Automobile

1990 BMW 850i: Meet The Drive’s Project RADwood

Show me a thirty-ish-year-old luxury car with period electronics, and I’ll show you a car with parasitic drain. (Editorial Director Patrick George had an ’80s 7 Series with the same problem and it “almost got him divorced.” Cars are fun!) 

At around 16 minutes after garaging an 850i for the night, its computer goes to sleep, and its amperage draw drops from around 1-1.5A to the factory spec “sleep mode” draw of 50mA. Ours is a restless sleeper, drawing four times the milliamps as it should. After checking each circuit with a multimeter, and by process of elimination, we traced the draw to the instrument cluster. We won’t be able to get it corrected in time for the show, but our friends at North Hollywood Speedometer (no, not a 1979 Sammy Hagar album) say we can send it over and they’ll get its circuitry freshened up. All in all, it’s a win; such electronics gremlins aren’t usually as simple to weed out.

On the road, the E31 8-Series wasn’t a typical “ultimate driving machine.” Journalists dinged it for lacking the handling spark of other Bimmers in the lineup. They called out its steering feel, which Car & Driver deemed “loose and woozy,” a condition it seemed engineers tried to mitigate by increasing on-center hyperactivity. Still, the über-GT won points for smooth power and sophistication, bold styling, and supple ride quality, particularly with the optional active dampers. On balance, it was a hit.

After the Frankfurt Motor Show hype back in ’89, orders rolled in: 5,000 within a week of the show, according to reporting at the time, and by mid-1990 the entire production run of 12,000 cars per year through 1992 had been reserved. That was in spite of the price, which in North America would add up to nearly $90,000 all in ($188,000 in today’s money), more than any BMW ever—including a top-of-the-line 7 Series.

And then, because timing is everything, the whole exercise unraveled. A global economic downturn had wealthy car buyers steering through an oil shock, a banking crisis, and a creeping economic hangover from the supercharged 1980s. Two years after its introduction, 850i sales numbers fell by two-thirds. By the time production ended in 1999, BMW had sold fewer than 23,000 850i (and Ci) models and 10,000 or so V8-powered 840i units. The total number included around 1,500 of the highly prized 850CSi, which was as close to an M8 as BMW buyers were ever able to get their hands on. (The true, carbon-fiber-rich M8 prototype still sits in the M division’s vehicle archive.)

The good news is that 850/840 owners tend to stick together and share knowledge, and there’s a ton of preservation and restoration wisdom in that crowd. (And Bob Jablonski, if you’re out there, see you in the comments.) 

We’ll see you in Greenwich on Saturday. What’s next for #Project850i after that? We’ll see. Stay tuned.

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