Building a roadster can give car manufacturers some unique opportunities. These types of vehicles typically have a devoted following and create their own rules outside of the constraints of many mainstream companies’ core product lines. They are able to test new technology and bend the rules of design in order to make a roadster look and feel like it belongs with everything else.
Roadsters are also a very specific formula of two-doors, lightweight components, and the thrill of open air driving. In a way, the first cars ever built were roadsters and the trend has continued throughout time with legendary models from Ford , Chrysler , and BMW. German brands were the last to catch on to the glory days of the roadster from the 1950s and BMW began producing its first back in 1989 with the Z1.
Many BMW fans may look at this moniker and thing, “does he mean M1?” No, we don’t mean the fantastic supercar that BMW built around the same time and has yet to be resurrected. The Z1 was the first in a line of two-seat roadsters that BMW produced and it proved a worthy test-bed for some BMW technology still used today.
Hit the jump for more details on the BMW Z1.
Design and Inspiration
After its introduction at the 1987 Frankfurt Motor Show, BMW knew the Z1 had to be produced. It gained much attention from the press and received over 5,000 orders before production even began. The main designer behind the car was Dr. Ulrich Bez and his team of engineers. They knew this car would be a departure from other things that BMW had done and decided to use the letter “Z” as a way to denote the German word Zukunft which meant future.
This car of the future featured a completely new chassis specially designed for the Z1. Several unique components include the removable body panels, continuously zinc welded seams, a composite undertray, and a set of dropped doors. As is typical with any large manufacturer, BMW went to the parts bin of the 3-series to utilize some major working components, but the Z1 was largely new from the ground up.
Removable body panels are not something you hear about every day on a car and the BMW design team felt these gave the Z1 an advantage over the competition. They wanted the car to be about the driver and allow the owner to change the personality of the car throughout time. The panels were made lightweight through the use of thermoplastic, which is a material designed by General Electric. To ensure that the paint finish would not be damaged during flex and removal of the panels, BMW used a special lacquer finish that could withstand more abuse. Customers that purchased a Z1 were offered additional sets of body panels painted with different colors so that they could simply swap them out when a new color was desired. The manual for the car quotes a 40 minute removal and replacement process, but as with any manual this is nearly impossible for the average human.
Under the hood is where BMW engineers decided to cut some costs and use an already strong engine from the parts bin. The M20B25 engine from the 325i 2.5-liter model producing 170hp at 5,800rpm and 164 lb-ft of torque at 4,300rpm. Being placed in a small and lightweight car meant that the engine could work less than in its current duties and propel the car faster. With that being said, faster is a relative term and the Z1 did 0-60mph in a lethargic 9.0 seconds and completed the quarter mile whenever it felt like it. Tuning companies still realized the potential for this car and several companies like AC Shnitzer, Hamann, and Alpina offered extensive programs that could even include engine swaps.
The suspension setup was completely new for BMW and would be the first of many multi-link designs. Called the Z-axle, this setup would find its way throughout the company and into the future E36 3-series and some Rover models. The Z1 was fitted with 15 inch wheels front and back that used power assisted disc brakes to bring the car to a stop.
Generations and Production
BMW saw a high demand initially for the Z1, but it began to plateau and fall after its first year in production. In the end only 8,000 Z1 models were built, making them somewhat of a collector’s item today. Nearly three quarters of the cars were sold on the German market. The country to receive the second-greatest number of Z1s - Italy - received less than 7% of the total sold domestically. There are reports that BMW built 12 Z1 vehicles during 1986 and 1987, bringing the total to 8,012 vehicles, but these could have been mules for testing or non running show cars.
During this production year more than half of all Z1 vehicles were produced. Seventy-eight Z1 vehicles were reportedly used as test mules, although most were later sold without a warranty for a lower price. Exterior color options were extended to include red, black, green, and light yellow. Two special colors were made for the designers which were swimming pool blue and oh-so-orange.
None of the Z1 vehicles were sold with air conditioning. The vehicle’s dashboard is very small and there was no room for both heat and cooling units. Some Z1 vehicles were converted using BMW E30 parts to have air conditioning, but reportedly the heater elements had to be removed.
One reason for ending production of the car was that BMW may not have been able to make enough of these each day to supply the initial demand. The car’s lackluster performance and unique styling may have turned off other potential and loyal BMW customers. Nonetheless, BMW began production of the very popular Z3 model several years later and has been making a roadster ever since. The rocky road continues however for BMW and its roadster, with the Bangle designed Z4 receiving sub-par reviews.
Pricing for this model, which was not available in the United States, was relatively high at $65,000.