Sometimes, you just pick a car that looks great straight off the showroom floor. However, in the end, you still want your personal touches and that was the goal of the Clarion Builds BMW 850Ci.
When it comes to cars that are used to promote a brand, ‘over the top’ is a phrase that usually comes to mind. However, over at Clarion, an audio company well known in the automotive industry, their builds aren’t crazy wide bodies that have flashy paint, huge wheels, and essentially take everything away from the factory look of the car. They take cars that they feel are works of art from the assembly line and add touches in such a way that the cars look and feel like they were originally in this form. That was especially the case with their latest build: a 1993 BMW 850Ci.
This is a car that hasn’t been as appreciated as it should have from its heyday. The E31 chassis was introduced in 1989 with as the 850i – later rebadged as the 850Ci – and in around mid-1993 to 1994 a V8 version was launched as the 840Ci. It was one of the first traditional grand touring class cars (front engine and rear-drive with an actual trunk or boot) to come with a V12 and a 6-speed manual transmission from the factory, even predating the Ferrari 550 Maranello. The model also introduced the first ever CAN (Controller Area Network) bus total vehicle management system and drive-by-wire throttle, and was the first BMW to utilize a multi-link rear suspension over the trailing arm design used in previous cars. To say that the 850 was a special car would be underselling it.
However, if you look at most that are still around and not crushed or destroyed, you wouldn’t know that. Up until very recently, these cars were the red-headed stepchild of the BMW world. There is some reasoning behind that, though, as when these cars fail in the engine management side, it’s not an easy fix. Instead of a single ECU to control the engine, the 850Ci uses two Motronic 1.7 ECUs (one for each bank) along with two fuel pumps, two distributors, two mass air flow sensors, two crankshaft position sensors, two throttle bodies, and two batteries. So, you can think of the M70B50 engine as two M20B25 inline sixes mated together at the crank with a 60-degree angle. It’s not quite that in actuality, but that’s easiest way to describe why there were two ECUs on the M70B50 at the time it was introduced.
Even this car was nowhere close to pristine when Clarion found it, but the good news was that it did run and was in a good enough condition that it would work for this build. It had only 36,000 miles on the odometer and was well driven by the first owner, but was most likely sold to the second owner as a second car. The evidence of this was the condition of the interior which had all the hallmarks of being parked up for long periods of time. The paint was also worn and fading, there was some minor body damage, the suspension was soft and the dampers worn out, the plastic trim was deteriorating, and oil was seeping out of the engine.
However, it was the best example Clarion could find searching eBay, Craigslist, and a few other sources. The good news, depending on your viewpoint here, is that 850 owners are now starting to realize that the cars they have in their hands is something worth cherishing. More of them are starting to restore and maintain them better than they might have done in the past. This will, no doubt, make 850i/Ci values rise, but the more of these cars that are restored to working order, the better. It’s a car that’s worth the effort considering what it was when it was built.Restored & Reborn
Given that a full restoration of their car would be undertaken at Coast Motor Werk, Clarion took advantage of the fact that it needed a full paint job. The exterior color comes from the original iteration of the BMW Individual Program, where BMW customers could order custom paint and details provided they were willing to pay. This color is known as Carbon Black, a gloss black with a hint of blue hue. It was even applied with the same two-stage technique that the BMW factory would have done it while working with New Century BMW’s Collision Center.
Many of the OE touches and restoration parts came from NOS (new old stock) that New Century had to search out and find through BMW. This includes the CSi front and rear bumpers, the European version of the 850CSi steering wheel with a smaller and still functioning air bag, 850CSi M shift knob, and the BMW M Parallel 37 series wheels. The car looks like it could have rolled off that original Individual Program assembly line thanks to the use of so many genuine BMW parts.Cinnamon & Spice
The interior leather, though, is a Ferrari color called Spice that was installed by Peter Engle of Westminster Upholstery. They take brown leather and tint it with a hint of orange for a cinnamon-like color, and it just screams European GT car from the ’80s and ’90s. The A-pillars, visors, and headliner were recovered in black Alcantara while the door panels were covered in black and Spice leather to fit the OE BMW design with a custom French stitching. It creates a clean line that hides the stitch by sewing the back side of the fabrics, folding them over and pressing the seam, then doing a second stitch on the back side of the fabric.
The seats are all original 850Ci versions, which at first weren’t in working order because the wiring had deteriorated and needed replacement. OE-style looms were created and installed in both seats prior to their Spice leather recovering. The HVAC vents were in semi-working order, but also required a full replacement. It wasn’t that the motors weren’t working, but the frames around them were cracked and required NOS items. The only non-BMW replacement came in the form of the cast iron door handle pivots. These will typically break and no longer allow the driver or passenger to open the doors from the inside, so brass version were sourced from an 850 forum member.
The audio, of course, is an example of Clarion’s latest and greatest, the NX807 7-inch digital head unit with Apple CarPlay. Instead of sending out analog signals from the head unit all the way to the speakers, it sends an all-digital signal in which the Z25W 10-inch full digital subwoofer, Z7 full digital speaker, and Z3 full digital tweeters turn into analog signals at their speaker cones.
Another fun feature of the interior and sound system is the subwoofer enclosure. The center of the rear seats featured a pass through so that longer items could still be sat inside the trunk (where a pair of Odyssey batteries also reside), but since Clarion doesn’t plan on using skis or carrying lumber anytime soon, they replaced this with a custom Beach Autosound designed piece that features a speaker grate to allow the sound to travel into the cabin. This and the custom enclosures for the head unit, the adjustable crossover in the cigarette ash tray, and the trip computer enclosure in the glovebox can all be replaced by BMW OE pieces that Clarion still have in case the car ever needs to be returned to full stock.It’s A Driving Machine
The well worn suspension was upgraded with Eibach Pro-Kit lowering springs installed with Bilstein B8 Performance Plus dampers, while StopTech Axle Pack cross-drilled rotors bring new life to the brakes. These sit behind the 37 series wheels, which measure out to 18×8.5-inch +13 front and 18×9.5-inch +25 rear with 245/35R18 and 285/35R18 Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires. This combination equates to a smooth but high performance OE ride that will let you have fun and still enjoy the daily drive.
If there was one challenge of the build, it was the fact that this particular 850Ci began life as one of the many automatic cars built for the US. The manual was an option for the USA market car but only 800 of them were ordered and built from the worldwide total of 2,700 units. This meant that the engine management was re-flashed for the 6-speed via re-flashing the chip on both ECUs with an original BMW scan tool. A modern BMW scanner wasn’t going to work and the computer that was going to be used to do the re-flash had to still have Windows 95 installed along with the original BMW re-flash program. Coach Motor Werk was able to source it and get the ECUs to work with the new transmission.
Other changes were also needed for the 6-speed Getrag 560G conversion on top of re-flash. The differential gearing was swapped from the auto’s 2.81:1 open differential to a 3.15:1 with a LSD for better drivability, and the driveshaft was changed to a factory BMW 850 manual version.
The engine remains untouched save for a set of new Bosch spark plugs, K&N filters, and a custom exhaust made by Coach Motor Werk. The latter allows the sedate 850Ci’s V12 to be heard, but not at the expense of being overpowering or obnoxious. The intake is factory, besides the fact that it’s been powder-coated and the BMW logo polished. It was all about being ‘OEM+’, not being ‘OMG+’ as most show builds are.
And that’s the beauty of a Clarion Builds project, besides Clarion being able to predict the next big thing from OEs. Or at least seeming like it. Their NSX was built and debuted just before the announcement of the new NSX, and their 2002 project was also debuted prior to the 2 Series release from BMW. The 850Ci, well, it continues that trend since BMW just recently announced a new 8 Series coupe as a homage to the original E31 chassis.
The question is, what car should Clarion take on next?
Photos by Larry Chen