1980s / 1990s / BMW / German / Great automotive failures

Great Automotive Failures: BMW Z1

The BMW Z1 raised a few eyebrows at its 1986 press debut. The Bavarian company had not produced a proper roadster in decades, but the Z1 wasn’t exactly ordinary. The unique (if not bizarre) styling was by Harm Lagaay, who designed some far less weird Porsches in his day. With slide-away doors and the stripped-down basic approach to design was not exactly the sort of BMWs motorists were used to seeing in the late 1980s.

Mechanically, the car borrowed much from the 3-Series like its Z3 successor. The engine was a typical 2.5 L 170 hp inline six mated to a 5-speed manual transmission as found in BMW’s larger cars. The rest, however was more unique. All body panels were removable from the unibody chassis and made either from a special plastic developed by GE or fiberglass. In spite of taking aerodynamics into great consideration with a flat undertray and low hood the Z1’s drag coefficient wasn’t especially great at 0.36 with the roof up.

The doors slid down into the sills and the car could be run with them “open” or down for a more open-air feeling, though the car looks especially odd this way and leaves the door jamb area exposed for an oddly unfinished look. The mechanism seems rather overly complicated for what was supposed to be a back-to-basics light-weight sports roadster.

The potential for a great car was there, styling aside, but a mere 8,000 were made. One issue perhaps was the gasp inducing price tag of over $45,000. Another could have been the Z1’s rather lackluster performance, particularly given all the other engineering that went into it. Acceleration wasn’t too bad, but nothing to write home about at 0-60 in 9 seconds. The top speed was 140 mph. Handling was fair, though there are conflicting opinions. Perhaps due to its rather fat 2,800 lb curb weight, which in spite of all that composite bodywork, was about the same as a 3-series of the same era.

Inside the car was very spartan. Basic instrumentation, radio, leather sport seats and a heater were all you got for the princely sum you paid. Though BMW claimed to have over 30,000 orders at one point, the company lost money on the Z1. By 1991 production ceased. Most remained in Germany, and none were officially imported to the US though one or two have made it over.

Today, the Z1 is no so much lauded for its capabilities as an actual sports car, but more as a pioneer of technologies and as a rarity/oddity. The Z3 would eventually prove to be a better roadster, but they had to start somewhere.

The second, third, and fourth photos were recently taken in Koln, Germany by contributor Veronika Zubel who spotted this Z1 on the street.
The images below were taken by me at the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix. Possibly the only Z1 licensed in North America – note PA plate at the rear.

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