"Cars like this have been legislated out of existence," I lament to myself as the 12-cylinder power plant sings its way past 6000 rpm before I grab the next gear. But while engineering through governance has had a hand in the decline of big, naturally aspirated engines like the one found in this BMW 850Ci, the truth is it's only partially to blame for the current unavailability of a V12 paired with a manual gearbox from the factory. Perhaps the strongest evidence of that is the fact that this particular example was originally equipped with an automatic.
"Typically I'm a purist when it comes to restorations like these," says Allen Gharapetian, VP of product development for Clarion, and the owner of this shining example of Bavarian grand touring in its prime. "But when we decided to do the transmission swap, I eased up a little on the mandate for originality."
The big Bimmer is the latest entry in the Clarion Builds program, an ongoing series of restoration projects that the company launched with their 1974 BMW 2002 back in 2015. "After auctioning off the 2002 for charity at Barrett-Jackson in 2016, a small hole was left in our hearts that only another Bavarian classic could fill," Gharapetian explained. "So we began searching for another BMW icon that was innovative in its day, iconic in styling, and worthy of the first-class Clarion Builds treatment."
That search led the team to the BMW 8-Series, or E31. In production from 1989 to 1999, the E31 was essentially purpose-built to be a luxury GT car of the highest order right out of the gate, packing technological innovations like a drive-by-wire throttle system, CAN bus connectivity and a multi-link rear axle. More importantly, it was the first production road car to offer a V12 with a six-speed manual gearbox, and it didn't hurt that the pillarless coupe was easy on the eyes as well.
The build candidate they would eventually select was a 1993 850Ci. Though the mileage was low, nearly two and half decades had passed since the car had rolled out of BMW's factory and it was clearly in need of significant attention throughout.
It also had the wrong transmission, a concession the team was willing to make due to how few manual gearbox-equipped E31s made actually made the trek across the pond when the series was in production.
After a ten-month restoration the car was back on the road sporting an array of upgrades to its aesthetic, performance, and overall drivability. But rather than attempt to completely reinvent the intent and purpose of the car, the Clarion team focused on ensuring that the 850Ci's original charm was retained while finding subtle ways to improve upon the template.
We headed out to the fast, twisting tarmac that's spread across the Angeles Forest, about an hour northeast of downtown Los Angeles, to find out if they succeeded.
Factory Enhanced, And Then Some
It's important to remember that while the 850Ci packed V12 power, it didn't serve as the top-spec 8-Series throughout the production run. Instead, that distinction goes to the 850CSi, a model which many considered to be an M8 in everything but name. So when it came time to tear the project car down, the Clarion team knew they had some ways to improve the 850Ci's dynamics while retaining factory-level fit and finish.
"It's a good thing too, as original 850Ci parts are becoming more and more difficult to find," says Gharapetian. Although the 850CSi's production run was shorter than the Ci's and the top-spec model was built in smaller numbers during those years, components for the CSi would prove easier to source in some cases, providing a great excuse to upgrade the project car with OE components.
As a result, CSi enhancements are peppered throughout the car, with visible evidence provided by the front and rear air diffusers and 18-inch BMW M Parallel 37 series wheels, along with the Euro-spec M 850CSi steering wheel and CSi-spec shift knob found inside. CSi components would also be used to improve the car's cornering prowess, as CSi front and rear control arms, sway bars and bushings were paired up with Eibach springs and Bilstein dampers to tighten up the handling, reduce body roll, and lower the stance.
The BMW gurus at Coast Motor Werk in Huntington Beach, California, handled the lion's share of the mechanical restoration, refreshing the engine to factory spec and handling the gearbox transplant along with the other odds and ends that required attention, while New Century BMW Collision Center in in Alhambra applied the Carbon Black Metallic paint, a rare factory hue.
Inside, Westminster Upholstery of Anaheim elevated the cabin beyond its original form with perforated and non-perforated Italian leather for the seats and door panels, while alcantara was used on the headliner, A-pillars, and visors.
And of course it wouldn't be a Clarion Build without a killer audio system, so the 850Ci was outfitted with a Clarion NX706 seven-inch touch screen infotainment system with a 32-band equalizer, along with Clarion Z7 mid-range speakers, Z3 tweeters, and a Z25W 10-inch subwoofer installed in a custom enclosure.
Behind The Wheel
Settling in at the helm, I'm reminded of all the little things that BMW did right in the 1990s, from the solid "thunk" of the doors and no-nonsense, purposeful presentation of the gauge cluster to the deep, sonorous bellow of the M70 power plant. That engine note is admittedly delivered with more charisma than it was when the car originally left the factory, due to a custom-built, quad-tipped exhaust system that showcases the character of the 12-pot when instructed to do so, yet remains fairly low key otherwise.
Once underway, the car's personality starts to come into focus. At speed it's clear that while designed and tuned to perform, the 850Ci doesn't have aspirations of being mistaken for a sports car. Outfitted with some custom ECU tuning, the folks from Clarion say the 5.0-liter probably makes about 330 horsepower at the crank. That's more than enough to get this 4,200lbs coupe moving with some haste when I'm generous with the throttle, but it's immediately clear that eye-watering performance was never the primary mission here.
Instead, the 850Ci is about the overall experience of high-speed grand touring - the thrum of the engine, the sights, smells and sounds of the outside world with all four windows down, and the admirable balance between comfort and driver engagement.
Of course, like any restoration there's always a few things that could use some ironing out - the play in the steering wheel on-center forces me to recalibrate my inputs in the technical sections of the Angeles Forest, as the lack of immediacy means I need to provide a little more time to set up for a corner and turn the car in just a hair early. "We have a CSi steering rack being shipped to us now," Gharapetian assures me.
But other than a relatively high clutch engagement point, there isn't much else to find issue with here, and the car handles a solid hour of flogging without complaint. Though the OEM single-piston calipers are handily outgunned by the six-piston monoblock beasts found on many modern performance machines, the drilled 12.7-inch Stoptech rotors installed at all four corners help fend off brake fade, while the Michelin Pilot Super Sport rubber keeps the car sure-footed and communicative through the wheel.
No, they don't make them like they used to, and that's a notion that often cuts both ways when it comes to automotive engineering. But what Clarion has done with this BMW 850Ci accentuates the car's strengths while addressing its shortcomings, all without dramatically altering its original character. That kind of measured restraint is rare in builds as involved as this one, and it pays dividends out on the road.