Think of the 8-series as the more stylish brother of the big '7' saloon and you won't be far off the mark. This was a grand tourer of the old school, designed to cocoon its occupants across continents at a high speed - what it wasn't was the direct successor to the 6-series, and that left a few buyers disappointed.
But with that in mind how does it drive? Well, very smoothly as befits a big BMW and there is decent performance on offer, although even the turbine-smooth V12 doesn't have the immediate punch you'd expect. The automatic gearbox feels like it's sapping power, and you're very much aware of the weight of the 8-series. But to be fair, it isn't what you'd call slow and there is an easy-rolling gait once you're up to speed.
Mind you that speed does reveal a slight deficiency in the braking department. Ultimate stopping power is fine if you really lean on the anchors but the initially soft pedal feel saps confidence when slowing from big speeds. Handling also feels compromised slightly on typical UK roads by the car's sheer girth. Absorbent ride makes this a fine cruiser. The steering is good too, it feels accurate and nicely weighted.
More impressive still is the wonderfully comfortable cabin, and while you might wonder where all those generous external dimensions have gone - the small rear seats are effectively unusable - there is no arguing with the luxury on offer.
With a driving position that's adjustable every-which-way and supportive leather-clad chairs, you'll get out after covering hundreds of miles feeling fresh and relaxed - and that really is what this car's all about. And you'll be able to spend those miles playing with the vast range of toys that come as standard. One thing it didn't lack was kit, so as well as all the usual layout-saving accoutrements you'll find items such as climate and cruise control, a superb sound system and an on-board computer stacked within the vast dashboard.
BMW 8 Series
Power (bhp@rpm) 286bhp@5700rpm
Torque (lb ft@rpm) 310lb ft@ 3900rpm
Top speed 155mph
Gearbox 5-spd automatic
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
Rust can nibble at the edges of the E31, so check the wheelarches and sills for tell-tale bubbling. The sunroof area is another weak spot so watch for corrosion around its edges and the panel itself - if it's gone too far a whole new sunroof cassette could be required costing £1500 for the part alone. The plastic nosecone is susceptible to cracking after minor impacts, so check around the kidney grilles for damage or bodged repairs - a replacement is £500 plus painting and fitting costs.
With such an expanse of metalwork you'll need to check the panels for scuffs and dents as repairs won't be cheap. Ensure the pop-up headlamps are working properly and check that light units and exterior trim are undamaged as genuine replacements are very pricey. And it's not uncommon to find screens turning milky around the edges due to de-lamination, and with replacement costly it's often ignored.
Early M60 4.0-litre V8s suffered premature Nikasil cylinder bore wear but this will have been sorted by now - it's always good to check the history. The 4.4-litre M62 unit was fine and like the V12s is pretty much bullet-proof as long as it's not been neglected. Issues to watch for include oil leaks from cylinder head and timing covers; signs of head gasket problems; a cooling system past its best, leaking water pumps; and rough running or uneven idle caused by intake air leaks or problems with the VANOS variable valve timing system. V12s duplicated the electronics for each cylinder bank and ECU/sensor faults can be hard to trace.
The complex electronics are a problem, and battery drain can be a headache. Replacing the twin boot-mounted items will cost £250 and tracing the culprit can lead to spiralling labour costs; specialists recommend fitting a cut-off switch, but be wary is the car you're looking at has starting problems.
There's a gadget-packed cabin so check it all works before taking the plunge. The huge cost of replacing electronic items led many owners to ignore failures so beware. Dead pixels on the on-board computer display are common while a smell of coolant is likely to mean the heater matrix has failed, with replacement an expensive dash-out job. Failed air-conditioning condensers and corroded pipework aren't uncommon either.
Gearboxes were six-speed manuals or 4/5-speed autos depending on model, and while essentially robust the cost of replacement is eye-watering. Watch for excessive noise and obstructive shifts on the manual, and sluggish or jerky autos that could be in need of a rebuild after 100,000 miles or so. Both units will benefit from regular oil changes. Vibrations at sped are often caused by failing propshaft joints.
The hefty kerb weight results in these cars being heavy on suspension bushes, and the 8-series is also sensitive to proper wheel alignment - so check for uneven tyre wear or wandering at speed. The Electronically Controlled Damper (EDC) system on 850 models cost a hefty £900 a corner, so check them for leaks. The 850CSi also had rear-wheel steering, and replacing corroded hydraulic pipework means dropping the rear subframe, a big and very costly job.
Excessively vague recirculating ball steering is usually down to worn tie rod or idler arm bushes, both a relatively cheap fix. Brakes are something of an Achilles heel, so examine the state of discs and pads, and check for dash warning lights indicating failure of the ABS and DSC traction control system - diagnosis with a specialist is straightforward. The bigger alloy wheel options are prone to kerbing and corrosion, so budget accordingly.
Watch for a sagging headlining and shabby leather.
If you’re looking for a modern classic that’s capable of stress-free long-distance travel, an 8 Series is definitely one to consider. It’s not exactly family-friendly transport and is probably best thought of as a two-seater. It is certainly a head-turner, though, and quite rare these days – just under 2200 V8s reached the UK and only about 850 V12s.
Prices have dropped to pretty low levels lately, and an 8 Series can be something of a bargain. In a few years, we’ll see the rough ones disappear as they pass through the ‘expensive banger’ stage, while the good ones will begin appreciating again. So our advice would be to buy while you can and, as always, to get the best you can afford. On parts, BMW dealer prices can be very expensive, but your local motor factor can help more than you’d expect – and prices will be a very pleasant surprise.
The 8-series is a wonderfully luxurious mile-muncher and a very appealing car to drive, but it's also a potential money pit if you choose unwisely. The huge running costs meant many were neglected as the years rolled by and even shiny-looking examples can need bankrupting amounts of money spent. A good one will be a joy, but be very, very careful.