By Sivan Goren with Douglas Abbot behind the lens
BMW is a brand known for sleek silhouettes, powerful performance and subtly-luxurious-yet-never-ostentatious models – the ultimate in German understated brilliance. But in the late ʼ80s, there was an unexpected and rather startling addition to the Bavarian family… one that made people do actual double takes and wonder if the usually restrained automaker had decided to take a new – rather flamboyant – direction into the future.
It all began with a new division. In 1985, BMW decided to set up BMW Technik GmbH, a think tank that was to focus on developing new concepts and technologies in engineering, development processes and body construction. BMW took 60 hotshot employees including engineers, technicians and designers and put them together with the goal of coming up with brilliant new ideas and conceptualising cars of the future. It is not surprising, then, that their very first project was named the Z1 – the ‘Z’ standing for ‘Zukunft’, the German word for future.
The new model, a roadster, was unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1987. Although the Z1 was only ever meant to be a concept car and was intended as a platform for the-sky’s-the-limit ideas, response to its launch was so overwhelmingly positive that the decision to begin a limited production was taken. The orders began streaming in and production began the following year.
But it wasn’t all bells and whistles. As far as cars go, in some ways this one was actually pretty unremarkable. BMW had rummaged through the parts bin and decided on the E30 325i’s 2.5-litre engine and five-speed manual transmission. The 2494cc SOHC straight-six engine produced around 170bhp at 5800rpm and 222Nm of torque. Nothing to scoff at, certainly – very solid and reliable performance-wise. But in a sports car (particularly a fairly pricey one at that) it was found by many to be somewhat lacking and, quite frankly, a bit blah.
Although certain major components were taken from existing models, there were some that were new. One of these was the rear suspension, a multi-link design that would later become known as the Z-axle and was the first of many multi-link designs for BMW, as well as some rather clever aerodynamic innovations. But there were other new developments that Ulrich Bez, director of BMW Technik GmbH, and his team came up with. And these were the true showstoppers – the bits that gave the Z1 that uber-cool, future-fantastic factor.
This was the ʼ80s, remember: a decade when the masses were obsessed with everything futuristic and sci-fi. Movies like Blade Runner, The Terminator and Robocop had captured the public imagination. Remember the flying DeLorean time machine in Back to the Future with its space-agey doors that opened upwards like bat wings? Well (yawn) that had sooo been done already. So… BMW took it a step further and gave the Z1… no doors.
(Ok, I admit I put that last bit there for a bit of dramatic effect. But really, it’s not far off.)
So, yes, the Z1 does actually have doors. But instead of opening outward like conventional doors, or even swooping upwards like those of the DeLorean or ‘gullwing’ Merc, these doors – at the mere touch of a button – slide downwards into the sills, leaving an open gap through which to enter. In a beautifully choreographed routine, the windows and doors move together like a pair of synchronised figure skaters: as soon as the door slides down, so does the window; when the door slides up again, the window does too. (Do yourself a favour and check out videos on YouTube of this whole process. As far as futuristic goes, I reckon it doesn’t get better than that.) The best part? The car can actually be driven with the doors down! On the cool meter, I’d say that’s an 11/10 for sure.
And if roof-down and door-down driving was not ridiculously awesome enough (though admittedly it can get fairly gusty – I wouldn’t recommend wearing a flowing dress), the smart chaps at BMW found a way that would allow people to customise their car according to their own preference at any given time. I mean, who wants to drive a car that is always the same colour? Wouldn’t a car of the future allow you to change its hue on a whim, or even based on what you were wearing that day? The trick to this remarkable capability was removable plastic body panels. The side panels and doors were made of General Electric’s Xenoy thermoplastic, while the bonnet, boot, and roof cover were GRP components. The panels’ high tolerance for abuse was dramatically and effectively demonstrated at the Z1’s launch by Ulrich Bez, who jumped with both feet onto a panel lying on the floor. Although it buckled initially, like a zombie rising from the dead it immediately sprang back to its original shape when he stepped off it. Even Hollywood couldn’t do better than that.
And it wasn’t just the panels that were robust. A special paint was also used; a flexible lacquer finish developed jointly by AKZO Coatings and BMW Technik GmbH – one that could withstand the flexing of panels when they were removed (or jumped on, for that matter). BMW apparently suggested that owners should purchase an additional set of body panels and simply change the colour of the car when they felt like it. Not only was it possible to completely replace the body (in fact, the Z1’s manual claimed a 40-minute removal and replacement process – less time than it takes to watch an episode of Game of Thrones, though most owners confirmed that this claim was extremely ambitious) but the Z1 could actually be driven with all of its panels completely removed. Yes, really. I’d say all of that deserves a few extra points on the cool-o-meter.
For a car that was never meant to be produced, the Z1 had a decent production run between 1989 and 1991 and a total of 8 000 cars were produced – all left-hand drive and most of them sold in Germany. This was probably just as well because, considering that the Z1 did not receive such luxuries as air-conditioning (the dashboard was too small for both heating and cooling units), it would not have been the most sensible car for warmer climes.
But practicality is not everything, and sometimes cutting-edge technology requires a little discomfort. Just like that killer pair of sky-high stilettos, the Z1 might not be the most practical (it could even cause bodily harm – the designers at BMW clearly never factored getting in and out of the Z1 wearing a pencil skirt) or the fastest car ever made, but its inherent wow factor more than makes up for that. Don’t take my word for it, though. Just take a roof-and-doors-down drive through town and wait for the reactions. Or ask those who are now happily paying top dollar for this up-and-coming classic. The first – and by far the most extraordinary – in a line of BMW Z roadsters that continues to this day.
* Thanks to www.sportsandgtclassics.com for supplying the pictured car
Complete the form below to subscribe to the Classic Car Africa mailing list.