Performance BMW in Issue 153
PBMW Magazine – American 850Ci
Title: INSTANT CARMA
Words: Iain Curry
Photos: Max Earey
It takes a brave soul to modify a V12 8 Series, but Carma Motorsports show us how the bargain-priced luxury coupe is ripe for tuning.
Do you ever find yourself browsing the classifieds on Auto Trader or Pistonheads and finding particular car models that seem ridiculously good value? I’m talking the ones that are about 12-20 years old, commanded three-bedroom house-type money when new but have now depreciated almost out of existence. Think Merc S Class, Jag XJS, Audi S8 and the stonking E38 7 Series.
Problem is, even though some of these cars have dropped from around £70,000 to £2,000 on today’s used market, who the hell can afford to insure, tax, and put petrol in them? V8s and V12s don’t drink lightly, and when even minor things go wrong on such cars, the repair bills can leave you in tears. Few people want them these days as a result, but for those brave enough to take one on, you can get so much car for your money it should almost be illegal.
Nothing proves this point better than BMW’s 8 Series. The E31 luxury coupe was with us in 840Ci, 850Ci and 850CSi form from 1989 until 1999, and proved a bit of a sales disaster for BMW, not helped by their exorbitant showroom price. Back when they graced your local BMW dealership, they always seemed fantasy cars, stupidly expensive, and owned only by billionaire businessmen or top American sportsmen. Mike Tyson had one, and boy did it suit him.
Today, we can nearly all afford one. The classifieds show prices for 8 Series starting at just over £2,000 for a well used one, or for around four grand you’ve a decent choice of 840Ci and 850Ci’s that seem in pretty good nick. So they’re great value, powerful, have incredible road presence, are good looking from certain angles, and are loaded with luxury and technology. Surely that should be enough to outdo all the aforementioned negatives, and prove an ideal choice for modifiers on the BMW scene?
So, is an 8 Series really worth taking on? Best to ask someone who’s done it. Alex Chester from Atlanta in the USA has owned a 1991 850Ci for six years, and in that time has been brave enough to tackle the complexities of the big Eight’s chassis and engine, while upping the style a bit both inside and out. An E31 doesn’t need much exterior working as it’s already a striking machine, but there’s benefit to upping the V12’s stock 296bhp to lug the car’s weight around a bit more rapidly, and a bit of chassis work can transform the comfy cruiser into more of a cornering hero.
The 8 Series style has never been a question for Alex. “Hands down the E31 is the best looking BMW made if you ask me,” he says. “Deep down I’m an American muscle kind of guy, I like big coupes and the 850 is definitely that.” But surely its complexity and 5.0-litre powerplant raised a few concerns? “As hard as the V12 is to work with and modify, that was part of the appeal. People do E36 and E46 builds all the time. They are fun, they are fast, but I just like things that are a bit different.”
Alex is at an advantage to the majority of us modifiers by being something of an expert in the tuning arena. He owns Carma Motorsports in Atlanta, specialising in performance upgrades for BMWs and Mercedes-Benz. The shop is a happy place to be with its impressive stereo setup and a skateboard ramp on site, but the tuning work is taken very seriously of course. Alex has experience working for BMW, Merc and Rolls Royce dealerships, as well as learning plenty of ‘go faster’ tricks during his time as mechanic for American racing teams. In other words, if anyone could make a success of modifying an 850Ci – with the skills, know-how and sense of humour it requires – Alex was a good bet.
He bought his V12 Eight on an EBay auction, with the typical story of it not being quite as perfect as described. Alex fixed a heater core on collection, and just a week into ownership the tell-tale milkshake in the oil meant a head gasket change. “That’s when it all started because if the heads were coming off they were getting the full treatment,” he says. “Bone stock the performance is a bit lacking, so I started to build the car I wanted. I knew she’d never be the fastest car on the road, but the total package of comfort, speed, handling and uniqueness was what I was after.”
The V12 now has ported and polished heads and been gasket matched, while a honed intake and Eisenmann exhaust with 200-cell race cars and the resonators removed all help free up some extra ponies. The throttle motors have been bored out 4mm, MSD Blaster ignition coils have been fitted, while a Wokke ECU chip is the brain behind the operation after a custom re-map. “The V12 is tight to work on, but not that terrible,” Alex explains. “Nothing is inexpensive on these motors: everything is pricey and hard to get, especially performance parts.”
A brave decision to try and boost the five-litre monster has proved as much. “A local BMW tuning company swore they could come up with a turbo kit for the M70 engine, but eventually I realised they were not going to be able to pull it off,” he says. “They had the car for almost two years, and I was very depressed when I towed it back to my shop. The engine harness was cut in half, there was crap everywhere and they had left the car outside the whole time.”
As unprofessional as this local tuner was, boosting the M70 is no easy feat as many have found. “A few people have been able to make it work,” Alex says. “Dinan did a few but then stopped. It’s such a tough job; the room for turbos is incredibly tight, it’s almost impossible.” The alternative now is to embrace supercharging, and Alex has a contact, “a long-time E31 supporter with a lot of smarts” who has produced a supercharger kit good for 450 horsepower at the rear wheels. This is next on the shopping list it seems.
It has to be said that Alex’s 850Ci is certainly no slouch in its current state though. A 3.15 LSD swap was performed for a bit more low down grunt, and he estimates the engine is good for up to 375bhp in current tune. “It feels much quicker than a stock one. It’s the fastest 8 I’ve driven by far, and it sounds incredible as well.”
These 850Ci’s all came with six-speed manual gearboxes (happy times when big BMWs still came with a clutch), and dynamics have been improved with a UUC short throw shifter. Then there’s the huge amount of work performed under the wedged factory silver body. Alex has rebuilt the complex suspension both front and rear using spherical bearings where possible, fitted Eibach springs with Bilstein shocks and struts, Wokke custom bushings, front camber plates and uprated anti-roll bars. Throw in better anchors with Brembo discs and stainless steel brake lines behind the appealingly deep-dished Beyern Mesh 18-inch wheels and the big coupe shows serious twisties capability.
“The Bilsteins and springs helped a lot,” Alex says, “but the real magic was the addition of the camber plates and anti-roll bars. Some people think it’s not worth upgrading the E31’s suspension, but when modified correctly the car looses a lot of understeer and becomes a very stable platform.”
As a daily driver this 850Ci has remained standard inside save for a pair of Corbeau Racing bucket seats and a decent ICE install. Not much need doing to these big Eights to boost road presence, but Alex’s upgrades such as smoked lights, window tints and a few Carma graphics suggest this example’s a bit special. That said, a Romanian company called Magna Tuning has sent Alex its E31 Exclusive glass fibre kit of bumpers and side skirts, which is currently being fitted to provide a more unique style.
This project is an ongoing labour of love for Alex, and we were keen to ask him if he’d suggest others taking on the 8 Series as a viable BMW to tune. “A good car to modify? I’d say not really,” he says. “Unique is the key word; you really have to love these cars. They’re not for everyone and are a bit heavy for great performance. If you like big coupes and lots of attention this is the car for you though.”
Okay, wise words perhaps, but some of us may still be tempted by an 8 Series. Just how bad are the running costs? “Our fuel is getting more expensive in the U.S. but nothing compared to you in Europe. My car is lucky to do 12mpg, so costs add up quick. My other cars and bikes are no better though so you just get used having to pay to play.”
Cars like the 850Ci are heart over head decisions, but you can’t help but look at how damn cheap they are on the used market and feel a nugget of temptation. Owning a standard one would already make you a star turn at any BMW meet, but add a few choice upgrades and you can count yourself among a very small group of E31 modifiers. Alex’s fettled 850Ci already does enough to stop you in your tracks, but with the planned supercharger setup for the big V12 due soon, there will be few 8 Series examples anywhere to match it. Just try not to think about the fuel costs too much.
ENGINE: 5.0-litre V12 with ported and polished heads and gasket matched, honed intake, Eisenmann exhaust system with 200-cell race cats and resonators removed, throttle motors bored out 4mm, MSD Blaster ignition coils with 8.5mm ignition wires, Wokke ECU chip
DRIVETRAIN: BMW six-speed manual gearbox with UUC short throw shifter, custom selector rod, brass carrier bushings, 3.15 LSD swap
CHASSIS: 8×18″ (front) and 10×18″ (rear) Beyern Mesh deep-dish wheels with 255/45 (front) and 285/35 (rear) Michelin Pilot Sport tyres. Full front and rear suspension rebuilt with spherical bearings where possible, Wokke custom bushings, Eibach springs, Bilstein shocks and struts, front camber plates, uprated 27mm (front) and 20.6mm (rear) anti-roll bars, Brembo cross-drilled and grooved brake discs, stainless steel brake lines
EXTERIOR: smoked rear lights, smoked front indicator lights, 6000K HID driving lights, HID fog lights, window tints
INTERIOR: Corbeau Racing bucket seats with four-point harnesses
ICE: Clarion 7-inch flip-out DVD head-unit, Clarion amp, with Polk DB Series 5.25-inch speakers in foot wells, Polk DB tweeters in A-pillars, Polk DB 4-inch 2-ways in doors, Polk 3-way 6×9-inch speakers in rear
THANKS: Wife Jessica, son Lex, daughter Shilo, Mojo, Sam, and Tanya