BMW E31 8-series

Under Communism, money was scarce. Not necessarily because Communism is a poor model of economy, but set right down in Marx and Engel's manifesto is the idea of a brutally heavy tax to equalise all workers; anyone who earns anything above the status quo gets taxed back into submission. The concept was that the wealth of an economy was judged not on raw cash, but on goods, a "production unit", as it were, whose effective translation means it's not how much you have, but what stuff you've got. In the West, we had another name for that way of thinking. It was called the Nineteen-Eighties.

Still, it's generally acknowledged that the Communist approach to stuff-acquisition was flawed, and this heavily-taxed population could do little more than barter with each other for the meagre goods that were in circulation. If you had money, you bought every non-rationed item in the local shop as soon as it was delivered, and spent the next week trading your new stash of toilet paper with the man who bought all the soap the previous week, or exchanged a few rolls with the man who had all the light bulbs from a month back.

The excess money that Poland's pitiful private sector earned was sucked into the vacuum called ZUS; Poland's department for all matters of Social Insurance. Established to redistribute wealth to the needy, it quickly grew into a bloated and corrupt organisation with a habit for transferring money straight into the pockets of its employees; a tradition us in Warsaw saw maintained last year, as the president of ZUS was arrested on six charges of corruption.

Of course, back in the days of Communism when nobody had anything, any luxury at all was conspicuous. Any display of wealth was treated not just with a jealous sneer, but with an outright contempt; no-one could amass anything of substantial worth without having some sort of inside connections to the establishment, and therefore shiny Western cars went hand in hand with state-level corruption. It's little wonder, then, that such a flagrant show of largesse should be parked outside my local ZUS office.

The BMW E31 (yes, the next model after the E30), was nothing less than a supercar. Penned as a replacement for the ageing 6-series coupe, the E24 (two-door sister of the E23), it was a wholly new development aimed at an entirely new market called the 8-series, supplanting the 7-series as the most luxurious BMW available.

It might only be one number higher, but the 8-series was leagues ahead of anything else the German manufacturer had made before or, some argue, since. With nothing smaller than a V8 in the nose, and the majority weilding V12 5-litre engines, this super-cruiser tipped the scales at nearly two tonnes of sculpted angles, computer-designed to squeeze the prodigious bulk through the air stream. It was a veritable orgy of technology, involving hydraulic rear steering mechanisms (yes, four wheel steering on the top models), full fly-by-wire control and an integrated network to operate the most basic of accessories. Even the electric rear windows had two motors each, which automatically raised the glass once the car passed 100mph. With this level of equipment, the E31 wasn't just sporting, it was a level of sumptuousness unrivalled in its field. The nearest competitor, the Mercedes SL, didn't even come close.

The target market of this unparalleled piece of machinery was the top-notch banking class; the extreme end of the pay scale who could afford to drive such a ridiculously over-powered piece of machinery. BMW alone spent over 1.5bn Marks ($1bn in today's money) bringing the E31 into existence, and expected buyers to pay accordingly. In a country like Poland, where the free market was stifled by Marxian taxes, the only people with that kind of money were those with government ties.

Yet, if the Entwicklung (evolution) number of the 1989 E31 comes right after the 1982 E30, what happened in the intervening years? Why did clients have to wait most of the decade to take collection of this ultimate machine?

To answer this, we have to step back even further in time to an unpronounceably-named man called Paul Bracq who became head of BMW's design department in 1970 and two years later unveiled one of the most jaw-dropping shapes in motoring history; the BMW Turbo. This concept, of which only two were ever made, is considered so influential that it was still winning design awards twenty-two years later. It really is a ravishing piece of work, and if you haven't used your search engine of choice to find a picture of it, do so now. Designated E25, the BMW Turbo bloodline is directly visible in the E31 as well as in another incredible concept, the M8; a motorsport-tuned version of the 8-series capable of delivering a pant-wetting 550hp. Its existence was denied by its constructors for nearly twenty years until, in 2008, BMW confessed that they had indeed built every teenager's wet dream, they'd just been keeping it to themselves because they didn't think they'd ever be able to sell it.

This seems a rather peculiar way of thinking, as even the intense level of computer-aided design that went into the M8, and the E31, hasn't been able to mask Paul Bracq's exquisite flair for design. And yet sales of the E31 through the Nineties were never as high as BMW had hoped. Although 5000 orders were placed as soon as the car was displayed at a 1989 motor show, little more than 32,000 were ever sold during the entire production run, and although most 8-series were sold with the more powerful V12 engine rather than the V8, BMW knew that they'd hit some sort of limit on the level of automotive outrageousness people would pay for, and that to add a ludicrously powerful Sport Edition (M8) on top would be madness.

Sitting on mis-matched alloys with the doorhandles pulled off and the headlights ripped out, this supercar is in a very sorry state, and it's little wonder why. Even basic maintenance items like suspension and brakes can empty your savings account, and should the car need any of its electrical niggles sorting out, any owner has to be prepared to dig deep. Even driving one around can drain your wallet faster than any government bureau, believe it or not, and that's without the expense of repairing the Nikasil issues that plagued earlier cars; low-quality fuel in the States and the UK burned their way through engine linings, costing BMW thousands in insurance claims and recalls.

The 8-series found itself at the top of a very lonely market; far too heavy and large to be treated as a sports car, but far too expensive to maintain as a daytime cruiser. While its sublime smoothness and handling made it great for those motorway miles, as soon as it entered town roads the fuel gauge would plummet; consumption figures over 25litres per 100km (that's 11 mpg, or 9.5 for the Yanks), and all that delicious surging power went to waste in a cloud of burnt exhaust gas. And in Poland, where motorways still aren't really in existence, there's little point in owning a car that capable of devouring them. Add to that the level that this particular unit has degraded to, and you'd find yourself needing a government-sized welfare package to maintain, let alone restore it. Which might not be a problem for the owner; maybe he knows someone on the inside...