For several decades, Mercedes-Benz was the only German luxury car company that offered a regular-production convertible. BMW fired first when it launched the ragtop version of the E30 3-Series and the Z1 convertible in 1987, and Audi quickly joined the party with a topless four-seater dubbed simply Cabriolet in 1991.
The Z1 was a rolling display of BMW’s technological might and limited to just 8,000 examples. The E30 Cabriolet was popular among buyers and powerful when fitted with BMW’s sumptuous straight-six, but non-M3 models were undeniably more touring cars than sports cars.
BMW finally launched a sporty, mass-produced roadster in 1995. Called Z3 in order to create a connection with the earlier Z1, it rode on the same platform as the E36 Compact but it wore a more fluid design penned by Japanese designer Joji Nagashima and the two shared no styling cues.
The Z3 was assembled in South Carolina, earning it the honor of being the first in a long line of BMWs built in the United States. The public’s initial reaction was less than stellar: The build quality was not up to par and the 138-horsepower 1.9-liter four-cylinder was not powerful enough. Shortly after its launch, the car appeared in a James Bond movie and sale sky-rocketed in spite of the aforementioned drawbacks, giving BMW time to iron out the kinks.
The quality issues were remedied and the car was offered with an all-aluminum 3.0-liter straight-six rated at 189 horsepower, drawing customers back into showrooms and away from the then-new Mercedes-Benz SLK.
Over its production run, the Z3 was offered with a wide array of four- and six-cylinder engines ranging from a 115-horsepower 1.8-liter four offered only in Europe to a 3.0-liter straight-six rated at 231 ponies. A 325-horsepower 3.2-liter inline-six powered the last M-badged roadsters, marking the Z3’s final evolution.
A shooting brake called simply Z3 Coupé was added to the lineup in 1999 but that’s a different story for a different time. Z3 production ended in 2002 after receiving several minor facelifts and it was replaced by the E85 Z4 a year later.
A look in the classifieds reveals that some of the early Z3s trade hands for less than $5,000. As values drop, many examples get unjustly abused or are fitted with grotesque aesthetic modifications such as fake hood scoops, massive bumpers and an impossibly low suspension.
Will collectors turn their attention towards non-M examples of the BMW Z3 Roadster, or will they gravitate towards other convertibles from Japan, Germany and Italy?