6-Speed Basketcase: 1991 BMW 850i V12

When it comes to BMW’s E31 coupe, enthusiasts will speak warmly about their affections for the car but also their dread of maintaining one long-term, or owning a basketcase example like this one. Still, the combination of V12 power and a six-speed manual is hard to find in any flavor, and to find such a combo wrapped by a gorgeous grand tourer body is enough to tempt even the most rational among us. Find this 850i here on craigslist for $5,500. 

Thanks to Barn Finds reader Rich for the find. The seller is correct that very few E31s in this combo made it to the U.S., accounting for less than 1,000 examples in the total production run. However, they also commanded a price tag north of $100,000 when new, so consider that when salivating at the bargain basement asking price. There’s six figures worth of electronics of the early 90s variety inside, not to mention the typically scream-inducing maintenance costs associated with a BMW V12.

This is one of those cars where everyone will tell you to buy the best you can afford. I tend to laugh at this advice for most cars, as I remain committed to the belief that you can still get a very decent project car with predictable maintenance / restoration costs without losing half of your savings account in the process. However, the E31 is one of those cars that you should either be an accredited BMW mechanic to own or be very close friends with one. This engine bay photo says it all, that this E31 hasn’t run in quite some time.

The seller says he hasn’t fired it up in the two years he’s owned it, just that it ran long enough to get onto the trailer. The doors don’t open from the outside, and the seats are torn up. The front and rear windshields are broken, and it’s clear there’s plenty of wear and tear that will require new parts or an expensive appointment with a detailer if perfection is your goal. While the buy-in price is low, the restoration costs will not be – but you will own one of the most unique BMWs produced in the last 30 years. Is it worth it?

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Comments

  1. Rob

    Well, the good news is that this one makes my black/black e31 6 speed look like a simple project :) I am an experienced Euro mechanic, but these cars are truly intimidating unless they have been PROPERLY maintained. Even so, they have gremlins which pop up, especially if the car has been in moist areas (like Texas). That being said, if anyone buys this for parts, let me know, as I could used some :)

    Like 9
    • Cncbny

      Hi rob, Carl here. I have a ‘91 850 basket case, but I only want $2k. I’m on LI, and she is rust free. Let me know if it’s a go.

      Like 4
      • Rob

        Hi Carl, I could be interested. Heinrichthedog at yahoo

        Like 1
      • Albert Don

        I am looking for a E31 because I need it for the parts. Do you have something for sale?
        Hope to get a reply.
        Regards Albert

      • Aston

        Do you still have

  2. JBP

    Money pit. No thanks. How could it go so bad, for a once wery nice car.
    Il take 3 other nice drivers, for what it cost to get this back on the road. Parts car? I dont know.
    Not my projekt.

    Like 4
  3. leiniedude leiniedude Member

    Jeez la weezo. I would like to stuff that motor in my Z3!

    Like 2
  4. Craig

    Someone somewhere has the knowledge and resources to take this thing on. It isn’t me. My son is a factory trained / certified BMW tech, and he said he wouldn’t touch the thing. Parts would be a nightmare and orders of magnitude more expensive. It would take deep pockets to set this one straight. Although potentially it could be worth it.

    Like 7
  5. Superdessucke

    What an unholy freakin’ mess. Ugh! Ugh! Ugggghhh!!

    Like 4
  6. Dolphin Member

    Looks like someone drove it hard, probably without much maintenance, and then when it wouldn’t start one day took a baseball bat to the body and glass, and then left it out in the sun/heat/rain/snow on a back street in The Bronx for a couple of years.

    As much as I would like to own one, especially with the 6-speed, I wouldn’t touch this.

    Like 5
    • Superdessucke

      That’s ridiculous. It looks like they left it in on a back street in Baghdad for at least 5 years.

      Like 4
  7. Mark H

    I am truly curious exactly what is so mythically challenging about fixing a European car? It has an internal combustion engine, fuel injection, a clutch, at least one computer managing the engine as a unit. Seriously, it’s not magic if you break it down to the component level, is it? Honest answer for an honest question please.

    Like 7
    • Cris

      The electronics are a nightmare, case in point, part numbers as well as production series. Say your ecu is fried, you can’t just get one by ordering by the year make model of the car and the part number of the ecu, it also has to be the same production series, something bmw did not keep a record of. So you order the correct part from the dealer, using the year, make and model of the vehicle as well as the part number, but end up with the wrong part anyway. So after all that, you need someone in the aftermarket to erase your new ecu you got from the dealer, and reprogram it for your car. Sounds like fun don’t it? That’s just one example, I can give you dozens.

      Like 3
    • Rob

      Hi Mark, it’s just that the 850 and 750 had easily the most advanced systems in them for the age. The wiring goes everywhere. 2 batteries because of the extent of electronics. 2 ECUs (one for each side of the engine, this two complete ignition systems, two MAF sensors, can sensors, crank sensors, 2 fuel pumps, 2 fuel tanks, etc. Dual climate control, the first dual climate control (digital) EDC (electronic/hydraulic suspension) the windows and sunroof close at 100mph automatically, this computer controlled windows and sunroof, the list goes on and on. Now, keep in mind, this is all before CAN BUS, so a harness for each purpose. More relays than you can shake a stick at, more copper in this car than I cars to imagine. They are well known for electrical faults and small electrical fires. Also known for head gasket failures. My car was $111k new in ‘91, and it maintains like a 100k car (it also drives like one :) sure, like anything, it can be figured out, but without a pile of cash and a pile of knowledge, I wouldn’t dream of tackling one in rough shape. Many ended up like this car because no one could afford to fix them. To me, arguably one of the coolest cars BMW ever built, but… just wow…

      Like 9
      • Mark H.

        Thanks for the explanation. Too bad as these cars are real lookers and rowing through the gears should be very satisfying. I guess it’s another car where you should buy the best one you can afford and expect to pay for proper maintenance, or have your crazy electronic geek friend redo the entire control system to make it managable.

        Like 2
      • Dolphin Member

        Rob, I had a vague idea of the downside facts that you listed about the 750/850 BMWs, but you have fleshed in the details…thanks. Very scary.

        I guess I’ll stick with my simple-by-comparison, mostly analog E36 M3 and enjoy its simple pleasures. I never felt that I needed automatic/electronic everything, anyway.

        Like 4
    • Michael

      The bmw v12 is two 6 cyl engines mated. Everything is present twice, from airflow sensor to engine management. The throttle are electronically actuated and tend to go bad. If the engine had been ovwrheated the rear cylinder will warp. Its a nice smooth engine but requires deeep pockets

      Like 5
  8. Hugh Crawford

    This is probably worth more as a source of the rare us version of the manual transmission. You could use this to convert a us spec 850 to a manual. A manual gearbox from a non us car is incompatible.

    Like 2
  9. lynn finlayson

    I bought a 1990 IL850, with no grill, radiator, etc, off the front of the motor. got it for $200. was still complete on back. even a telephone in the back and reclining rear seats. I could get the dash to light up, so wrote down the mileage. then pulled the motor and treanny. flipped it on its side and got the front and rear suspension and exhaust. forgot to raise the seats before I cut the wires, so had to cut the floor out, to tet the front seats out. gave it to a buddy who filled it was scrap and off it went. got the motor and automatic, in the garage and suspension and rims, out in my storage lot. I kept the computers, but don’t know which one, goes to what. the main thing I need to know, is how to run the transmission. the motor, ill change over to two gm v6 hei distributors and make my own intake or find two side drafts and hope the fuel gets mixed even to all cylinders. I found a 4 speed automatic shifter at the swap meet, that has terminals for each position, so thought if I could figure out, what wires to hook to which terminal, I could manually shift it and lock up the converter… I want to put it in a 97 kia sportage 4 door. everybody passes me no matter how fast iam going. would be fun to show em, this little beep beep, kia, can run circles around em.. if anybody is a wiz at the tranny, or has a manual stick setup for sale, reasonable,,, call me at 308-760-1396.. or fnlasn@yahoo.com

    Like 2
    • James Sterrey

      Wow! Just wow.

  10. mlm

    One of BMW’s best designs (if not the best IMO).This is a shame to what was once a nice car.Thanks but no thanks I will hold on to my 635 CSI the car that this 850 replaced.

    Like 1
    • Michael

      Not sure how in your mind this is bmw best design. It was flacky and the car way too heavy. Back in the day it was marketed as a ‘Ferrari-killer ‘ it is a Ferrari killer the same way a vw beetle is a Porsche 911 killer.
      A great BMW design and maybe of of bmw’s best designs was the BMW M1

      Like 1
      • mlm

        IMO.It’s called a personal opinion and you should know that by now.You have your taste and I have mine. Real simple!

        Like 2
  11. nmexmatt

    I’ve owned four of them,. including two CSi’s. I guess I’m lucky. I’ve never had any electronic nightmares, have never had any repairs that I would call scary or unusual. These were highly technical, ground breaking German supercars. What gets them the above mentioned reputation is the 19yo who has admired them and finds one from another 19yo who bought one for $5k from another owner who couldn’t afford to maintain it so they go to waste. So that last 19yo says “dang, these are maintenance nightmares!” They aren’t friggin’ Toyotas. They must be maintained properly. The six speeds are amazing and a blast to drive. All that being said, this one is best off as a parts car unless you have unlimited funds to bring it back to life. One in really great condition sold on BAT for $30kish recently. You’d spend close to double that getting this one in that same condition.

    Like 2
  12. mainlymuscle

    Lynn,300 horsepower will scare ……..no one !
    I have 2 of these with low miles,stored away.Not exhilerating to drive at all,but very pretty to look at,thus I am predicting big bucks at some point.The vendor is correct that the manual parts are worth a few grand.This is a parts car period.You can buy a driver 850 ,but automatic,with a perfect body and interior for less than 10 grand.

    Like 1
  13. Steve H.

    Nope.

    Like 13
  14. Uncle al

    I have a 1995 840 CI coming for delivery on Sunday….mint condition with 90,000 miles, green with saddle inside (only 201 built in that color scheme)…I chose it ‘cuz the motor is from the 540 (it’s an 8 cylinder) and many of the parts are interchangable…..great looks without the drama….can’t wait !

    Like 5
  15. Wayne

    Uncle al, same body, different animal. I was a BMW service manager in a former life. I had a customer that had one ( a former Indy driver) that had his equipped with dual turbos. He never entered or left the lot unless he was completely sideways! I loved the style but the German Gremlins are venomous! I had another customer (it was about 1998 at the time) who lusted for one with the 6 speed. He found one in Illinois and drove it home with no issues. He brought it to me as he thought that it seemed slow for what it was. I drove the car and it was just plain slow! No real fun to drive at all. The car was run through every BMW test and not a thing was found wrong. So he took it to Dinan in the SF Bay Area and spent many tens of thousands of dollars on it. It was then a rocket ship. And a real blast to drive. The car actually scared him a little. ( he was close to 85 years old at that time) So he would not drive it over 100 mph. ( this is Nevada) So about once a quarter he would pay me a couple of hundred dollars ( I’d had done it for free) to the take it on a “cruise” out in the boonies to open it up with him along for the ride. I never was able to find the top end. ( 150 mph was easily reached with no drama) I once counted all of the computers/processors on a 1992 750 IL. It has been over 20 years since that time. But I seem to remember something like 12. And in regards to the left hand/bank and right hand/bank computers you have a computer that talks to both to help keep things even. And one that has to translate the dual engine info to the transmission. You need deep, deep pockets to keep one of these on the road.

    Like 5
    • Uncle al

      hello Wayne….sounds like you know these inside & out. Since it is only the 840CSI (the 8 cylinder as you know), I figured (with research) many parts can be swapped out with the 540 (brakes, computer hardware, pumps, etc)…..I am an old 66 year old fart, so crawling under her is not for me….do you really see much problems with a well cared for one with 90,000 miles ? it’s just the car is in mint condition and
      georgous….I thought I got a deal…..what would this be worth ? hope I didn’t buy something I didn’t bargain for (R & M)….thanks

      • JBP

        It can be so bad, in that condition. Dont let it destroy your eavening. It sound like a car cared for. And 90,000 miles isnt crazy. Try it when you get it, and take it from there. Is there full service book on it?
        If so, easy now.

      • Rob

        In all honesty, they are a wonderful car. The 840 is missing a huge amount of drama, and should be nearly all of the car with many fewer headaches, and more interchangeability.

  16. Peter k

    I have a bmw 525i wagon that has a complete 850 CSI swap in it. Dream to drive, no headaches, a true sleeper and only 3500 lbs. gaurenteed to make the unsuspecting wonder what just happened to them as I go rolling by. I’d part with it for the right offer. Pics available upon request

    Like 4
  17. lynn finlayson

    I have a friend here in alliance, nebr who has a red one with 6 speed manual. has some sort of leak he cant get to, so its been parked, forever.. I wasn’t very impressed with the power, but it sounded great. I had a chance to get a jag v-12, with automatic, but passed. I think, if I got a stick shift flywheel, with clutch assy, I could adapt a tranny to it. ive got a fresh 200r4 gm dual bolt pattern, automatic. would have to modify the kia floor. the zf bmw v-12 automatic, would fit without mods to the floor, but,,, the electronics?? anybody looking for a lister jag. another friend has one with v-12 stick. was the test car for car and driver.. been in storage, forever.. its also here in alliance..

  18. michael

    Ten years ago two guys from texas (sick puppy works) said that a BMW 850 costs 20 grand. you can buy one cheaper and fix it up, but in the end it will cost you 20 grand. Mind you , that was 10 years ago.
    And I owned 4 myself and would not touch this car with a 10ft pole.
    Another quote by the two gents from texas was:
    ‘The Price of cool ain’t cheap’

    Like 2
  19. Otto matic

    I just sold a 91 750il with the same motor. After never owning a BMW of this vintage and picking one up cheap. I must say these aren’t that hard to get dialed in if you check out the resources available online. Cool car

    • Michael

      Wrong, the 750il has a different engine than the 850ci.
      It looks the same, but there are big differences.

  20. Wayne

    Uncle al, the V8 cars are in a different league. More reliable, easier to work on etc. BUT, it is still a BMW. (Break My Wallet!) The very first thing that you look for on one of these engines is for a coolant leak from the back center top of the engine running down the top of the transmission. Lack of cooling system maintenance causes corrosion to buildup between the intake manifold and the cylinder heads at the rear of the engine. This is the start of many related engine problems with this vintage car.(When I arranged for my brother in law to get a new 540. I made him promise to change the coolant every year. No ifs, ands, or buts. He is still driving his car now with almost 350,000 miles and no issues. But it is way past time for timing chains. So he is now at a crossroads to have the repairs/maint. done or go for a new car.) The second is timing chains. If properly serviced they will go a long time. But if serviced at the recommended “warranty/factory” service intervals and not at what I would consider good service intervals. It is usually around 150,000 miles and things start to rattle. (Not good!)
    BMWs are are blast to drive. I have had Mercedes also. And the MB does not even come close. (BMW is a performance car first and Luxury car second. (but I’m a performance guy) Where a MB is a luxury car first and and sometimes a performance car second, third or fourth.) But lately the luxury/performance line has become rather blurred for BMW. IMHO. Now days, with the cost of the vehicle and the cost of maint. is (to me) excessive. The only way that I would obtain one would be on a lease. (that you could expense out completely) THEN, you only lease it for the time of the free maintenance and warranty. And give it back when done. The same goes for Jaguars, Range Rovers, etc.
    Ok, I will get off the box for now. Sorry for the sermon!

    Like 2
    • Uncle al

      thank you …..and have a HEALTHY, HAPPY, & PROSPEROUS NEW YEARS !

  21. stillrunners stillrunners Member

    Wow….never knew that !

  22. Chuck Foster Chuck F 55chevy

    I always loved the style of the 850, just saw one on an auction show 2018 rerun go for $15,000,never knew how complicated they were. My black hotrod with pop up headlights has a convertible top and looks better, 99 Vette.

    Like 1
  23. Stephanie S

    Unfortunately, most German cars were designed by German engineers during Oktoberfest. Meaning they were well into their cups when they come up with their brilliant engineering ideas.

    These cars are needlessly complex and when it comes to working with electronic components and computers, Germans don’t do a very good job of considering the “Service after the Sale”.

  24. lynn finlayson

    I saw a youtube video from germany where somebody put the v-12 with automatic, in a model a, rat rod. built his own intake manifold with 3 carbs and dual hei distributors and said he got an aftermarket, stand alone, programmer for the transmission. never said who made it…… I also saw a red thunderbird, that had the same motor, with an ammo box with a holley carb on top and 12 pipes going to each cylinder. said they couldn’t get the tranny to work right, but ran it anyway,,, in one of the 24 hours of lemons..

  25. leiniedude leiniedude Member

    Not sure how this compares, saw it listed today. It is a 12 cylinder though. https://chicago.craigslist.org/chc/cto/d/tinley-park-2000-bmw-750il/6783333258.html

  26. lynn finlayson

    my 1990 bmw 850IL v-12 and zf 4 speed automtic, are still sitting in my storage building along with that shifter with terminals in each position, I want to put in a 97 kia sportage, 2wd. still hoping to get a response on how to make the tranny work with the shifter I have. Iam wondering if I ran 12 volts to the individual solenoids, that are used for each gear. would that be too much voltage for them and also, would that also be too much for the shifter that has electrical terminals in each shift position.. I found a foreign tranny repair manual and it has a schematic showing the fluid that flows from which solenoid, for each individual gear. nice narrow tranny that would work great, if I can figure it out.. give me a call and give me any pointers you may have.. tnx.. 308-760-1396.. mtn time zone..

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