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.
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.
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.
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.
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.