If the BMW Z1 had been human, we would undoubtedly have complimented it. Because what does he still look young! Of course you can see that the compact roadster is no longer a spring chicken, but you would certainly not give it thirty years. And just as my father has become more crooked after his retirement, the Z1 also seems to have shrunk over time. Put it nose to nose with the new BMW Z4 and suddenly you notice what a tree of a four-wheeler that has become: with large overhangs, meaty kidneys, excessive wheels and a curved line under the doors, which suggests a beer belly. An increasing part of the world population is overweight. Would that also apply to cars?
But let’s look at things from the other side too. Because the Z4 has such a stout posture for good reason. The sports car weighing just under 1500 kilos easily achieves the maximum score in the Euro NCAP crash tests: five stars. And we would rather not put the Z1 against the wall at 64 km / h. Its construction may have been ultramodern in 1989, but it shrinks into a package of scrap metal with a thin layer of chrome in the event of a serious collision. An exceptionally thin layer, that is, because the Z1 is not that big of shimmer. He catches glances with something completely different: his eccentric doors, which sink into the sills.
The doors come from the creative minds at BMW Technik GmbH, a think tank assembled in 1985 from the best engineers and designers at BMW. They were given carte blanche to work on new materials and develop innovative production processes. And they had the momentum. After only two years there was a fully working study model at the IAA in Frankfurt: the Z1, with the Z in front ‘future‘. BMW had no production plans for its first roadster in thirty years, but was overwhelmed by requests from interested parties during and after the fair. The management in Munich was very surprised by the interest and decided to build the Z1 in an edition of 8,000 pieces.
Our copy comes from the second and last year of production, which ran from June 1990 to June 1991. Its bodywork is in the same color dream black, which was one of the three most popular shades. Exactly 2301 black Z1s have been built, compared to 2041 in ur-green and most preferably 3102 in top-rot. The story goes that two more unique Z1s were also produced: one in orange for the Dutch BMW designer Harm Lagaay and one in blue for the then Technik director Ulrich Bez, who would later become the CEO of Aston Martin.
The plastic body panels of the Z1 are screwed onto a kind of driving monocoque, which means that the convertible can also drive around ‘naked’. They are painted in a specially developed AkzoNobel flexible lacquer, which prevents the paint from cracking when the plastic deforms. Because the reason for going for plastic was simple: it dents in a minor collision and then springs back to its original shape. BMW also thought that customers would immediately purchase an extra set of panels with their Z1. That way they could change the color of their purchase afterwards. Nobody did, however, because in theory the job takes less than an hour, but in practice as good as half a day.
Coming back to the doors of the Z1. These are activated by pressing the silver button next to it, after which an electric motor and a toothed belt – huup, huup, Barbatruc – retract the window and door into the sill. Sounds like a gimmick, but it certainly isn’t. BMW wanted to make open driving even more open. And we succeeded: in a legal and – if you keep your hands on board – relatively safe way. The big disadvantage is of course the difficult entry. Because the sill is so high and wide, you more or less stumble into the cabin: it is recommended that you first put your right leg on the floor mat, then sit down and then angle your left leg inward.
Amazingly, there is quite some space inside for taller people, although the fabric roof comes very close when you are 1.90 meters. You sit on cramped sports seats – which in our Z1 are covered with eccentric camouflage leather – and look out over an efficient dashboard: with four simple round meters behind a small sports steering wheel and to your right a manual five-speed gearbox. There is hardly any shelf space, because there are logically no storage compartments in the doors. A striking eighties is the prominent position of the ashtray, which is not only large enough for two packs of Belinda, but is also neatly positioned next to the lighter.
Also from other times is the deep six-cylinder drum that welcomes you when you turn the ignition key. It is the naturally aspirated M20B25 in-line engine from the BMW 325i of the E30 generation: a block that dates back to 1977 and therefore not at all ‘future‘ used to be. Critics of the Z1 therefore cling to the 170 hp power source and blame it for the ‘meager’ performance of the roadster. Admittedly, its chassis could have done more, but with a sprint time of 7.9 seconds to 100 km / h and a top speed of 225 km / h, the Z1 does not have to be ashamed of anything. Certainly because its driving characteristics are BMW’s, so excellent.
The Z1 uses the chassis of the BMW E30 (1982 to 1994), but has a specially designed rear suspension. That multilink Z-axis would later come back on the new E36 3-Series (1990 to 2000) and the Rover 75 (1998 to 2005). The aerodynamics of the Z1 were nothing short of revolutionary. It cuts through the air and pushes itself to the ground without the intervention of spoilers or wings, aided by an almost flat underside. The rear silencer of the exhaust system is unprecedented. It covers the entire width of the car and is shaped like a wing, which ensures that the rear axle is not subject to upward pressure.
We understand that the brand new Z4 is a mouthful in this comparison. For in the company of such an illustrious forefather, we too would laugh uncomfortably; with the corners of the mouth tucked up a bit too wide, as approved by the Dutch chief designer Adrian van Hooydonk on the Z4. Another fellow countryman who is high in the tree at BMW – chassis specialist Jos van As – told us that it would have been close to the new Z4. Only by seeking cooperation with Toyota – the Z4 and Supra are the same under the skin – development costs could be reduced.
“Around the turn of the century, roadsters were incredibly popular”, says Van As, “but there is absolutely no question of such a high demand now. Moreover, the Z3 and the first generation Z4 are built with relatively old and therefore cheap technology. The Z3 for example, still used the rear suspension of the E30 3-series in the mid-nineties. Due to the strict safety requirements and emission standards that now apply, BMW cannot get away with that. The latest generation Z4 is therefore on the modern CLAR platform (Cluster Architecture) and is packed with the latest digital technology.
Behind the thick sports steering wheel is a high-resolution digital instrument cluster and on the center console – which, like in old BMWs, is turned towards the driver – is the user-friendly iDrive infotainment system. The list of electronic watchdogs is as long as the hood, which you feel stretches out for meters. Its large exterior dimensions make the Z4 wonderfully spacious inside. Thanks to the good heater and seat heating, there is no longer any excuse to keep the fabric convertible top closed. The trunk of the Z4 is very slightly larger than that of the Z1, but it doesn’t make much difference.
Pressing the start button initially leads to a slight disappointment. Because there are not six cylinders in line, but only four. They are whipped up by a drill sergeant in the form of a turbo to no less than 258 hp, but respond with a fairly insignificant ‘sir, yes sir! ‘. Because only a subdued hum can be heard from the twin tailpipes, even when the sports exhaust system is brought into position. However, when you floor the accelerator, the deception disappears. On a wave of creamy torque, the Z4 shoots forward. Where the Z1’s atmospheric six-speed engine requires revs, its descendant’s blown four-cylinder is always in a supreme state of alert.
People look back, more at the pearly white Z4 than at the deep black Z1. It will be the novelty. And also the appearance of the younger of the two, which stands thick and wide on its wheels and has almost Mercedes SL-esque proportions. The fellow road users who do see the Z1 have a surprised look on their faces. It is the doors that do it for him, because of course we drive with both sides open. The feeling of freedom is enormous. Left and right, in the corner of our eyes, the asphalt flies past: interrupted by a white line here and there, a fresh green verge or the feet of waiting walkers.
The Z1 was an expensive kid when it came out. Due to its special construction, it had to be built by hand and that was passed on to the buyers. Converted, the last Z1s cost around 66,000 euros. And that three decades ago! In this sense, the miraculous cart has proved to be exceptionally stable in value, because used copies still have to yield between 40,000 and 60,000 euros. And that makes sense. The Z1 is a modern classic, with a glorious future aided by its limited production numbers and avant-garde design. How the Z4 will fare is uncertain. Will it be the Z of ‘future‘, or the V of’past‘. Time will tell.
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