The BMW Z1 is an interesting little car in many different ways. It wasn’t just the start of a completely new series back in 1989. It was also a technical tour de force that costed as much as an option loaded 735i. Sadly, this high level of innovation also kept it from showing up in American showrooms.
It took roughly three years to develop the Z1 and a first concept was shown to the press in 1986 before its public debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1987. Two people from the Z1 development team deserve special attention because they became automotive heavyweights later on in their career. Designer Harm Lagaay from the Netherlands returned to Porsche in 1989 and has been responsible for basically every model since then – until he went into retirement in 2004. Z1 project manager Ulrich Bez is now head of Aston Martin.
The Z1 production process resulted in several important patents for BMW, like the high-intensity discharge lamp, integrated roll-bars and the unusual door mechanism. The electrically operated vertical sliding doors give the Z1 it’s unique character, but exactly that feature rendered it illegal in the US. This makes us wonder how the Willys and its ancestors ever made it onto American roads though… Especially since the Z1′s chassis with reenforced high sills offers so much more side impact protection.
As I mentioned before the Z1 was the first of a new model line within BMW. ‘Z’ stands for Zukunft which is German for future. The number 1 indicates that this is the first model in this series, later to be followed by the Z3, Z4 and Z8. These successors were either available as dedicated M models or were at least powered by an engine from the M department, like the Z8 with it’s 394 BHP 5.0 M Power V8. The Z1 on the other hand has a relatively modest 2.5 straight six from the E30 325i with 168 BHP, coupled to a manual five speed transmission sourced from the same model.
The Z1 has been criticized for not having the 212 BHP 2.5 liter four cylinder M3 engine, but I can assure you that BMW made the right choice. Where the racy M3 engine needs it’s butt to be kicked to show it’s true potential, the torquey six cylinder is always there without begging you to rev it to the red line. The straight six is without doubt the best choice for the Z1 because it first an foremost an easy going cruzer with sporty potentials and not a hard core track machine like the M3. With the top down on winding mountain roads this little two seater with its lightweight plastic body is a joy to drive. You can even push it to very enjoyable (yet highly illegal) speeds without ever needing exceptional driving skills. in contrast to the M3 homologation special.
With a total production of roughly 8,000 cars the Z1 will always be a rarity, especially if you don’t live in its native market where almost 6,500 were sold. That leaves only a handful for every other country in the world and the odds of finding one in this color combination are almost zero to none. Most cars were delivered with a dark grey interior and only 38 examples were produced with these flashy red leather seats.
Being a strictly European model, the number of Z1 cars in the US is almost impossible to track. At least some examples have been imported into America, but the best chance to obtain one is in Europe, or Germany actually. Be aware though that import and registration might be complicated processes, but it will be more than worth it because in the end you will be driving a historic piece of Bavarian Zukunft.