THE CAR is an endangered species, but some examples are closer to extinction than others. Take the case of motoring's dinosaur, the luxury saloon. No car, critics say, needs to be that large, luxurious, or expensive. That is true, but space and comfort are there to be enjoyed. And if you let the first, fat-cat owners bear the brunt of depreciation, luxury saloons do not have to be expensive.

The dinosaur that least deserves to die is the BMW 7-series. Better built and technologically streets ahead of the Jaguar XJ6, it shares the solid virtues of a Mercedes, but maintains the sporting tradition that makes BMWs a pleasure to drive.

The 7-series, introduced in 1977, was the company's most accomplished move up-market. The line- up then was the 728, 730 and fuel- injected 733i, BMW helpfully combining the model and engine size (7-series, 3.3-litre fuel-injected engine) for easy identification.

The range was overhauled in 1979 so that the 728 became the 728i, the 730 was replaced by the 732i and 733i by the 735i. The 7- series then became more advanced, employing electronic engine management systems, anti-lock brakes and the service interval indicator (which tells you when the car needs a mechanic).

BMW also answered criticisms that its luxury cars were sparsely furnished by producing special equipment versions, so that on the 735i SE, metallic paint, air-conditioning, a trip computer and cruise control became standard.

Ten years after the first 7-series, the new generation arrived in 1987. Restyled both inside and out, it was typically BMW - sporty, aggressive and well-built; so eager were buyers to get their hands on the new 730i or 735i (the latter available in standard or SE trim) that they were prepared to pay a premium.

Later in the year an even more expensive variant was introduced, the 750i L. Five inches longer, and with a huge V12 engine, it put BMW at the top of the executive super league. Adding those extra inches usefully increased rear leg- room, so a 735i L was added in 1988. Just to complicate matters, a standard length 750i was introduced in 1989. There has also been a constant stream of innovative extras such as a parking distance control (stops you reversing into inanimate objects), anti-slip control (stops wheel-spin) and air bag (stops you hitting the dashboard).

Wearing my best pin-stripes, I went in search of the perfect 7-series. I had already discounted the early cars: although they survive quite well and can cost just a few hundred pounds, they are expensive liabilities when they go on the blink. Certainly, nothing before 1982 is worth a look, and with the old-shape cars it is best to find the latest possible example.

This is what I did at the Rover Used Car Centre, established in 1955, in Neasden. Jutting bravely out into London's North Circular Road was a 1986 732i SE. The styling now looks dated, but the car exudes quality and solidity; and this example was particularly good. I was shown around the 732 by a Mr Fischer who, judging from his courtesy and charm, was also established in 1955 - they don't make car dealers like him any more.

Being one of the last 732is and having the SE specification meant that the automatic gearbox was of the switchable type: there are normal, sport and economy settings, which is not as gimmicky as it sounds. The car had a full service history and a guaranteed 54,000 mileage. Inside, it was as new and, apart from chips around the boot- lid, the light-blue metallic finish was flawless. At pounds 6,750, some might feel it was pricey, but this 732i was rather like Mr Fischer - one of precious few genuine examples.

Although the new-shape 7-series is a higher status symbol than the old, you can still find reasonably priced examples. The usual dealer price for early examples is pounds 8,000 plus or minus several hundred, but at Fairfax Cars in Isleworth I was peering into a 1989 730i SE with a windscreen price of pounds 6,950. This was a slightly out-of- the-ordinary Fairfax car but there was certainly no catch involved. This 730i had the SE specification, which meant polished walnut door cappings, alloy wheels and cruise control, among many other refinements. The 88,000 mileage had apparently put some buyers off, but the car's excellent appearance bore testament to the marque's superb build quality.

Because it was formerly a contract-hire vehicle, a computer print-out showed its every mechanical cough. Most reassuring was a pounds 500 major service at the beginning of the year, which included a pounds 300 replacement radiator. At Hassop, a Toyota dealer in Willesden, the 'Car of the Week' illustrated several 7-series truths. The first was that BMW is facing more competition these days: the 735i on Hassop's forecourt had been part-exchanged against a top-of-the-range Lexus, the big car now setting the standards in its class. The second is that it is important to buy the correctly specified 7-series.

This car had a lot going for it, especially the 26,000 mileage (although it had not seen a dealer since the end of 1990), but it lacked the vital letters 'SE'. Without leather or air-conditioning the 735i won't meet a buyer's luxury criteria, even at a reasonable pounds 13,795.

The biggest 7-series is the 750i, and few other cars offer so much metal for the money. At Evans Halshow, just outside Tring, Hertfordshire, I called in to see corporate sales executive Michael Scott and a 1988 750iL. An impressive beast of a car, it dominated the surroundings - the extra-wide grille 'kidneys' looked like two prehensile teeth ready to gobble up the tarmac.

On the road, it came alive. There were huge reserves of V12 power, delivered silently and impressively. A flick of a switch changed the suspension to a firmer sports setting. Inside there was leather, walnut and every electronic toy possible.

Moving into the rear, Mr Scott electrically adjusted all the seats to demonstrate how much room the one press baron owner, Lord Rothermere, had enjoyed for the previous 52,000 miles. Apart from the digital dashboard reading, there were no clues to the mileage, save a few scars where the telephone used to be. Back in 1988 it would not have been possible to get this leviathan on the road for less than pounds 54,000. Today you could give it a good home for just pounds 17,950.

(Photograph omitted)

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