car, you will have to be resourceful with finding some. If you break a windshield, good luck finding one.”
If you’re looking at an 8-series and can’t see the badge, you can tell the difference between the V8-powered 840 and V12-powered 850i or 850Ci by their exhaust tips. That is the only tell – besides badging and sound – between the eight-cylinder and twelve-cylinder E31. While both versions use quad tips, the 840 used round tips and the 850i and 850Ci used square tips. The only deviation from this is the 850CSi, as we mentioned at the beginning of this feature. However, it will have a bottom lip on the front and rear bumpers just like Rafferty’s 840Ci has. As an eight-cylinder car, the sound it makes is beautiful to the ears.
If you wanted some great looking wheels that were period-correct, it’s hard to argue with a set of OZ Racing wheels. This set of OZ Mito multi-piece wheels are great since their simple, five-spoke design allows for full view of the factory four-piston calipers and big rotors. Even though the wheels are 18x8.5 +15 offset, those brakes still look huge.
The rear wheels are 18x10 +20 offset, and wrapped in Yokohama 265/45R18 tires, a massive size for its day. Even the 245/40R18 front tires would have been on the big side for a sports car’s rear tire.
“I haven’t won any awards with my car,” says Rafferty, “but the people in the car group I’m a part of, SoCal Eights, are a great community and an award in themselves. Talking to them, asking questions, and having conversations – like what we’re having now – make ownership of an E31 amazing.”
“I have met some really interesting individuals within the 8-series community,” said Rafferty, “It’s really cool to meet car owners from different walks of life.” This is an interesting thing to consider when you think about it. The E31 8-series is a rare car across the globe. It’s an expensive car to get into, difficult to own, and challenging to maintain. However, it has a community dedicated to it, and that makes long term ownership and maintenance of an E31 less difficult. It's amazing to witness what the culture of a car, even a car as rare as the 8-series, can and will do to support itself.
The E31 is an engineering marvel of the late 1980s and the 1990s. It’s also a great example of a time when BMW was at the forefront of modern automotive technology. It has features that are still hard to find on new cars, and other features that have only become standard equipment in the last ten years. The 8-series was an amazing accomplishment for its time, and it is still a jaw-dropper today.
Story by Justin Banner
Photos by Antonio Alvendia
If you enjoyed this BMW E31, you can find additional BMW-related content at bmw.fcpeuro.com, as well as more build features like this one, here. If there's anything specific you would like to see, or if you have any questions/comments, leave them in the comments section below.
Antonio Alvendia is an aficionado of cameras, rare wheels, hip hop, and obscure aftermarket car accessories. He bought his first E39 Touring after seeing M5 Estates on photo trips to Europe, and now has sights set on restoring a classic Mercedes. Antonio was a principal photographer on the limited edition hardcover book on Singer Vehicle Design's Porsche 911 builds, entitled One More Than Ten. Future goals include returning to the Nurburgring to shoot the N24 race and driving the Nordschleife again. ••• Instagram : @MOTORMAVENS