Special Cars, Special Places

Previewing the upcoming 8-Fest with a drive through the deserted backroads of the Redwood Country, we ponder the incredible loyalty drivers feel toward BMW’s top-shelf coupes and convertibles. Our vehicles of choice? An M6 Convertible and Steve Cohen’s

Photo: Special Cars, Special Places 1
May 24, 2013

They call it the Lost Coast, and it’s one of the most remote stretches of California coastline you’ll find anywhere. For those who love driving, it’s a perfect paradise of turns, elevation changes and spectacular scenery. It’s like Highway 1 through Big Sur, but with absolutely no traffic, even on a Saturday afternoon at the tail end of tourist season.

No wonder Steve Cohen chose it for the driving segment of his forthcoming 8-Fest, the West Coast celebration of all things E31. There’s no better place to wring out a BMW like an 8 Series…or the F12 M6 Convertible we’re using to chase down Cohen in his 850i-turned-860i. Cohen’s car started life as an otherwise ordinary 1991 E31 850i coupe, but it’s become much, much more over the last 20-plus years and almost 300,000 miles. In addition to supersizing its V12 engine, Steve has also done everything possible to improve its chassis, upgrading its suspension from stem to stern in the quest for more sportive handling.

That kind of attention may seem excessive, but it’s hardly unusual. Coupes have always been special cars to BMW enthusiasts, and so have convertibles. Where sedans tend to be workaday daily drivers, used and discarded, the coupes and convertibles are cherished for the long haul, driven hard but lovingly cared for, too. They’re also celebrated, and events like 8-Fest, Z-Fest and the various Sharkfests draw hundreds of cars and their owners to enjoy some of the world’s greatest roads in the company of like-minded enthusiasts.

Ten years ago this October, Cohen’s first 8-Fest brought 87 E31 coupes to this isolated region, more than had ever gathered in one place anywhere in the world; six months before the second 8-Fest in 2013, 75 were already signed up. Some were repeat visitors, but plenty more would be attending for the first time, enticed by the prospect of a weekend’s full immersion into the world of the 8 Series.

A top-down GT for

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driving enthusiasts

They’re also attracted, no doubt, by the stories they’ve heard about these roads, which are a perfect if punishing test track for high-performance cars like an E31 8 Series or our M6 Convertible.

It’s easy to dismiss the M6 Convertible as a car for well-heeled dilettantes, but it’s surprising me with its sporting capabilities on these truly challenging roads. It acquitted itself well, too, on the smooth, fast freeway we drove to get here—returning close to 27 mpg along the way—as well as on the tighter, bumpier backroads that make up Cohen’s 8-Fest route. Unlike a lot of contemporary BMWs, the F12/F13 chassis delivers a lot of road feel through both the seat and the steering wheel, and it responds perfectly and precisely to its driver’s inputs.

That’s especially important when we head inland again from the black sand beach near Cape Mendocino. The road—State Route 211, to be precise—is so eroded and rutted that we’re constantly altering our line to avoid denting a wheel or catching the undercarriage on a piece of bulging pavement when the suspension compresses under braking. It’s fantastic fun in this M6, which seems to relish the challenge as much as we do.

Having exited the beach ahead of Cohen and his 860 for photo purposes, we’ve now left him behind altogether. It’s not exactly a fair fight: Where Cohen’s naturally aspirated 5,944cc M70 V12 delivers 435 crankshaft hp at 5,250 rpm, the M6’s 4,395cc twin-turbocharged S63B44TU V8 engine with direct injection is pumping out 560 hp at 6,000 rpm. The torque advantage is slightly smaller, but it’s spread out over a wider rev range: Steve’s car has 480.5 lb-ft at 4,250 rpm where we’ve got 500 lb-ft from 1,500 to 5,750 rpm.

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Augmenting that power advantage is ZF’s superb M-DCT seven-speed transmission, which lets us keep the V8 in its sweet spot with the greatest of ease. Cohen’s playing with a manual six-speed Getrag, but it’s no match for M-DCT where pure speed is concerned. M-DCT not only shifts faster, it also works with the differential to manage torque on downshifts, reducing the likelihood that the car will slew sideways braking into a turn.

A rolling showcase for complexity

That’s one of the benefits wrought by the twenty years of electronic R&D we’ve got in our favor, which add up to a huge advantage in engine efficiency, braking, traction control and suspension. Both of the cars we’ve got here today are flagship-status cars for BMW, and they share an emphasis on state-of-the-art electronics and comfort features separated by two decades of development.

In his excellent marque history, The Story of BMW, Tony Lewin writes that BMW poured “its entire technical expertise” into making the 8 Series “a rolling showcase for everything advanced, complex or clever.” Shown for the first time at Frankfurt in 1989, the 8 Series featured active rear axle kinematics with passive rear steering (which BMW would resurrect on the F01 7 Series), electronic damper control, ASC+T traction control, Servotronic, the first six-speed manual transmission ever used on an automobile, auto-sealing windows on the frameless doors, front seats with integrated belts (also found on our M6) and much, much more.

Despite all that gadgetry, the 8 Series failed to impress as much of a driver’s car back in the day. Though the car’s rakish styling (by Klaus Kapitza) suggested a sports car, the 8 Series was a luxurious grand touring coupe. Those who wanted something more aggressive were left to transform the car themselves, much as Cohen as done with his.

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We’ve already mentioned the displacement increase from 4,988cc to 5,944cc in the M70 V12 engine, achieved via a Moldex custom billet crankshaft with an 86mm stroke; lightened, balanced and shot-peened con rods; Wiseco custom forged pistons with 9.36:1 compression.

In addition, the ported and polished cylinder head was given a four-angle valve job and mated with S70 cams and ExtrudeHoned intake manifolds followed by Rinehart custom headers. The throttle bodies were bored out by 3mm and paired with 18.4 lb/hr Bosch injectors. The engine also got custom DME chips from The Powerhouse, a BMW engine oil cooler and a clutch and pressure plate sourced from an 850CSi. At the rear, Cohen installed a 7 Series’ 3.15:1 differential with 50% limited slip. The end result, of course, is that impressive 435 hp and 480.5 lb-ft, up from 295 hp and 332 lb-ft as delivered.

That’s about the limit, Cohen says.

“I think there’s only so far you can go with the V12 because of the exhaust side of the heads. In the head itself, the port comes up and does a 90-degree turn,” he explains. “There was talk of somebody back East building a four-cam set of heads, but it was crazy the amount of money he wanted.”

More power alone isn’t enough to transform an 850i into a sports car, so Cohen made substantial suspension improvements, too: H&R Sport springs, Bilstein shocks, Generation K-Bars anti-roll bars that measure 28.5mm front/19.0mm rear in place of the 24mm/13mm stock bars, M-Wrench camber plates/spring perches and a Strong Strut brace.

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When we followed Cohen earlier, it was easy to see that he’d dialed-in the 8 Series about as well as one could. Even at a brisk pace, the car showed very little body roll, looking totally planted through the faster corners as well as the tight stuff. I can’t testify to its balance or agility from behind the wheel, but it was certainly capable of running at speeds that forced the new M6 to earn its keep.

Long-term ownership

of a well-loved car

It’s still no sports car, Cohen says, and its size and weight—4,123 lbs., as delivered, or about 600 lbs. lighter than our M6 Convertible—keep its agility firmly in GT territory. “But the way it is now, with the 6.0-liter engine, it’s one hell of a GT car. And it’s fun to drive, just really neat. I enjoy it.”

He’s enjoyed it for 21 years and 289,000 miles. We’ve said many times that BMW’s coupes and convertibles tend to be special cars that are treasured by their owners, and Steve’s car is a perfect example of that phenomenon. It’s not a perfect car, mind you, though it shows far less wear than it would if I’d owned it since 1991.

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What’s the key to Cohen’s initial attraction and long marriage to the 8 Series?

“It’s just a gorgeous car, absolutely gorgeous, and unlike anything BMW has ever done,” he says. Cohen agrees that coupe owners tend to be exceptionally passionate about their cars, keeping them for a long time and selling only when necessary. For those who buy 8 Series cars used, that day often comes sooner rather than later when they realize the price of maintaining a high-tech coupe with a V12 engine.

“We’ve been predicting for years that as the price came down on the 8s, people would buy them, usually kids under 30, who didn’t realize what it takes to keep one up,” Cohen says. “I get questions like, ‘Where can I get a used coin holder?’ They could go down to the dealership and buy a brand-new one for a minimum amount of money, but they just won’t do it or can’t afford to do it.”

It’s not a bottom-feeder’s car, is it?

“Not at all.”

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That’s something it has in common with nearly all high-end cars, regardless of manufacturer. Powerful engines and an abundance of features make for expensive cars when new, and for cars that depreciate rapidly in value but remain expensive to maintain as they age.

Such will be true of our M6 Convertible, as well, which makes Cohen’s 860i look downright simple by comparison. What the E31 8 Series pioneered, the current generation of large BMWs has rendered in almost absurd extravagance, enhancing and elaborating upon nearly every feature and option.

Perhaps even more importantly, features like electronically adjustable suspension, steering feedback and throttle sensitivity are now interconnected and interdependent in ways that were impossible to imagine 20 years ago. In-car infotainment systems have also become far more complicated, encompassing not just sat-nav and CD players but smartphone integration and internet capability. The M6 may be a sports car when you put the hammer down, but BMW hasn’t neglected to equip it with the creature comforts now deemed essential to Grand Touring, including a sumptuous and beautifully designed interior. In its dual-purpose nature, this car straddles both categories.

With a little help from your friends

All of that complicated equipment can give pause to enthusiasts who value reliability as well as connectivity, but here the 8 Series experience offers hope. As complex as it was in its day, the 8 Series has proved to be nearly as owner-maintainable as its far-simpler predecessors, given an appropriately high level of technical sophistication. A strong owner network helps, obviously, in keeping these electronics-heavy cars from veering into obsolescence, and 8-Fest hosts a number of technical seminars to provide owners with helpful tips and tricks.

“To give you an example, the general module, which controls virtually everything, tends to go bad in about 10-12 years, maybe,” Cohen says. “If it does, you just replace the capacitors on the circuit board, and the chances of it becoming live again are quite good.”

Similar fixes will undoubtedly become known to M6 owners 20 years down the line, and those who love these grand automobiles will probably be able to keep them on the road for as long as they wish.

That’s a comforting thought as we head back to the Benbow Inn—the 8-Fest’s historic host hotel—from our run out to the coast. After a swift drive through the sweeping curves of the dairyland east of Victorian-era Ferndale, we’re back amid the giant redwoods on the Avenue of the Giants. We lower the convertible soft-top—a well-insulated piece of equipment that makes a folding hardtop unnecessary—for a better view of the redwoods that stretch hundreds of feet overhead, and the effect is like driving through an open-air cathedral. If you’ve ever stepped inside Barcelona’s La Sagrada Familia, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

People come from all over to get a glimpse of these trees, and there’s no better way to see them than while reclining in an M6 Convertible with the top down, gazing up at the distant green foliage that filters out most of the sunlight. It’s a very special experience in a very special car, and it’s something that we can imagine enthusiasts of the current 6 Series BMWs gathering to enjoy ten or 20 years hence, just as 8 Series fans will enjoy it this October.

“These roads and this landscape with all its variety are something that you won’t find very often,” Cohen says. “I want them to love their car, to be able to understand why they’re driving that road. It’s just a special thing.”

Indeed it is, and so are BMW’s coupes and convertibles. The luckiest among us get to treasure them both.

Also from Issue 116

  • MKO's E9-meets-E39 CS M5
  • 2013 F34 3 Series GT first drive
  • 2012 E84 X1 xDrive 28i road test
  • Interview: Sales chief Ian Robertson
  • Buyer’s Guide: 5 Under $5k
  • ESS Tuning's E60 545i
  • Matt Russell's turbo E30 325i
  • Legends of the Autobahn ’12, with M8!
  • Amelia Island auctions: 3.0 CSL & 327 cabrio
  • How-To: 2002 grille installation
  • Paddock Pass: Z4 at Sebring
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