From Today Until Tonight, Onward They March To Yesterday

The 1990 E31 shown here is an example of what was up to then a rare bird in the BMW cage.

All images: the author.

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.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

30 thoughts on “From Today Until Tonight, Onward They March To Yesterday”

  1. Good morning, Richard. I don’t think BMW set out to make the fastest production road car in the world. The E26 that came before is faster than an 850 CSI. And so is an M635 CSI.

    I think they set out to be build a technologically advanced car. It certainly was advanced even though it only had few firsts: V12 with a six speed manual and drive-by-wire throttle, Can-bus computer network.

    When this car hit the market I was too young to drive, but I absolutely adored it. I have my drivers license now and I still love the E31. It’s been ages since I last saw one.

    1. Good morning: I might not have been clear about BMW´s intentions so I will say they certainly wanted it to be convincingly fast and accelerative enough outperform most the other high-performance cars it was likely to meet between Berlin and Basel.
      The 635 is the one I always preferred. Partly this is because I prefer the style but also because the 850 was excessive, more like a 7-series than a 5.

  2. Good morning Richard. I had never thought about the 8 Series in quite those terms, but you make a compelling argument as to why it was the wrong car for its time, and a BMW that “didn’t matter all that much.”

    Almost uniquely for a BMW, it died without a direct replacement: there was a four-year hiatus before the E63 generation 6 Series arrived, and nineteen years before BMW resurrected the 8 Series label for the hideous G15, a BMW that repeats and exacerbates the errors of the E31. At least the earlier car was a handsome looking thing.

    1. Thanks for the good question. I do indeed see the E31 as being a part of the Ulm School of design design school. It´s very plain and well detailed. Granted there are those slight flares around the wheel arches. I would argue they serve the purpose that wheel arch flares serves, bringing the body side to the right location to shroud the wheels. The car´s very austere and serious – hence the lack of chrome and the minimal grille and hidden lamps. The tiny grille is a sign of huge confidence – by 1998 the grille had become so associated with BMW´s design status that they could down play it. I suppose the huge grilles they now sport are a sign of branding insecurity like a t-shirt that has 40 cm letters saying “Hugo Boss”. If you do have to have a Boss t-shirt the logo should be tiny; that´s confidence. All that said, it is a wildly over-complex car and not merely the 6 series brought up do date like the E34 did for the E28. I am glad the car´s been worth talking about. Like others, I´d love to take one for a spin for an hour. I have the feeling it would be interesting but not something I´d like to repeat.

  3. Do you really see the E31 as an example of Bauhaus/HfG design? That’s interesting because for me it’s the exact opposite. It is brash, it is a symbol of excess, its looks are fussy compared to a 928 (which for me fits the HfG theme far better).
    It somehow fits in a line with the equally brash and excessive Testarossa and it also is to then-BMW what the Testarossa is to Pininfarina: an example of bad taste and an example for the era when money makers started to rule the world and weren’t afrait to show it.

    My sister once had a partner who worked as clay modeller at BMW M where selected employees regularly had the opportunity to drive test cars over the weekend. He once visited us with what would have become the M8, an E31 with the engine that later found its way in the McLaren F1. The M8 never made it into production because BMW feared for lack of social acceptance.
    On that day they were on their way to a model car exhibition when the onboard computer showed a speed with a “3” as the leading number and a bird hit the car in the windscreen corner between roof and A post on the passenger side. It must have been a scary experience because the rest of the journey was done at very low speed and this was not only because of the cracked windscreen…

    1. Hi Dave. The E31 may have been just ‘too much’ in its engineering, but I think the styling is actually quite clean and restrained:

      Not convinced? Then compare it to to this:

    2. You’ll find no argument here against the 928, but my preference is for the car in its earliest and purest form, without that disfiguring side bump strip (and those fussy wheels):

      It was, like the BMW E31, a dead-end and, contrary to expectations, didn’t set the template for a new generation of Porsche cars to replace the 911.

    3. I have heard it described that there are two strands to most threads of design, one is for more complexity, curves and decoration, rich fabrics and embroidery, and use of tertiary colours; the other strand is for simplicity, straight lines, simple fabrics, and simple use of primary colour. In fashion, on one extreme is Versace, the other is Chanel, or Dior. In modern design, particularly German design, we have Steiner and his philosophies, with Klimt, Hundertwasser, and Gaudi, and Wagner, in art and music to give the complex strand; and the other strand is Bauhaus and De Stijl, with the electronic music of Kraftwerk.
      To me the 928 has always come from the Steiner side, as does the NSU Ro80, the Braq BMWs are more early modernist Bauhaus and the E31 can’t seem to be either, whereas the Mercedes W124, R129, W201 are firmly both.
      It is this uncertainty that makes the E31 hard to like for many people, (in my humble opinion). It is ‘neither fish nor fowl’.
      As for the fashion analogy, current BMWs have abandoned Versace and Chanel in favour of early Vivienne Westwood.


      Vivienne Westwood

    4. Thats a very interesting analogy, David, although I think you might be doing Vivienne Westwood a disservice in comparing her work to present-day BMW design. Westwood was pushing boundaries and experimenting, whereas BMW appears to me to have no discernable direction of travel. Perhaps it’s an age thing: maybe I’m just too long in the tooth to understand what BMW is up to anymore?

  4. That’s a fine paradox you describe, Richard: the 8 series was opulent in its technological excess (if of the analog variety), bulk and cost but tastefully restrained in its design. Tragic, really, that BMW thought its rich clientele would grow more tasteful – a symptom of the antiquated modernism you describe, when people really thought that cultural and esthetic sophistication would keep pace with technological progress. Like I say, tragic. In so many ways.

    In the end, though, my reaction is much the same as yours: from a rational perspective I know I should be in awe of everything the car is (well, almost everything: adding bulk to a car never impresses me), maybe irritated by the excess, or at least gratified by its restrained design; but it leaves me utterly cold.

    BMW has never been very successful in breaking from its mould of powerful sedans and coupés (well, latterly SUVs but that’s just following the market – sedan and coupé buyers now buy SUVs). I think even the M1, fondly remembered as it is nowadays, was seen as a bit anodyne (and not quite exotic enough, with about half the amount of cilinders needed to qualify). Nor were, I think, the various Z cars completely convincing (maybe apart from the mad Z3 M Coupé/breadvan).

  5. Not a bad day today. I spotted one of my favorites, even though it’s not in a great condition.

    1. That’s more like it. I’ve come across a few yellow cars, recently, including a Clio, if I recall correctly. Refreshing to see them.

  6. MX5 in 1989 and E31 in 1990, were these the last cars to be launched with pop up headlamps? That’s old fashioned futuristic-ness right there. It’s almost a hovercraft of cars. One of my partners neighbours has an almost perfect burgundy one all that is missing is one of the teeny plastic front whisker grilles. The front head restraints are supported from the side, not from stalks underneath. I assume there is an obscure tech purpose for that but it’s a lovely pointless-cool detail.

    It’s a beautiful looking thing, sinister rather than aggressive. I can imagine a driver in one cruising down one of those French country roads that are an avenue of poplars, listening to Bach on the expensive Becker stereo, then stopping, pulling a silenced pistol from the door pocket, shooting someone and then nonchalantly driving off to collect his hit money from a Swiss bank.

    1. The E31’s seat belts are mounted to the seats and not to the car for better ergonomics. The top monting point sits in a robust vertical spar at the side of the seat that can telescope up and down and takes the headrest with it to adjust to driver’s size.

    2. The 456 GT was a couple of years later than the MX5 and E31. Not sure if it was the last car launched with pop up headlights.

  7. Hello Richard, this article provokes some thinking. What is the relationship between car design and contemporary architecture? The 8 series is a modern or post modern design? Perhaps it is a strict bmw school of design that can be estimated and accepted by German intellectuals?

  8. The grand cars like the BMW 850 of 1990 and the 7 series of 1987 were speaking a germanic design language, that was understood, admired and accepted by me, who could only afford to buy a poster photo of them. These cars looked in their place in Bern, Switzerland, in this poor Athens they just helped the sales of the BMW 3 series. I may have seen a dark blue once.

  9. I’ve been trying to spot the first “The ‘90s will be like the ‘80s, but more so” mistake; the Corrado, perhaps?

    I dislike the 8 Series less than I used to, probably because of what has been produced since. However, there is something a bit cynical about the 8 Series and it looks wrong to me. I recall seeing one in the metal, and it just looked ‘plump’. Is it too tall / short? I know it’s not meant to be an M1, but some of the details force an association with that earlier car.

    I recall piece written by a motoring journalist who said something like it was the ideal car for the middle-aged hedge fund manager, sweatily lumbering around the squash court, on his way to his next heart attack.

    That’s an exaggeration for comedic effect, of course, but it’s never a car I’ve lusted after. I had a search for a brochure in an attempt to see what its makers saw it as, but it’s a dreadful publication – shots of parts of the car. Here’s the instrument cluster, here’s the gear lever, here are some seats, etc, all short against a dark background. Forty-seven pages of ‘nothing’. I think it’s meant to look moody / mysterious / serious / butch.

    My usual apologies to those for whom this is a dream car, or who own one and it’s their pride and joy. If someone were to offer me a ride in one, I’d jump at the chance.

  10. In social and economic sphere, the 1980 to 1990 up to the tiger economies financial crisis that happened in 1998 if I remember well, was a period of optimism. Why not make and sell grand cars? They were discreet, elegant, a design language that has been modified after 2000 and the suvs.

  11. I think one if not the problem BMW had with the E31 was the very desirable Mercedes R129 SL, introduced more or less at the same time.
    Having driven both an early 850i and 500Sl, I see no reason why one would prefer the former, unless one had to have a manual gearbox. That said, as a youngtimer, I would be more than happy to have either.

  12. While one can say BMW were overreaching with the E31 (instead of developing E34 and E39 Coupes to succeed the E24), cannot say am a fan of it’s pop-up headlights.

  13. That the E31 began its development in 1981 explains why it always seemed outdated, at least fot me. It looks like a kind of modernist ´70s design, particularly the front. Compared with the R129, the Merc seems a lot more up to date. And time has not been kind with the E31.
    Not my favourite BMW.

    1. For me it’s exactly the other way around. I have always admired the E31 and still do.

      The R129 is a plain looking car. Nothing interesting about its proportion nor surface treatment. The plastic under cladding is just awful. The interior isn’t any better. The instruments look like they’ve been lifted from a commuter bus. The seat with the integrated seatbelt looks elegant on the E31. The R129 used a railway sleeper in comparison.

      To its credit the R129 is probably the last of the old school Benzes. There were quite a few nice ones, but this sadly isn’t one of them. I had this opinion ever since the car was launched, which is now 33 years ago and I still haven’t warmed up to it.

  14. Richard’s comment about the E31’s suggesting a Jackal-like assassin on the way to a hit brought a smile to my face: I remember doing the posters for a student society night back in my College days. The theme was “seduction and destruction”, and one of the posters had a front on image of an E31 in monochrome. My classmates looked at me a bit blankly on that one…
    There’s an E31 in semi storage in a car park near me. It gathers a lot of dust, but is occasionally taken out and exercised. I wonder does the owner have to use a battery booster to get it going – the quiescent current drain of a tech laden car from that era must be considerable.
    To Freerk’s point re the R129: to me the appeal of Mercedes in the eighties was the very sense (however illusionary) that the design and engineering could encompass roles from taxi to high-mileage business express to luxury plaything. This met its apogee in the R124/R129 ranges. I certainly don’t get that sense now…

  15. The styling was AOK and the lack of chrome wasn’t the real problem. Here are a few points relating to the 850.

    This wasn’t a complex car. It’s odd how people jump to that conclusion so swiftly. “Oh, it has twelve cylinders, it’s complex……that’s something to be wary of……oh yea…….and unreliable……because, you know….complex.”*

    Multiplexing, sometimes referred to as CANBUS, is a set-up which networks much of the car’s electrical componentry, control systems, sensors and actuators etc. In essence they are all on a party-line. It’s not a matter of doing this for complexity’s sake, but rather as a way to simplify and reduce the amount of electrical loom that would otherwise be required. The result is less copper, less weight, less space needed for the loom, less difficulty in manufacturing/assembly, improved reliability and much reduced cost. What’s not to like? Some would say repairing fault is difficult, but is it really?

    When comparing a conventional electrical set-up with CANBUS the saying goes, “CANBUS is easy to repair but hard to diagnose and old-school is hard to repair but easy to diagnose.” With the correct tools CANBUS becomes quite helpful to you when trouble shooting. It has its own diagnostic capability and can record information about out of spec occurrences. It can also be interrogated in various locations throughout the car and it is possible to check its function in many locations throughout the car to isolate faults, defects and failures. With the right tools it is not too difficult to deal with. Repairs are simplicity. Understanding how to use the appropriate tools (such as scan tools and scopes etc.) is necessary. Knowing what you are seeing and interpreting it is the key. Today nearly every car manufacturer is using CANBUS system. Once you see how it operates and learn its principles it is clearly not “complex”. It is logical and well worth the effort to learn to understand it.

    The still-born M8 definitely does not have, did not have and was never intended to have the engine from the McLaren F-1. M8 was evaluated with several engines but none of them was the special “McLaren” engine. That engine was specifically for the F-1 and was not used for the proposed M8. It did find its way into some 750 sedans though, but that’s a story for another day. It was also fitted to an X5. That’s also a story for another day.

    The engines evaluated for the M8 were a twin-turbocharged sohc two-valve V-12 , a N/A dohc four-valve V-12 and a N/A dohc five-valve V-12. The four-valve engine got the nod. It made around 550bhp in final form. Back in the day 550bhp was thought to be a lot, possibly too much for BMW’s cliental and potentially a nucleation point for the envy and anger of a certain species.

    When McLaren came calling BMW showed off this engine as the solution for their requirements. For Gordon Murray, the F-1 project manager, the answer was a definite NO WAY! to the M8 four valve V-12 unit or any of the variants of it BMW had already designed and/or built for M8. All too bulky and too heavy by far. The CoG was wrong. The rotational inertia was much too high and the sharpness of throttle response McLaren sought was lacking. On top of that McLaren wanted more rpm and more torque right from idle. They were trying to get something approaching a race engine for the road, but it had to be far more usable and civilised than that. This was a tough specification- one that M8’s engine was unsuited to fulfilling.

    For F-1 a new engine was developed. It made only 627bhp. It was designed for and used in the McLaren F-1. It was not fitted to M8.

    The reasons for the 850 not doing as well as hoped were down to the economic conditions at the time it hit the market allied to its high price. For the money it wasn’t special enough. It needed a lot more power to make it an enticing drive. A modest 299 bhp was nowhere near enough for a car as heavy as the 850. When someone is spending that sort of money on a sporty coupe it had better haul. This one was way too modest to be considered sporty, despite the racy styling. Later on BMW realised its mistake and produced a 5.6 litre version. This went as well as the standard car ought to have when launched, but it was more expensive still. Next BMW went down market with the 840 with even less poke than the original 5.0 litre engine! The halo model M8 never arrived. So BMW had a model range which failed to appeal to the people it needed to and so people looked elsewhere. In summary, despite the looks not enough performance for the money. Hardly the ace embodiment of a perfect driving machine. Not special enough. A “could-a been a contender” near miss.

    It wasn’t a bad car. It had the (unrealised) potential to be great.

    *I heard the same thing told about the XJ-12 when I was a young man. I got one anyway and when I opened the bonnet, it was indeed a busy looking place, but hardly complex. I started working on them for fun and profit. A friend had informed me that he’d discovered they were simple and rational- everything was obvious enough and easy to understand. He was correct. Some years later, same deal for the 850 and the 750.

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