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When is an M car not an M car? When it’s an 850CSi

by John Wiley
30 September 2020 3 min read
When is an M car not an M car? When it’s an 850CSi
Photos: Cars & Bids/AlecCartio

The BMW 850CSi is not a car that most people know. Even BMW fans, particularly younger car enthusiasts, might not have heard of it or seen one. Only 160 examples were built in right-hand drive configuration when the car was new, although some 1,510 were produced in total. What exactly makes the 850CSi so special, and why did one recently sell for $147,500 (£114,000) on the new online auction platform Cars & Bids?

BMW has enjoyed market success selling sporty and elegant coupés since the late 1960s. Starting with the 2800CS coupe in 1968, the E9 generation cars would eventually include 3.0 CS, 3.0 CSi (with injection), and the lightweight 3.0 CSL racing car homologation special. With their inline six-cylinder engine and pillarless coupé body style, the cars have become highly collectible. A concours 1972 3.0 CSi has an average value of nearly £77,000, according to the Hagerty Price Guide, while the best CSL fetches more than £180,000.

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Faced by a growing number of emission and safety regulations, BMW introduced the E24 generation 6-Series in 1976 as a replacement for the E9. Bigger, brasher, and with a Seventies-appropriate B-pillar between the windows, the Six kept many of its predecessor’s same desirable features, such as a range of inline six-cylinder engines, and was in production for 14 years. By 1984, however, BMW had already begun work on its replacement, which would become the E31 8-Series.

BMW 850CSi values and market trends

The new car would benefit from a confluence of BMW’s engineering projects. It was introduced in 1990 as the 850i, featuring the new 24-valve, 296bhp, 5.0 litre V12 (codename M70). It also offered a six-speed manual gearbox, and it returned to the pillarless coupe body style of the E9. While the 8-Series later appeared with a V8 as the 840Ci, and even a six-cylinder 830i was considered, the spacious engine bay meant BMW’s engineers could introduce even higher-performance versions.

That responsibility would fall to BMW’s M division. At the time, it had only two engines to its name: the 24-valve inline-six (known as the M88 and S38) first appearing in the M1 in 1978 but later in the M5 and M6 as well, and the S14 four-cylinder engine based on that six, which was available in the E30 M3 produced from 1986-1991. The M70 V12 of the 8-series allowed the M division to consider something that would move the goalposts. They did it too, with the prototype M8, which featured a quad-cam 6.1-litre 48-valve V12 named the S70/1. It made approximately 600 horsepower, but BMW decided that was too much for one of their road cars. The S70 would find its forever home in the iconic McLaren F1 as the S70/2, but the 8-Series needed something in-between.

BMW 850CSi V12 engine

Enter the 850CSi

Returning to the single-cam-per-bank 24-valve M70 engine, the M division upped the displacement to 5.6-litres by increasing the bore by 2 millimetres to 86 and the stroke by 5 millimetres to 80. Renamed the S70B56, the engine now boasted 376bhp. This engine, along with other changes such as a revised body kit, lowered suspension, four-wheel steering for UK and European models, and BMW Motorsport door handles, yielded the 850CSi — a nice touch of a name, recalling (for the American audience) the beloved 633CSi of the Gordon Gekko era rather than the unpopular and slightly somnolent 850i.

If it seems like the M division had their fingerprints all over the 850CSi, it is because they did. From 1992, it was built by the division, as evidenced by the vehicle identification number (VIN) prefix WBS, as opposed to regular production BMW VIN prefix of WBA.

The low production numbers and convoluted origins of the 850CSi meant it was off the radar of most collectors for much of its life. For a long time, the market considered it in the same bracket as the Porsche 928 GTS, another version of a big coupe improved at the end of its shelf life. However, last year two examples with very low miles (or kilometres) sold for $238,280 (£186,000) and $184,800 (£142,000), respectively, at RM Sotheby’s auctions in London and Amelia Island. That makes the example sold by Cars & Bids for $147,500 (£114,000) the third most expensive example, and the best result for an online auction.

BMW 850CSi interior

What does it take for someone to bid well over six-figures for an 850 CSi? The car must be in excellent condition, but the Cars & Bids example also featured an unusual exterior colour and interior colour combination. Techno Violet may sound like the name of a Bond Girl, but it was one of BMW’s more daring colours in the 1990s. It often appeared on the smaller E36 M3 of the era, making its choice for the bigger 8-series unusual. So unusual that only 13 E31s were painted that colour. The Lotus White and Daytona Violet interior on this car makes it unique.

In the US, values for the 850CSi have more than doubled in the past five years as collectors have caught on, and the condition 1 value is now $208,000 (£160,000). In the UK, values have climbed by an average of nearly 38 per cent, between 2014 and today. That said, 850CSi are few and far between and at time of writing only Classic Heroes had one for sale, a rather special 15,000 mile, 1996 example, for £130,000.

Will the model continue to appreciate? Given the CSi’s pillarless styling, big V12, manual transmission, and elegant styling — all qualities increasingly absent from the marketplace — it looks likely.

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