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The 8 Series – BMW’s modern classic

30 years after the launch of the legendary E31, BMW’s new 8 Series has its design heritage on full display

BMW’s new 8 Series side by side with its legendary predecessor, the E31, at the gates of BMW Group Classic
BMW’s new 8 Series side by side with its legendary predecessor, the E31, at the gates of BMW Group Classic

“To make what might become a classic design you have to have something that you instantly see in your mind when you close your eyes,” says Domagoj Dukec, head of BMW design. It’s a statement that could be applied to both the revered 1989 BMW 8 Series or its newly launched and long-awaited heir, the 8.

The original E31 – the internal BMW code that enthusiasts use when referring to it – was rapidly elevated to the status of classic, thanks to the radical styling and technical innovation that put it streets ahead of the competition. 

The BMW 8 Series harnesses the power of the very best technology currently available
The BMW 8 Series harnesses the power of the very best technology currently available

Niels Hamann is head of quality management luxury class BMW and author of the book BMW 8 Series: Power & Hitech. He is also the proud owner of two E31s. As such, he is best placed to recall the impact the original car had when it launched, and the demands of honouring its heritage.

“It was designed to be a luxury-segment sports car, the best car in the world, and it really was unique,” he says. “It stood out in the BMW range and deservedly represented the pinnacle of its portfolio.”

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The much-lauded aerodynamic wedge shape was just one of many innovations seen in the E31. “The shape was responsible for its revolutionary drag coefficient. It was the first BMW rated under 0.3,” says Hamann. “Added to that was the sheer power of the engine: the speedometer went up to 300kmph – even though the 8 Series was limited to 250kmph.

Then there was the rear axle steering. Back then, the E31 was the first BMW to offer this feature. At higher speeds, it provided much higher control because the wheels were moving in the same direction. At that time, BMW had the best rear axle steering in the world. In the new 8 Series, it is available as an optional feature and operates in the same and the opposite direction. It is a feature that allowed us to make a big vehicle smaller and more agile.”

Admiring a modern classic: Niels Hamann (left) and Rainer Pollmann (right) with the new BMW 8 Series
Admiring a modern classic: Niels Hamann (left) and Rainer Pollmann (right) with the new BMW 8 Series

The 8 Series revived the fortunes of the fast, refined GT car, which was popularised during the 1950s but had fallen rather out of fashion. Other manufacturers soon entered the market, fashioning coupés from existing saloon models. BMW later went back to concept with the 5 Series in 2009, the 3 Series in 2013 and the 6 Series in 2017, but the E31 remained the benchmark. In reviving its flagship, BMW was very aware it had to respect a massive heritage.

Thankfully, the new 8 Series coupé is equally striking and innovative. It represents the first expression of what BMW calls “a new design language”, distinguished by fewer but precise lines and generously sculpted, poetic surfaces. The fastback profile emphasises its dynamics, with a silky flow from nose to tail and a brace of curved lines exiting the slashed front wing air intake. It’s sculptural, particularly around the rear arches, where it flexes muscular shoulders and flaunts its low centre of gravity, an impression enhanced by super-slim LED headlights. There are also clear nods to BMW’s design heritage in the shape of the aggressive kidney grille and the oblique Hofmeister kink. 

Luxury lineage: BMW’s new 8 Series alongside the classic E31
Luxury lineage: BMW’s new 8 Series alongside the classic E31

Rainer Pollmann has worked for BMW since graduating from Munich Technical University. Today he is project lead for the Gran Coupé version of the 8 Series. “Both the old 8 Series and the all-new version have a unique design – they occupy a very special place even within the BMW portfolio,” he says. “What is utterly special about this vehicle is its design. The key feature in both cars is the long bonnet, which perfectly expresses the car’s dynamism. In both vehicles the rear wheel arches have been pulled outwards, giving the vehicle a wider stance. Today, we have much greater scope to use materials, something we wouldn’t have been able to do 30 years ago.”

The new 8’s multi-material surface contains carbon fibre reinforced plastic, as well as aluminium and steel, allowing it to be sculpted and remain lightweight. “The old BMW 8 Series was high-tech, equipped with what were at the time the latest innovations from all fields,” says Pollmann. “This is an approach we also used for the new BMW 8 Series, harnessing the power of the very best technology currently available.” 

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The large, forward-leaning kidney grille of the new model has caught the attention, but its shutters are blanked off most of the time for drag reasons, opening only at low speed. There are a number of innovative optional driver assistance systems designed to improve safety and comfort via Driving Assistant Professional, using automated features like Active Cruise Control and Stop & Go function, steering and lane control assistant and lane change warning.

It is also highly connected, with the new operating system 7.0 offering operating options such as touch, gesture and iDrive Touch Controller. The new operating system also offers the BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant, an intelligent digital character that responds to the prompt “Hey BMW” and allows the driver to operate their car and access its functions and information simply by speaking. From the driver’s perspective, Integral Active Steering increases agility and manoeuvrability, while the xDrive intelligent all-wheel-drive system locks it to the road in all conditions. 

“In the classic 8 Series we introduced a new technology, and in the current model this technology has been decisively further developed and enhanced,” explains Hamann. Paul Snyder, chair of transportation, Design College for Creative Studies Detroit, agrees: “BMW has been looking at this market since the Concept CS back in 2007 and this is probably the strongest iteration of the idea in many ways. Some people have commented on the kidney grille, but I don’t mind the front end – it’s very bold. It’s unmistakably a BMW from every angle and they have such a strong heritage I’m sure it will do well.” 

The original was only available as a coupé, but the new 8 Series range additionally features a convertible and a larger four-door Gran Coupé. Separated by 30 years, the classic original and its successors unmistakably share the same DNA. Genetically, they are true driver’s cars: elegant, powerful and, above all, emotive.

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