Eine Zukunft

BMW hasn’t a brilliant track record with open two-seaters. As the Bavarian carmaker prepares its latest sports car salvo, we examine one of their better efforts.

Image credit: (c) bmwblog

Given its current status as a generalist manufacturer with an increasingly thin residual veneer of aspirant prestige, it is with some incredulity one recalls how thirty years ago the BMW range consisted almost entirely of three volume saloons of an athletic mien.

Not that the Bayerische Motoren Werke lacked interest in more, shall we say, emotive vehicles, but an innate conservatism, coupled to a weak financial position meant that apart from the 507 model (a low-volume halo car created entirely for the United States market in 1959), and 1978’s M1 supercar, BMW cleaved to what it knew best.

By the mid 1980s, with the carmaker’s fortunes and upmarket reputation burnished like never before, a growing sense emerged within the Petuelring that BMW’s ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ credentials were not being sufficiently well served merely by selling emboldened 3-Series’.

The official line, as forwarded by research and development chief, Wolfgang Reitzle, was to push upmarket into Mercedes-Benz territory, where profit and image were considerably more abundant. Reizle advanced his preferred ‘sporting’ model, the technically dense and witheringly expensive range-topping, V12 engined E31 8-Series coupé. However, factions within Munich’s Forschungs und Innovationszentrum had other ideas as to the nature and form of an overtly sporting BMW motor car.

During this period, the Bavarian carmaker created an engineering skunkworks dedicated to new concepts and technologies, headed by Dr. Ulrich Bez. The Z1 was BMW Technik’s first official programme, aimed at raising the company’s profile as a technological trailblazer, in addition to giving their Zuffenhausen rivals a bit of two-seater competition.

Image credit: (c) eurocarnews

Underpinning the car was a very strong and torsionally stiff galvanised steel chassis, to which the car’s Xenoy thermoplastic bodywork was bolted. Power was provided by BMW’s sweet revving 2.5 litre in-line six mounted well back in the chassis to allow for near-ideal weight distribution. While the Z1’s front suspension was borrowed in principle from the E30 3-Series, a purpose-built ‘centrally guided, spherical double-wishbone axle’ (dubbed Z-Axle), which was connected to the driveline via a torque tube, promised chassis dynamics a 3-Series could only dream of and would subsequently be employed within it.

Image credit: betterparts

Credited to on-again-off-again Porsche designer, Harm Lagaay, the Z1’s body shape was dictated more by aerodynamic principles than aesthetics, with a pronounced wedge shape, distinctive wheelarch blisters and a sharply truncated rear. The car’s low drag was further aided by the provision of a flat undertray and a rear diffuser.

The car’s deep sills meant the door apertures were a good deal shallower than ideal, culminating in a novel solution where electric motors dropped the doors vertically into a slot within the sill, a configuration which allowed for the car to be driven with the doors retracted. One could perhaps view it as a gullwing in reverse.

The Z1 therefore was very much an engineer’s car upon which a sprinkling of marketing fairy dust was dusted. First shown in the Autumn of 1987, it wasn’t until the following year that production began in earnest. And while it was well received; the press relishing its handling, poise and balance, some found it lacking in power, the 170 bhp six fighting an uneven battle against a hefty curbweight of 2756 lbs. Build quality was also faulted, as was practicality (difficulty in entry and egress), a miniscule boot, but above all, its price.

Overall though, the press appeared to settle upon the notion that the Z1 was a somewhat quixotic proposition and given its deficiencies – (particularly its weight), its (to some eyes) less than comely appearance and the cost of entry, it’s as difficult now as it was then to see how BMW justified the business case, which must have been tenuous to say the least.

Following the Z1, BMW cooled on the 2-seat roadster concept, only reprising it, first with the 1996 Z3, which was a far more cynical, marketing-led product and again in 2000 with the pretty Z8 roadster, which again was more design object than anyone’s idea of an ultimate driving machine.

Image credit: carsbase

Following two subsequent generations of Z4, both of which offered varying degrees of a similar formula, BMW are on the cusp of launching an all-new, more aggressively driver-focussed version co-developed with Toyota. But with Porsche to all intents having cornered the ‘enthusiast’ roadster market, and doubts over whether Mercedes will replace their more boulevard-centric SLC rival, the market for two-seaters of this ilk is shrinking fast.

Despite the Z1 being arguably their most convincing attempt at a topless two-seater (for a good fifty years at least), BMW’s track record in this area suggests a distinct and worrisome lack of clarity. A deficiency which underlines the paucity of the Vierzylinder’s vision for the future.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

15 thoughts on “Eine Zukunft”

  1. I wouldn’t be so harsh on the Z1.
    After all it was, as you correctly stated, a skunkworks operation courtesy of FIZ and built by what we now know as M Technik.
    It was foremost a technical showcase and not so much a serious (series?) proposition where different standards for quality and usability apply.
    Its quality was below par because it was intended only for a small production run where it seemed tolerable to have body panels of which only one in six produced was within tolerances and could be used on an actual car. The Z1 also altered its size by several centimetres depending on outside temperature, someting hardly tolerable on a normal series production vehicle.
    The sliding doors initially were quite troublesome because on cars of the first production run they got scratched when moving, the solution was to fit brushes to the sill opening’s inside to prevent direct contact of the panels. Window winding mechanism trouble was never properly sorted out where partially opened windows were intended to return to exactly the position they had before the door was moved down and back up again, something that in many cases didn’t work.
    The famous rear diffuser actually was the transversely mounted exhaust silencer with the cross section of an inverted aircraft wing. Many a Z1 owner ruined the car’s aerodynamics by fitting a cheap aftermarket sports exhaust which didn’t offer the aerodynamics of the expensive original.
    The perceived lack of power was something stressed predominantly by the madmen of the German press for whom a car only has enough power when it is downright dangerous to drive. If someone can’t have fun in an open two seater that does the sprint from nought to sixty in less than eight seconds and can do nearly 140 mph it’s probably more of a problem with the driver than with the car.

  2. Aren´t the headlamps wonderfully integrated into the surrounding panels? That is a textbook case of the headlamp aperture with all the joints and radii neatly ordered. Every car company of this size should have a car like this from time to time. Even if if loses money the engineering experience and marketing value is great.

    1. That particular matter is apparently all about context, as Bez and Lagaay’s 996 soon proved.

    2. I do not mean to disagree, I am merely shocked by your singling out this feature of the lighting unit being in harmony with cutlines because it appeared as a symbol of public disparagement for 996. Porsche removed this very feature with haste, otherwise keeping the fried-egg-like form until 997, and BMW would not reprise it.

    3. I am seeing the indicator attached to the bottom of the headlight, and the dividing line between indicator and headlight lining up exactly with the bumper cutline.

  3. If anything, it looks better today than when it was launched, and has a timelessness about it (not unlike the Porsche 928).

    Reading the list of names of those involved with BMW (and specifically relating to the Z1 project) at the time, it’s like a who’s who of industry talents. It’s surprising all those egos could get along together …

  4. I always had a soft spot for the Z1, never for the Zs > 1. I think it still looks terrific today. I also have a soft spot for the music of Joy Division and New Order. For trivia fans: Bernard Sumner from said groups owned (owns?) a Z1.

  5. I once drove what i believe was the only one to have made it to these shores (Chile) many years ago, and distinctly remember it as a very nice drive, well balanced, not harsh, with an excellent steering and gearbox. And the doors were a spectacle!

  6. I love how they incorporated the front treatment by Paul Bracq first seen on the BMW Turbo concept and later on the BMW M1 on this car and the 850. It’s amazing a small detail like that in a larger part of the design language could get a life on its own, it’s like their own little inside joke, like incorporating the Vilhelm Scream in a movie as a sound effect.

    1. Yes, it’s a nice reference and not retro. Didn’t we take the Z for granted? And the Renault Spyder too. The same mistake should not be made with the Alpine, back from the grave.

  7. As often happens with a DTW article on a car I know nothing whatsoever about, I got searching. The Z1 wasn’t sold in my neck of the woods and at £37K in 1988, wouldn’t have had a chance anyway. Taking off the VAT and it would have been $50K at least. Porsche prices. A Corvette was $35K and would dust this little beast off without even trying hard, and tie it in the shake, quiver and rattles department. If you’ve never had a go in in a Corvette, your automotive education is lacking. You want to hate its apparent crudity and the fact it’s so American, but it delivers thrills and boy it does corner hard. By later years of Z1 sale, a 1991 Corvette would be even farther ahead as GM learned more about electronic fuel injection, finally.

    No, the significance of the Z1 was that rear axle, the Z-axle, which finally allowed BMW to match Mercedes multilink in the bad-weather handling department, years too late. No more nasty swing arms at the rear that made BMWs a joke in winter around here, and often a dangerous one at that. Saw too many of them in ditches or crunched in medians with passengers shivering in blankets given them by Emergency Services. Unpredictability was their forte. And I felt glad that I had chosen my square Audi 80 quattro, unperturbable little sure-footed beast that it was no matter the surface.

    For unknown reasons, BMW reverted to swing arms for the Z3, when the 3 series sedans had gone Z-axle. So I never even wanted to try out one or even get in one. I regarded it as a form of corporate treachery unleashing that on the public once again9. A Miata had double-wishbones at both ends, not some 1970s lash-up, and cost far less. My 1990 Talon AWD turbo had a clever rear multilink setup that continued on Lancer EVOs. I was caught in a freak snowstorm with pure summer tires on, a full six inch blanket, and that thing never spun a wheel although I was naturally driving gingerly. Was proud of it. That was a delightful car and introduced me to Japanese reliability after four Audis.

    Anyway, there are many reviews of the Z1, and they’re all over the place in appreciation terms. But the best I found is a comparison from CAR in 1990. I went and dug it out from my collection too. Even LJKS weighs in, and disagrees with everyone else in iconoclastic terms, as was his wont. Based on his thoughts, the Z1 was amazing. It’s worth a read and a chuckle from when CAR was CAR.

    https://www.carmagazine.co.uk/car-reviews/comparison/2016/losing-our-heads-bmw-z1-vs-lotus-elan-vs-mazda-mx-5-vs-tvr-s-car-1990/

    1. You had a Talon? Good grief. I never expected that.
      I agree with you that driving a Corvette would be a good bit of education. They are really hard to come by here though.
      Recent Corvettes have seemed to me to be rather good expressions of the concept.
      With the Z1 I think ultimate power and acceleration were not the point and yet I am certain it would feel like an entertaining car. Maybe it was not small enough? What I really want to try is a kei roadster.

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