BMW traveled to the 1993 edition of the Geneva Motor Show to unveil an innovative concept called Z13. The Z13 was officially presented as a simple design study, but company insiders knew it was a thinly-veiled preview of what a compact car for the 21st century might look like.
BMW Technik hired Porsche designer Robert Powell in 1990. Powell always liked the idea of a small car but he seriously began to think about designing one when he found himself regularly commuting between his home in Stuttgart and his office in Munich in an E34 5-Series.
“The more I drove the 5-Series alone, the more I began to consider the idea of a small, fast, safe, compact and lightweight intercity traveler, optimized for one person with sat nav, air conditioning, a perfect sound system and so on,” explained Powell in a December 2010 interview with magazine BMW Car.
BMW Technik boss Klaus Kapitza told Powell to move ahead with his project. As it turns out, several BMW engineers and designers had toyed around with the idea of building a small car over the course of the 1980s but not one of the projects had made it past the drawing board.
Powell’s own records indicate he initially wanted to build the Z13 using a carbon fiber monocoque and aluminum sub-frames on both ends, a setup that bears a striking similarity to the chassis that underpins the recently-introduced BMW i3. The futuristic platform was shelved in favor of a more cost-efficient aluminum space frame, and the Z13’s body panels were made out of hand-beaten aluminum by an Turin-based coachbuilder named Stola. The finished prototype tipped the scale at 1,839 pounds (830 kilos) and stretched just 133 inches (340 centimeters) long.
The Z13’s cockpit featured an innovative center-mounted steering wheel, a setup that BMW explained made the car safer because it protected the driver from side impacts. Additionally, the car could be entered from either side.
The Z13 was as well equipped as an E32 7-Series. It packed leather-upholstered seats, a premium sound system manufacturer by Harman Kardon, a mobile phone, a satellite navigation system, air conditioning and even a fax machine. A pair of seats mounted behind the driver provided space for two additional occupants, and they could fold down if extra cargo space was needed.
Power came from a modified version of the K1100 motorcycle’s water-cooled 1.1-liter four-cylinder engine. Mounted in front of the rear axle, the four-banger spun the rear wheels via a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that BMW purchased from Ford. A large, timer-like knob mounted on the right side of the steering wheel allowed the driver to select Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive or Sport.
The Z13 was well received by the public and the press so BMW’s board of management asked Powell and his team to build a second prototype. Painted dark red, the second Z13 it was identical to the first example on the outside but it featured a different chassis, a more powerful 1.2-liter four-cylinder engine from the K1200 and a more conventional five-speed manual gearbox.
BMW had all but approved the Z13 for production but the project was abruptly canceled when the automaker purchased England’s ailing MG-Rover and all of its subsidiaries in 1994. The bittersweet MG-Rover deal included the iconic Mini, so BMW executives ruled that developing a city car in-house was a waste of money.