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.
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.
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.
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.
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.