Glorious Anachronism

Concept cars are often used to gauge public reaction to a new design direction before applying it to mainstream models. Not so the BMW Z07 concept, which became the Z8 Roadster.

2001 BMW Z8 Convertible (c) rwd-cars.de

By the mid 1990’s BMW had acquired an enviable reputation as a manufacturer of finely wrought and handsome drivers’ cars. The 1990 E36 3 Series and 1995 E39 5 Series were both rightly regarded as dynamically superior to their competitors from Audi or Mercedes-Benz, so possessed a more youthful appeal (to drivers of all ages). Plans were already well advanced for the 1997 E46 3-Series which, in design terms, would be a careful evolution of its predecessor.

For all this success, there was a concern within BMW that the company’s designs were perhaps too safe and evolutionary and might lack the visual excitement to complement fully their dynamic qualities. This was increasingly the view of Chris Bangle, who had joined the company in 1992 as Design Director and was pushing for a radical change of direction.

The public’s first sighting of Bangle’s controversial ‘flame surfacing’ style would be the Z9 Gran Turismo concept, shown at the Frankfurt Auto Show in September 1999. This new style would be fully realised in the startling 2001 E65 7 Series and the 2003 E60 5 Series. The latter was, arguably, the most coherent and successful articulation of this style. Flame surfacing would go on to be used on a full generation of BMW models, with varying degrees of success and no shortage of controversy.

While all this was going on, BMW was also looking at its back catalogue and decided to produce a modern-day interpretation of its 507 roadster, produced from 1956 to 1959. The 507 was beautiful, but financially ruinous for the company. Only 252 cars were manufactured over three years, each one virtually hand built. It had been intended to sell in the US market for around $5,000 but was priced at almost double that amount (equivalent to $97,400 in 2021) and BMW still lost money on every car sold. Thanks mainly to the 507, the company posted a loss of DM15 million in 1959 and had to be recapitalised by the Quandt family to rescue it from bankruptcy.

(c) Hemmings

The inspiration for the new model stemmed from a PR event during which Bernd Pischetsrieder and Wolfgang Reitzle drove a classic 507. Reitzle would become the new model’s main champion in the process. It was initially styled by Danish designer Henrik Fisker, under Bangle’s supervision and was first shown in concept form as the Z07 at the Tokyo Motor Show in October 1997 (but would be badged Z8 in production form).

Public reaction was hugely positive, which was just as well as the Z8 was already approved for production under the E52 model code. Differences between the Z8 and Z07 were significant and the concept was a more faithful homage to the 507. Fisker left the project halfway through to head up DesignworksUSA, at which point Ian Cameron took over.

The interior of the Z8 initially lacked much in the way of luxurious flair, until the design team undertook a Reitzle-supported field trip to Ferrari, where they gained an understanding of boutique OEM’s modus operandi. The final production interior was mainly the work of an American designer, Scott Lempert.

The Z8 was launched in 2000 and featured a 4,941cc V8 engine with a power output of 395bhp, which was lifted from the E39 M5 saloon. A front/mid-engined layout with a six-speed manual gearbox gave the Z8 a perfect 50:50 weight distribution. 0 to 60 mph was achieved in 4.2 seconds and the top speed was limited to 155mph.

The retro styling of the exterior was reprised inside, with a centrally mounted instrument cluster under an aluminium cowling and traditional looking wire-spoked steering wheel. One surprising feature was the plastic rear window in the soft-top. Presumably, this was a packaging rather than cost-driven choice and, in any event, every car came supplied with a hard-top for winter use.

2001 BMW Z8 interior (c) rwd-cars.de

Underneath the retro bodywork the technology was entirely up to date, with HiD headlamps, fibre-optic side repeaters hidden within the strakes on the front wings and neon tail and indicator lights. The Z8 also came equipped with a Motorola flip-phone as standard. To enhance its instant classic appeal, each car came with a personalised coffee table book containing photos of it being built and a 1:18 scale model for the owner’s desk.

The standard car came in a choice of silver, red, black and blue body colours with black, red or cream coloured Nappa leather upholstery and interior trim. Like its predecessor, the Z8 was largely hand built, using aluminium panels formed over an aluminium space-frame(1), but there would be no under-pricing this time around: the list price in the US was from $128,000 but many sold for a great deal more, thanks to unprecedented demand for standard cars and bespoke versions being ordered by very affluent buyers. BMW built a total of 5,703 examples of the Z8, almost half of which went to the US market.

2001 BMW Z8 (c) taketotheroad.co.uk

Production of the BMW Z8 ended in November 2002 but the model continued under the Alpina brand as the Roadster V8, albeit with a smaller 4.8 litre engine, automatic transmission, somewhat softer suspension settings and conventional (rather than run-flat) tyres. These modifications were intended to turn it into a true grand tourer, catering to the US market in particular, where the Z8 had failed to resonate quite as strongly as intended. A total of 555 Alpina models were produced and some would regard them as even more desirable than the BMW original, which had been criticised for its brittle ride.

The Z8 was immortalised in the 1999 James Bond 007 film The World is not Enough in which it appeared briefly before being cut in half along its length by a giant circular saw, to the horror of fans (of the car). They shouldn’t have worried: the Z8 was still nowhere near production when the movie was filmed in early 1998 and a Chevrolet Corvette-based glass-fibre replica was instead bisected.

So, how would one sum up the Z8? Those who dislike retro cars should probably hate it. It was an aberration that, like so many retro designs, led nowhere stylistically. To these eyes, it’s just so beautiful I can forgive the alleged cynicism behind its production. Such is its enduring appeal that good examples of the Z8 can fetch upwards of £150k(2) today and the much rarer Alpina will typically add another £30k on top of that. That, unfortunately, puts them completely out of reach other than for the very rich and, worse, makes them almost too valuable to drive, which is a great pity.

(1) The Z8 was, at least in part, a dry run for the construction techniques and interior design process that would be employed for the 2003 Rolls-Royce Phantom. The Z8’s space-frame is said to be vulnerable both to corrosion and distortion, so is a key check point for anybody considering a purchase.
(2) At the time of writing this piece, there were two Z8 models for sale on Auto Trader in the UK, priced at £190k and £200k. Car and Classic also has two in the UK, priced at £160k and £185k.  No Alpina V8 Roadsters were on the market.

Author’s note: I am indebted to Christopher Butt for his invaluable contribution to this piece. Christopher has also written about the Z8 on his own Auto-Didakt website and his piece may be found here.  Christopher and his fellow designers also write engagingly about automotive matters on the Design Field Trip website.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

28 thoughts on “Glorious Anachronism”

  1. The Z8’s rear screen was made from Wopavin, a kind of PVC that is UV resistant, scratch proof and doesn’t crack when folded in cold condition. The Z8 was the only car with such a window. The tailor made soft top of my barchetta has a Wopavin window and it’s much better than conventional material.

    The corrosion problem of the Z8’s space frame is real. A considerable number of them developed corrosion at places that aren’t accessible for repair, effectively making the car a write-off at astonishingly early age.

  2. Quite frankly, when this car was released it left me only lukewarm. I especially was and to a point am still not that fond of how the front lights and secondary rear lights around the license plate are handled. I’ve been close to the Z8 a number of times and the quality of the panel fit and finish was pretty much perfect on the few examples I saw. Too bad about the corrosion issues.

    The Autopitch collection in the Netherlands has no shortage of Z8’s. There are thirteen, not including an Alpina version. I can find 2 Alpinas for sale in Europe, prices ranging from € 299k to € 353k.

  3. I really like the Z8, with its perfect proportions, delicate details, and purposeful, squat stance; one of my favourite retro designs. Boy was that “a thing” in the late 90s to early 2000s! I’m actually ok with retro design because although I agree that it doesn’t really advance design, I like the challenge it brings in trying to interpret the past with current tools and ideas.

    As for the 507, it’s sublime. I’ve had the chance to see it several times in auto shows and concourses d’elegance and it’s always fascinated me with its slenderness and just overall beauty. By the way, those red wheels on the red 507 are a wonderful touch.

  4. I have always found this a beautiful car, albeit a folly. It’s surprisingly delicate, isn’t it? It has a very similar feel to Touring’s Alfa Romeo Disco Volante (which was based on the Alfa 8c), which is also one of my favourite designs of the last decade.

    1. Good morning gentlemen. Yes the Z8 is just lovely. What a shame its price makes it so inaccessible for the majority. It is definitely one for my fantasy garage.

      Imagine if the original Z3 had been a scaled-down version of the Z8, instead of the rather flaccid looking production car. That could have eclipsed the R170 SLK in desirability. (I realise the 1995 Z3 pre-dated the Z8.)

      That’s interesting about the rear window material, Dave, not something I was aware of, so thanks for sharing.

  5. I didn’t realize how relatively rare they are. I saw one in a BMW showroom when they came out and thought it was very nice – I was lucky to see one, in retrospect. Unfortunately, lots of other people like them, too, judging by the prices. I’ll add it to the Mercedes-Benz SL, Jeep Wagoneer and BMW 1M on the list of cars that I like, but which are turning out to be surprisingly expensive.

    In the meantime, here’s the BMW / Bond film trailer.

    1. Good morning Charles and thanks for sharing the video. The glassfibre replica James Bond 007 Z8 is pretty convincing:

      Here’s how it bowed out:

    2. Hello Daniel – thank you – I do like a good Bond movie. The ‘V’-reg plate looks very old, though.

      That clip reminds me of the Austin Powers spoof and Dr Evil’s son asking him why he (Dr Evil) didn’t just shoot Bond while he had the chance. The answer was that it’s just not the way things are done (and he wanted some sharks with fricken lasers strapped to their heads, of course).

    3. Ha ha, Charles, you’ve touched on something that always causes my partner and me to laugh when watching a Bond movie: the extraordinarily imaginative but completely ineffective methods the baddies use to try and kill him!

    4. I think the Bond franchise is like a live-action version of the Roadrunner cartoons, in many respects. Still great, though.

      It always struck me that Bond would be better off with a less conspicuous car – his Mondeo rental car was perfect. Or perhaps…

  6. Most reviewers found the Z8 underwhelming to drive. So perhaps it found its niche as an investment vehicle by cleverly being somewhat less than the ‘ultimate driving machine’? Its future as a garage queen is assured.

    I liked its design very much, except for the centrally located instruments, which are abhorrent and should have no place in a BMW – once the paragon of driver ergonomics.

  7. I’m surprised about the prices, they are priced like there was a scarcity, but almost six thousand cars is not a limited edition, that’s quite a lot?

    I’ve always seen it as a folly, a car as pure decoration. It is what car makers does when they are big enough and profitable enough to afford a folly without any thought on profit at all. For a car maker, it is the equivalent of being on the top of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when all the other needs are met.

    The 6-series and 8-series had been fully rational propositions, even the Z1 had been a rational car from an engineering point of view, though heavilly misguided. Even the M1 had been a fully logical extensions of the brand, though the market and intended use was swept from right under them because of regulation changes in racing that made it obsolete before it was launched.

    But the Z8 is nothing but accoutrement in the haute couture, it is what rich people buy so they can have it color matched to their Louis Vuitton luggage set. It is not only the intended buyer that wants to advertise to the world that they “have arrived” but also the maker itself.

    1. Yikes! Charles, how on earth do you find these oddities?

      Why not a TVR? Just wondering.

    2. Hello Daniel, I like TVRs very much, but I don’t think many Z8 aficionados would necessarily appreciate the link made in my mind between the two brands. They do have quite a bit in common, though, even down to the style of their interiors.

    3. I would – given the necessary financial means – buy the Z8 just for the steering wheel.

      But yes, for destroying a fortune, a TVR – next to a Z8, a helicopter or a yacht – is definitely a nice alternative.

    4. I’m interested whether your assessment of the rationality of the cars is from the point of view of the manufacturer, or buyers? As was noted, the Z8 functioned as a trial for the aluminium spaceframe construction of the upcoming Rolls Royce, a very wise move in my view. On the other hand, for a buyer how rational does a sports car need to be?

      I don’t think I’ve seen more than one owned by BMW Australia, as it would not be road-legal here without a RHD conversion, and it did not disappoint.

  8. Due to a set of lucky circumstances (and a close friend of my father’s being a manager at BMW at the time), my 16-year-old self managed to sneak into a ‘private unveiling’ of the Z8 in the autumn of ’99. I was truly gobsmacked by the car: the drama, the flair, but also the mind-boggling attention to detail and levels of perceived quality. A Porsche 996 seemed like a Daewoo by comparison.

    Some years later, I was prepared to completely dismiss the BMW though: Retro design, glorification of a grossly overrated classic car (I’m no 507 fan) and bending aluminium space frames were good enough for me to feel the Z8 was below me.

    About a decade later, I couldn’t help but smile at any Z8 I’d come across, which is a fairly common occurrence in Hamburg during the summer. For its retro design has since become tinged with nostalgia itself, allowing me to focus once again on the outstanding execution, which remains exemplary. In a sense, Jaguar’s F-type has also aided Z8’s case: while I fundamentally applaud Jaguar’s decision not to take the retro route, Jaguar’s own modern take on a dramatic roadster leaves me cold. I’d like to like it more than I can. The Z8, on the other hand, I cannot help but like. Which might be a case of meta-nostalgia.

    A 507, on the other hand, still leaves me completely cold.

    1. Quality-wise a Porsche 996 *is* like a Daewoo compared to almost anything.

    2. Having sat in one as a passenger when its engine burst at 220 kph, I can attest to that assessment. Thankfully, there was no drizzle, so at least we were being spared the squeaking sound of the wipers.

      (Just to get my previous statement outside the faint praise sector: a Z8 feels very luxurious and well-made. Every touch-point is immensely pleasing, starting with the bank vault-like doorhandles and extending to the smallest of switches.)

    3. The F-type is still pretty heavily influenced by the E-type styling though; compare to the way that the Z3/Z4 have gone their own way completely for better or worse. At least the first couple had their own styling themes, rather than the later iterations that have just been “apply contemporary BMW styling cues to a convertible” with very little imagination.

      Jaguar had also had a couple of XK opportunities to get closer copies of the E-type grille out of their system. I was waiting for a facelift of the 2005 X150 to ‘fix’ the front end (headlight and grille shape), but they only did some minor fiddling around the edges.

  9. I´ve seen precisely one of these cars, compared to four Bristols in the same two decades. Well, time has been kind to this car. There´s not a detail I´d want to change. It´d be an entirely valid thing to do a “cover version” of the back catalogue from time to time so as re-acquaint newer designers with older ways of doing things. It´s also a nice image builder – re-stating the reasons for buying other cars from the same stable. It could have the negative effect of underlining how iffy the present showroom flock is….

  10. I like the outside, although apart from the 507 style air intake it looks more Jaguar than BMW.
    Jaguar sometimes used centrally mounted instruments in the 1950s, but by the 1960s they’d got more sense. Sadly BMW were having an off-say when the interior was approved.
    Very shocked to learn they are such a corrosion nightmare – doesn’t sound like a particularly good investment.

    1. Like many things, if you got in and out at the right time, you could have made money.

      Seems like a dry storage facility is a must though!

  11. Was put off by the Z8 being underwhelming as well as fact it was not available in a Coupe bodystyle.

    Also was there any merit in the Z8 receiving 282-341 hp 4.4-4.6 versions of the M62 V8, without of course potentially overlapping with the 228 hp Z3 3.0 and 321 hp Z3M 3.2 models?

    1. The styling was sufficiently different to make the sharing of engines not so important, perhaps.
      I have to wonder about claims that the car was “underwhelming” to drive. It´s a boulevardier with ample power to drive all day in the lanes of the Black Forest, the Thuringer Wald and to climb alpine roads without a problem. It also looks fabulous. I sometimes think motoring correspondents lack self-awareness and also lack judgement.

  12. The BMW Z8 is a solitaire whose creation took place outside the usual strategy and development processes at BMW at that time. In reality, a number of high-ranking BMW executives had their dream car built in isolation from the committees and coordination processes that were established at that time.

    The driving force was Bernd Pischetsrieder, who as CEO often swapped his company car (always a BMW 7 Series, of course, although these were always discreetly produced for him by Alpina – a process that alone speaks volumes) for his private white BMW 507 and used it to commute from Chiemsee to Munich in the morning.

    The E52 project was only made possible by the takeover of the Rolls-Royce Motor Cars brand rights. Suddenly, competences were required that were not available in the company at those times. This particularly included the ability to economically produce products in small quantities with a significant amount of manual work and flexibility in the sense of the greatest possible individualisation.

    In this context, the decision was made to develop and test these processes with the aid of a temporary manufacturing facility at the Munich plant. This was the hour of Bernd Pischetsrieder, who saw in it the chance to finally be able to give the BMW brand a very special automobile again away from mass production.

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