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BMW M850i: Spiritual enlightener

By Ash Westerman | Photos: Alastair Brook, 11 Aug 2019 Features

BMW M850i: Spiritual enlightener

Semi-urban racetracks have been pushed to extinction. Are big, petrol-powered coupes headed the same way? BMW’s M850i visits the sites of former roundel glory, and makes its case for a stay of execution

QUITE SOME time ago, I resigned myself to an irrevocable fact: that my epitaph is unlikely to read “He changed the course of humanity”. Look, as long as it doesn’t read: “He died of loneliness; now missed by his 16 cats”, I feel I can rest easy.

The way I figure it, anything must be better than the epitaph that hangs over the long-deceased racetracks that once thrived in Sydney and its perimeter. Let’s face it, words don’t get more crushingly depressing than those etched into their metaphorical headstones: “Tragically swallowed by urban sprawl”.

That’s the fate that claimed Oran Park in Sydney’s south-west in 2010. The same thing saw the closure of Amaroo Park in the north-west in 1998. The list goes on.

A respectful visit of reminiscence seemed appropriate, especially as we had early Aussie access to this, BMW’s first resurrection of the 8 Series moniker since the E31 launched in 1989. But there’s more to this car than just being an enticing GT. To properly understand the new 8 Series, first we have to acknowledge the departure of the G32-gen 6 Series, because there’s a little bit of model-positioning sleight of hand going on here. This new M850i is actually 43mm shorter than the outgoing 6 Series, and rolls on a wheelbase 33mm shorter than that car. It’s feature- and tech-heavy, naturally; all-wheel drive, rear-wheel steering, active anti-roll, and carbonfibre used in the construction. Clearly the marketers saw this as an opportunity to bury the 6, and pitch the new model further upmarket as an 8, and, in the process, allow it to stare eyeball to eyeball with the $315K Mercedes S560 Coupe.

So yes, it’s called the 8 Series – a convertible is also available, while a four-door Gran Coupe and M8 flagship will follow. But it’s really a spiritual successor to the 6, and that, we reckon, means it has lineage to the most successful racing BMW ever campaigned in Australia – the visually beguiling, dynamically brilliant E24 635 CSi.

A BIT OF Googling quickly shows there’s little point in a visit to Amaroo. The AMSCAR Series held there in 1981 modified the rules to become an under-3.5-litre series to accommodate the JPS BMW 635 CSi of Allan Grice, but these days, apart from a few motorsport-themed street names, there’s little left that recognises the 31 years of racing the place hosted.

Instead, we decide to see what’s become of Oran Park, and we also wanted to visit a race circuit with no real connection to BMW; an abandoned one with a dark past – Catalina Park in the NSW Blue Mountains.

As we burble through Sydney’s suburbs, it’s a chance to reflect on what a big GT like this needs to deliver. For me, it has to tread a fine line in the quest to achieve real duality of character. It needs to cosset with long-legged refinement, then be able to demonstrate a bit of mongrel when you get up it. And maybe even more importantly for buyers in this segment, it has to make a style statement.

On that latter score, it seems to succeed. Heads turn and camera phones point our way; the mix of low, wide stance and the sheer aggression of the front end clearly drawing attention. I’m unconvinced about the rear – all those folds and creases make me feel it was the work of someone over-caffeinated in an origami class, while the four meek exhaust pipes visible through the two big outlets are a bit bogus.

Inside, it’s more persuasive (see sidebar, right), but the back seats are emergency accommodation for lower-limb amputees only. This is a big indulgence car, really built for two people and luggage. On the upside, the twin-turbo 4.4-litre V8 has a carefully considered burble that barely hints at the 390kW and 750Nm it’s ever ready to unleash, and the auto’s calibration is incredibly intuitive. The steering is quick at 2.2 turns lock-to-lock, so the nose feels ultra alert. It’s just a shame there’s no true sense of connection down at the tread blocks. Only coarse-chip road noise blots the otherwise impeccable GT refinement.

BACK IN 1989, I landed my dream job on Wheels’ sister magazine, MOTOR. Oran Park was our ‘home’ track, so performance testing saw me there every second week or so. It was the first track I ever experienced. The first decent car I drove there was a white Nissan Skyline RB30, while the last lap I did of the place was on my bicycle. That was late 2009. As we packed away the performance-testing gear and cameras, I wanted to have one last, more intimate goodbye to the place. Busting my lungs for a couple of laps, skinny bike tyres flicking over the marbles left behind by the race cars, seemed an appropriate way to do it. I was genuinely saddened as I drove out of the main gate for the last time, my gut heavy with the sense of an era coming to an end.

Now, almost a decade later, I know the place will be unrecognisable, but that doesn’t stop an involuntary “holy sh_t” falling from my lips as we crest the final rise and get a full vista of what is now Oran Park Town. As the BMW glides quietly over the fresh hot mix, the view through the windscreen is nothing but an undulating ocean of dark-grey roof tiles.

The site now has over 3300 homes (and growing), a shopping centre, and council headquarters. Initially, I find the lack of anything to help me anchor the place back to the old circuit both frustrating and a bit surreal. It’s like being in a dream where your bedroom door opens into a closet; or finding your mum cooking in a kitchen where your garage should be.

At one point the topography feels familiar, and I think I may have my bearings, but then I just end up more confused and mildly irked than I am on a normal day. At least the street signs are a nod to the tin-top heroes who thrilled fans here – we cruise along Peter Brock Drive, and go exploring down Skaife Street, but they still don’t help me orientate myself. Some of the less obvious street names raise a smile of recognition. Finally, right near Francevic Street (“Ah, Robbie … won the ATTC in ’86 in the Volvo, I remember that!”) and opposite where yet another house is being built, we find the most significant memorial of this place’s motorsport heritage. Grandstand Park is a kids’ play area dominated by an elevated concrete podium shaded by large awnings and flanked by bench seating. Recessed into the concrete is scale map of the track, complete with names of the corners, while a plaque acknowledges that this is where the grandstand stood on the main straight.

I doubt it would be enough to bring tears to the eyes of a bloke like Jim Richards, never mind Brock, Johnson, or even Skaife, who collectively dominated this place over four or so decades, but at least it’s a small reminder of what Oran Park once meant to Australian motorsport. There’s a bollard at the entrance designed to keep cars off, but I have to smile when I look at the inner bit of the track map and see the clear rubber imprint of a performance tyre, presumably by someone just like us chasing a photo. We roll out to the hammering sounds of construction carried on a warm breeze, as the second storey of yet another house in Oran Park Town goes up.

LEADEN, low clouds are exhaling a fine mist when we eventually find Catalina Park in the Blue Mountains, now flanked by an aquatic centre in bushy suburbia. The weather casts a moody, sombre atmosphere over the place, which is in some ways fitting, given both the circuit’s slow demise and its violent, hostile beginnings. This was once Aboriginal land, and there’s signage that now acknowledges the traditional owners who were forcibly removed from their homes back in 1960 when ‘The Gully’, as it’s known, was approved for development into a racetrack. According to reports at the time, it was a horrendous event; the steadfast Aboriginal men in handcuffs, their families dragged out crying and screaming as the earth-moving teams watched on and waited for the all-clear.

There’s no vehicular access onto the 2.1km circuit these days, so we start a lap on foot. The first surprise for me is the width of the track – at 11m, it’s wider than Mount Panorama. As we begin to walk in the direction of travel from the start/finish line, I’m struck by how verdant and tranquil the place is. There’s a modest pond populated by quietly quacking ducks, and picnic tables sit invitingly in the grassy section off to the right. Close your eyes, concentrate, and for a moment at least, if the distant trucks up on the highway stay off their airbrakes, there’s not a single sound of human habitation.

Just as striking is the decline of the track itself. It’s not so much being left to decay; instead Mother Nature seems intent on reclaiming it into bushland. As we walk up the first incline towards the fast right-hander of turn one, trees with trunks now as thick as my calf have punched their way through cracks in the bitumen, and their foliage hangs heavy over where there was once an apex. In some places, this once five-car-wide track is reduced to a gap in the dense foliage barely broad enough for me to pass through with my arms open.

It’s fascinating, but also a real trigger for the problem-solver in me. I can’t stop thinking about how satisfying it would be to watch some heavy brush-cutting machinery prune it back; to watch a Bobcat clear the piles of eroded soil and clay; to help a team of tradesman restore some of the timber barriers. Then I remember I’m too indolent for that level of productivity, so I go back to being mildly irked, left to walk as I juggle a mix of fantasy and frustration.

Eventually we cross paths with a small group of dog walkers. We chat briefly as their panting mutts shake the light rain from their coats. What would they like to see done with the place? Peter, a mid-30s small-business owner who lives nearby, is equally frustrated at the inaction: “It’s clear they [council] don’t know what to do with it,” he says. “I think the Aboriginal sensitivities attached to the place are just forcing it into the too-hard basket. It’s a real shame.”

We part ways agreeing that it will surely be less than a decade before it reverts to bushland if nothing is done. To blow away that depressing thought, we take one more proper strafe in the big coupe through the tight, zero-forgiveness roads of the Megalong Valley.

You can never escape the reality that this is a big car, but set to Sport Plus, it’s happy for you to give it a decent pasting. Of course it’s properly quick, but more than that, it’s agile. The rear-wheel steering is one of the best set-ups I’ve experienced. Right when the front end is fully loaded and your in-built coccyx angle sensor predicts the rear is going to struggle to follow the arc, there’s a perceptible pivot behind your hips as it rails around. The all-wheel-drive traction allows you to chase the throttle early, yet the overall dynamic flavour feels thoroughly rear-drive. It’s impressive, for sure, but ultimately there’s a whiff of aloofness that you just can’t quite shake.

But buyers won’t care – and if they do, BMW will happily point them to the M8, due next year. And that, after all this talk of slow demises and extinction, makes me happy. I’m glad big GT coupes have not yet raised their own epitaph. In this era of rationalisation and electrification, cars like the M850i are almost a defiance. 

I look at this car and all I see is an unspoken message that riffs off that Mark Twain misquote: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated…”