As someone who is passionate about road safety, I have to admit that the concept of doors which disappear into the side sills — leaving you able to reach out and touch the tarmac as you drive — seems odd. In some ways the BMW Z1 is a little odd, maybe not odd so much as quirky. It’s a classic these days, of course, so let me just label it as characterful.
The Z1 was developed by BMW Technik in the mid-1980s as one of those secret after-hours backroom kinds of projects — the kind that also gave birth to the Volkswagen Golf GTi. A concept was shown in 1986 and created so much attention that in 1988 BMW decided to manufacture the Z1, albeit in limited numbers, with only 8,000 being built.
It used the six-cylinder engine from the 325iS, producing 125kW and giving the first BMW Z-car a top speed of 225km/h, provided the fabric roof and those famous plastic doors were all in place.
It’s an iconic model, the first official Zukunft (German for future) car from the Munich automaker and one which I was very fortunate to experience while in Portugal recently for the launch of the latest Zukunft car, the Z4.
Climb over the retracted door that pays homage to the doors on the original BMW 328, drop down into the driver’s seat and you know you are in something different, but at the same time something familiar. The dash has typical BMW hallmarks from the day and the gearstick has a reassuring BMW feel about it too.
Similar to the restored 325iS Gusheshe I drove earlier this year, the Z1 has a fair amount of play in the steering. It is not an issue though, as I’m not exactly setting the Z1 up for some corner attacking, even though the chassis feels as though it could deal with it quite well. The engine provides good response and the soundtrack is more urban than sports car. It’s a great and unique package that trumpeted the start of something rather different for the Bavarian brand.
As fantastic as it was to drive the Z1, the big excitement was reserved for the chance to drive the Z8. This was the roadster that BMW wanted to be seen as the true successor to the famous 507. It was first shown in 1997 as the Z07 before being seen in the James Bond film,The World is Not Enough in 1999, the same year production of what became the Z8 began.
As designs go, it is superb. Not just as a BMW, but as an automobile, and is a credit to exterior designer Henrik Fisker, who went on to establish his own car company with limited success. What he achieved with the Z8 though was to pen elements that are timeless and some that were even ahead of their time.
The beautiful form to the shark nose still has a level of aggression about it, while the side profile has perfect curves and the gills recreate those of the 507. The rear has a boat tail about it, like an E-Type, with the slimmest of lights that finish off a simple, elegant and fantastic piece of automotive design.
The interior deserves equal respect because it puts many modern cabins to shame.
The lines are perfect, the quality of the fit equally so but mainly it is the overall look. The steering wheel is a work of retro art, the instrument cluster in the centre of the dashboard is perfectly aligned towards the driver and there are only the essential buttons to allow you to focus on the drive ahead. It is definitely one of the best interiors I have ever experienced.
Power comes from a 5.0lV8 producing 294kW and 500Nm, the same engine that was in the M5 of the time and which could rocket the Z8 to 100km/h in just 4.7 seconds an on to a limited top end of 250km/h. Extensive use of aluminium helped to achieve these figures, including the bodywork and an aluminium space frame — all of which kept the weight down to 1,585kg. The fabric roof also contributed, although every Z8 was supplied with a removable hard top too.
Climbing in I felt like Ferris Bueller getting into the Ferrari 250 GT California in the movie about his day off. I exhaled as I settled into the seat, as though I was in a very special place. Push the start button and that V8 comes to life with a gentle burble.
Originally priced at $128,000, Z8s now fetch at least double that and this one belonged to BMW Classic, so our short drive was a combination of sporty and respectful.
The steering was a highlight, displaying a level of accuracy and feedback that is far less common these days. The engine delivered its power to the rear wheels through a fantastic six-speed manual gearbox, with the stick placed at the perfect location in the centre tunnel.
I felt comfortable with the Z8 almost immediately, such was the attention to detail — not just in the design but also in the engineering. It is a timeless classic for sure.