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Sliding doors - BMW Z1

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BMW's Z1 was a concept car that made it into production virtually unchanged. It's good, but expensive.

Lake Como on a sunny day is a beautiful place. But when the rain is whipping the surface of the lake into an angry spray, and brooding storm clouds are colluding with the mountains to create a claustrophobic pocket of darkness, it’s about as appealing as Skegness in winter.

Even Manfred Grunert, BMW Germany’s ever-cheery PR, seems to have had his enthusiasm dampened by the weather. We’re here to spend a couple of days driving BMW roadsters after the Villa d’Este Concours, and this relentless gloom is not in BMW’s immaculately planned itinerary. God is clearly not a German.

Unlike most of the assembled hacks, I’m not too fazed by the weather, however. Partly because this is just another summer’s day by British standards, but mainly because I was lucky enough to drive the assembled cars – pre-war 315, 319, 328, and post-war 507, Z1, Z3, Z4 and Z8 – three years ago at the same venue. We featured them in Octane issue 40. This time I want to revisit just one. Not the 328 and 507 supercars, but the less obvious Z1: a car that was hugely expensive at launch, has always been pretty dear as a secondhand buy, and is all but forgotten today.

We didn’t get many Z1s in Britain in their short production span, 1988-’91. BMW only made 8000 and of those just 86 came to the UK. They were left-hand drive only, which didn’t help, but it was the Z1’s staggering list price – around £40,000 in 1988 – that made it a very expensive toy indeed.

And ‘toy’ is not an inappropriate word, because the Z1’s party piece is doors that drop down into its deep sills. From the outside, you press a chromed button and they lower swiftly and silently, pulled by an electrically-powered belt drive; on the inside, you give the interior handles a good tug to do the same job. Windows drop automatically into the doors, or you can raise and lower them using conventional switches.

If you want, you can drive the car with doors lowered, Mini Moke style, although the resultant wind buffeting turns it into what Car magazine described as ‘the world’s first cross-flow convertible’. The drop-down doors aren’t as much of an advantage as you’d think in tight parking spaces, however, because getting over those high sills and into a compact cabin means your legs are almost certainly going to end up flailing wildly outside the car at some point. Not cool.

Inside the Z1, you start to see where the money went. It’s finished to a much higher standard than the mass-market Z3, with leather-covered dashtop and black-bezel led VDO instruments. There’s a very designerly three-spoke wheel, while the seats are clamshell buckets with backrests painted to match the exterior. There’s not a lot of space, however – those high sills again – and the truncated boot has less room than the overhead locker in an airliner. I know, because my carry-on bag fitted comfortably into one on the plane to Italy. It doesn’t in the boot of the Z1…

So, the Z1’s expensive and it’s not terribly practical. It’s not fast, either, despite having the 170bhp straight six from the 325i. Period sources quote a 0-62mph time of either 7.9 or 9.0 seconds, but it feels more like the latter. We’ve become accustomed to modern roadsters being heavy but the Z1 was ahead of the game in 1989, weighing 1460kg when a Mazda MX-5, say, was just 940kg. That’s despite, or more accurately because of, the Z1’s outer panels being entirely plastic. OK, very sophisticated plastic – and of different types, to match the varying impact resistance requirements of different panels – but still, basically, plastic.

Expensive, impractical, not fast, but undeniably clever. The Z1 was built on a galvanized steel frame, with the outer panels bolted on. In the early days, BMW glibly suggested that you could remove or refit all the panels in 30-40 minutes and keep a spare set in your garage for when you fancied a quick change of color. (Owners suggest the job in fact takes days rather than minutes.) A roll-over bar is integrated into the windscreen frame and the rear transverse silencer box is shaped like an aerofoil to push the back end down on the road at speed. That is very clever indeed.

And being clever was the reason for the Z1’s very existence, for it was first unveiled at the 1987 Frankfurt Show as a ‘research vehicle’ from BMW’s recently formed Technik division, under the leadership of Dr Ulrich Bez, the Z in Z1 standing for Zukunft, or ‘future’. It’s said that the Technik division was considering an off-road vehicle instead of the Z1, so be grateful that their decision to go with the roadster may have saved us from the X5 for a few years.

The Z1 stirred up a lot of interest, and thousands of people told BMW they would like to buy one. Unfortunately, most of those interested parties turned out to be speculators looking to make a fast deutschmark on what they thought would be a very hot property – remember, this was the late ’80s, when Greed was Good. When BMW put the car into limited production with a price tag that reflected its handbuilt construction, those would-be customers mysteriously melted away, and only 8000 Z1s were built from 1988 to 1991, with over half of those produced in one year, 1990.

Rarity alone can’t explain why these cars still fetch north of £15,000 on the used-car market, when a much younger Z3 can be had for one-third that figure. The reason, perhaps, is simple: it’s just a Nice Thing To Own. The styling, by Harm Lagaay, looks great 20 years on, being superbly proportioned, simple and elegant – a bit like a shrunken soft-top 850i – and much classier than the cuttlefish-nosed Z3. It’s well built and it has a fabulous engine. And it’s incredibly user-friendly, with good handling and outstanding roadholding.

That 325i straight six is mounted further back in the Z1 to give a 47/53 per cent front/rear weight distribution, the car’s center of gravity is naturally low and there are sticky 225/45ZR Pirelli P700s at each corner. But the big news is a sophisticated independent rear suspension that would later be incorporated into the third-generation 3-series. BMW called it ‘a centrally guided, spherical double-wishbone’ axle – which meant that the differential carrier acted as a hub (hence ‘centrally guided’) for a combination of transverse and longitudinal links. It’s more often called the Z-axle – the Z stands for Zentrum, or ‘center’; nothing to do with Z1 – and it helped maintain BMW’s reputation in the 1990s for building the self-proclaimed ‘ultimate driving machines’.

Sporting drivers may not find the Z1 entirely to their liking, though. That peach of a straight six sounds rather muted here, fizzing rather than rasping its way up the rev range, and the progress of the tacho needle is blunted by the Z1’s general lardiness. It’s not a slow car, in fact, but ‘brisk’ is a better epithet than ‘quick’. Back in the day, some testers complained that the gearbox was a bit baulky, too, but on this well-used Mobile Tradition car it feels slick enough. The steering has a nice heft and decent precision by mainstream standards, but again, those ’80s testers reckoned the responses were a little blunted. One suspects that real-world customers didn’t notice, or care.

And that’s the key to the Z1: don’t think of it as a tire-smokin’ hot rod. It’s much more laid back than that. This is a car for people who appreciate objects of quality. It’s unusual, not just because it is different, but because it’s a different car that is also perfectly usable, albeit usable by people who have no children and no need to stock up with 15 supermarket bags at the weekend.

The Z1 is, in fact, the perfect car for Lake Como – provided it’s not raining.


Model specs

1988-1991 BMW Z1
8000
£36,925

Performance
9.0secs
23.0secs
136mph
170bhp
164lb/ft
26mpg

Engine
in-line six
normal
petrol
electronic fuel injection

Chassis
Independent, MacPherson strut, coil spring, anti-roll bar
Independent, trailing arms, diagonal links, transverse upper links, coil springs
front-engine RWD
rack and pinion
metal monocoque
Five-Speed Manual

Dimensions
3925mm
2450mm
1690mm
1248mm
1290kgs

Overview
The Z1 was initially a concept at the 1987 Frankfurt Motor Show, but buyers were soon clamoring to buy one, leaving BMW to rush to get the innovative little roadster into production. Most notable for its doors, which drop into the sills, the Z1 bristled with advanced design features and weight-saving touches. Powered by the same engine as the 325i, it was no ball of fire considering its high price. Rapidly diminishing interest from buyers saw BMW halt production after 8000 were built. Not an official UK import but plenty have been shipped in.

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