When is a BMW M car not an M car?

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The BMW 850CSi is not a car that most people know. Even BMW fans might not have heard of it or seen one. Only 225 examples were sold in the U.S. 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 on the new online auction platform Cars & Bids?

BMW has enjoyed market success selling sporty and elegant coupes 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 coupe body style, the cars have become highly collectible. Hagerty price guide values for the E9 coupes are up an average of 92 percent over the past five years.

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 6-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.

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, 296 hp, 5.0 liter V-12 (code name M70). It also had an available six-speed manual, and it returned to the pillarless coupe body style of the E9. While the 8-series later appeared with a V-8 as the 840Ci, and even a six-cylinder 830i was considered, the spacious engine bay meant BMW could introduce even higher-performance versions.

1995 BMW 850CSi overhead front three-quarter
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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 4-cylinder engine based on that six, which was available in the E30 M3 produced from 1986-1991. The M70 V-12 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-liter 48-valve V-12 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.

Enter the 850CSi

1995 BMW 850CSi rear three-quarter
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Returning to the single-cam-per-bank 24-valve M70 engine, the M division upped the displacement to 5.6 liters by increasing the bore by 2 millimeters to 86 and the stroke by 5 millimeters to 80. Renamed the S70B56, the engine now boasted 376 hp. This engine, along with other changes such as a revised body kit, lowered suspension, 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. 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.

1995 BMW 850CSi engine
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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 928GTS, another product-improved version of a big coupe at the end of its rope. However, last year two examples with very low miles (or kilometers) sold for $238,280 and $184,800, respectively, at RM Sotheby’s auctions in London and Amelia Island. That makes the example sold by Cars & Bids for $147,500 the third most expensive example, and the best result for an online auction. 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 color and interior color combination. Techno Violet may sound like the name of a Bond Girl (h/t Andrew Newton), but it was one of BMW’s more daring colors in the 1990s. It often appeared on the small E36 M3 of the era, making its choice for the bigger 8-series unusual. So unusual that only 13 E31s were painted that color. The Lotus White and Daytona Violet interior on this car makes it unique.

1995 BMW 850CSi rear seats
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Hagerty price guide 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. Will the model continue to appreciate? Given the CSi’s pillarless styling, big V-12, manual transmission, and elegant styling — all qualities increasingly absent from the marketplace — it looks likely.

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