Musings on the Motoring World

Unlucky No.8

In a rapidly fragmenting car market that is occupied by a handful of big players who have each pledged to launch a new model at an exhausting rate of one almost every month, it won’t be surprising if there will be a few that will fall through the cracks of our collective consciousness.

That said, it wouldn’t be surprising if it was a budget people carrier or another one of many largely utilitarian creations that won’t make so much as a ripple amongst enthusiast circles.

However, to forget the return of one of the most famous range-topping luxury grand tourer names after nearly two decades of absence, that warrants a head examination. And I’ll readily admit that the BMW 8 Series’ return slipped my mind. Maybe it is high time to do a thorough introspect before the damage spreads.

To clarify my condition, it isn’t as though I was held hostage by extremists in a cave or left in a perpetual coma in hospice care, but since its grand unveiling at this year’s Le Mans coincided with my new commitment to home ownership, I’m pretty sure I would have preferred those alternatives.

That being said, I specifically do remember waiting for the first images of the production version of the 8 Series to come through the wires from Le Mans. Though come to think of it, the only lasting impression I have left of that occasion was a slight pang of disappointment.

The 8 Series concept, from which its design draws plenty of cues from, looked as sharp as a rapier’s point. Squint past the fixed LED lights and it resembled a 21st-century interpretation of the 1989 original. Neither does the new boy look as poised and distinguished as the 2013 Pininfarina Gran Lusso coupe that had inspired BMW to return and revive the 8 Series in the first place.

Though it is expected some design elements to be watered down for production, its production-ready offspring looks underwhelming by comparison, almost formulaic, like what you’d expect a 6 Series coupe to look like. In fact, if you hadn’t told anyone that BMW had the discontinued the 6 Series coupe lineage (again), they would have mistaken this for the fourth-generation 6 Series. However they wouldn’t need to have their head examined, at 4843mm long, this new 8 Series is a whole 50mm shorter than the now-extinguished 6 Series Coupe.

Has the 8 Series truly returned or is this another sleight of marketing hand? We will never truly know, but if BMW revived the 8 Series as an S-coupe competitor, it looks like it will have an uphill task to convince customers to drop a fat stack on the big 8 rather than a two-door S.

Put it plainly, the 8 Series, no matter how much garnishing its engineers had poured onto its chassis setup or what image that name conjures, lacks the kerbside appeal of what Mercedes-Benz, and even, Lexus has been serving up lately. You could almost say it looks incongruous enough for one to lose it in a parking lot of executive-spec 520i sedans.

This concern shouldn’t be anything new to those who have been following BMW closely over the past decade. Ever since the introduction of the previous-generation F15 X5 and the current-generation G11 7 Series, it seems that the bold Bangle-era of non-conformity has ebb away under the stewardship of Adrian Van Hooydonk. Steady evolution rather than audacious revolution from now on. It is a surefire way of guaranteeing customer retention, though often at the expense of conquest customers.

It isn’t just avant-garde design that BMW seems to be shying away from. That bold pioneering spirit that had given the company several genre-defining models and shaped its public persona as a progressive brand at the turn of the 21st century seems to be noticeably lacking. Ever since creating a string of models that broke the mould with the SUV-coupe X6 and the futuristic i8, BMW has tracked a conservative line, probably a reactionary measure after going a step too far with their controversial “Gran Turismo” variants.

There has been evidence of this cautious demeanour proliferating through the company. Four years ago over a dinner with one of the lead engineers behind the M3/M4, I learnt that the M Division was preparing a top-secret “M1 study” for BMW’s 100th-anniversary celebrations in 2016. He said that they were looking to the Porsche 918 as “an example of what the M1 might be”. What became of that project? Nobody outside BMW knows.

Two years later, all BMW gave the world was the Vision Next 100 concept car and similarly themed concepts from its two stepchildren each, MINI and Rolls-Royce, but nothing was heard ever of that M1 concept. Maybe there was nothing behind that slip of an engineer’s tongue, maybe the return of the Honda NSX made them think twice, maybe bringing back the failed M1 didn’t fit into the management’s plan for the future.

Either way, it is worth noting that the first 8 Series was largely an expensive flop, the only tarnish on the bright career of Wolfgang Reitzle, though for all the right reasons. Gloriously over-engineered at a cost of over 1.5 billion marks, the 8 Series entered the market during a global recession and energy price hikes, ultimately becoming a casualty of austere times.

While it didn’t sell as well as BMW had hoped, the 8 Series did establish BMW as a major player in the premium space, proving that the company had what it takes to challenge the pinnacle of German excellence, Mercedes-Benz themselves. Little wonder why BMW had sought to revive the name once again.

Maybe 2019 will be different from 1989, maybe the contrived 8 Series will be the fitting alternative to the ostentatious S-coupe that the less conspicuous customers would want. I hope that my concerns over BMW’s conservatism are proven wrong because the 8 Series is meant to be the pinnacle of BMW, and if this second coming meets an inglorious end it won’t have the honour of leaving behind a legacy as significant as its predecessor. Instead, should it dissolve away in a cloud of apathy, BMW needs to have a thorough re-examination of itself before they forget their own legacy of greatness and risk-taking.

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