The 1990 E31 shown here is an example of what was up to then a rare bird in the BMW cage.
The E31, also known as the 8 Series, embodied everything BMW knew about making cars. Oddly, it didn’t really move many people, didn’t change the gameplay or influence anyone much. What it did do was to exist as an example of excess everything. It also trotted in a race in which the public had lost interest, the race to make the fastest, most technically accomplished production road car in the world. As it happened, BMW won that contest, zooming over the finish line ahead of the competition(1).
Mercedes-Benz’s much-vaunted W140 S-Class appeared a year later and it too was met with a chilly disdain. (Audi was still trying to struggle ahead of the mainstream pack so its entrant, the A8, arrived later but still appeared to be relevant.) Both the E31 and W140 entered the 1990s as the cars motoring scribes and senior executives wanted in 1984: they were expensive, technically complex, expensive, exclusive, costly and expensive. A financial crisis and some wars put customers off this kind of lunch.
Although the E31 had its fair share of electronics (multiplexing too), it was also mostly an analogue car. That makes it a kind of epoch-ender.
What happened to make the E31 so unfit for the world into which it emerged? Would you be surprised to know that development of the E31 started in 1981? There were some other whale babies born at this time. Off the crown of my head, I think the 1989 Citroen XM’s development started in 1983 and the W140’s gestation also commenced in 1981. That’s a short list of three cars intended as tours de force, but which only underwhelmed.
If we add to this list the Jaguar XJ40, another car subjected to a long development time, we might have a rare set of cars whose development was excessive. The XJ40 is, however, an outlier: I don’t believe Jaguar even noticed what the rest of the world was doing and just tried to make the best car it could think of. It was always going to be that way, with the resources at hand in Brown’s Lane. The others, though, were manifestations of what people in 1980 thought the 1990s were going to look like.
The very next thing that happened from 1990 was that lead times were shortened and electronics took over from metal stamping, casting and milling as the way to improve vehicle performance.
The E31 designers were wrong in other ways too. They also thought the future would be free of brightwork, which is why this car was missing a little magical tinsel. I can well imagine that the kind of bulky, wealthy, conservative burgher who might have driven a BMW 635CSi or a Mercedes-Benz 450SLC would have been a bit disappointed on seeing this car in the metal.
Right there is the inherent paradox of the 8 Series: it was very heavy, not that fuel-efficient and was blisteringly costly (and also expensive to buy and run too!) but it was missing a signifier of all that, the chromed cherry on the cake. The modest, rational grille made sense only to designers living in a white box in a mature suburb of Munich, men whose ideas of modern were set in 1967.
I should feel a bit nostalgic about the 8 Series. From a purely formal perspective, it was the apotheosis of the Ulm School of Design design school. It was rigorously executed (which is why the headlamps make the title image) inside and out. It had enough character to distinguish it and the proportions were immaculate. It was like Concorde in that it represented the mindless optimism of an age before the threat of climate catastrophe darkened our days.
It was, though, an utterly unromantic car, at least for me. There are later cars with as much formal rigour and earlier cars with more charm that I would wish to experience ahead of this one. It was a deeply intellectual kind of vehicle when perhaps its core audience was deeply, conservatively romantic and not all that interested in the extremes of formal exactitude this car represented. What else could the 635CSi have become other than the 8 Series? BMW never made that car. The E31 was the first BMW that didn’t matter all that much, that’s the kind of rare bird it was. It also represented the moment the world’s rate of change outpaced the steady patterns of product planning inherited from the pre-digital age.
(1) Which was just Mercedes-Benz, it seems: the Americans were unable to even match the BMW 5 Series and witless prejudice meant nobody was paying attention to Honda, whose 1990 NSX was the real champion of the contest.