The BMW Z1 was first seen in 1986, first shown at the 1987 Frankfurt Motor Show and first went on sale in 1988. The first two-seat BMW since the 1959 507, it was called Z1 for a reason: this was the first truly forward-looking BMW of modern times. Even the name emphasised this: it’s Z for zukunft, German for ‘future’.
Initial demand was huge (this was the late 80s, after all). An original plan to build just 5,000 was raise up to 8,000 with the vast majority going to Germany. A lack of right-hand drive hampered its appeal in the UK, although a heady list also didn’t help. Today, it still sells for upwards of this list price: how’s that for a depreciation-buster?
The Z1 here is from BMW GB’s heritage fleet, that we drove to the 2016 Goodwood Festival of Speed – at which BMW is the honoured marque as part of its centenary celebrations. Fitting: at the time, the Z1 was certainly one of the most ambitious models from its 100 years in business.
What are its rivals?
Back in 1990, rivals were few. Roadsters had fallen out of fashion and Mazda had only recently launched the MX-5 to bring them back into style. The archaic Alfa Romeo Spider couldn’t really be considered an alternative and neither Audi nor Mercedes-Benz had rivals to it. Even the MGF was some way down the line.
Today, it’s a relatively accessible way into exclusive BMW ownership. Cars such as the Z8 are way off the scale these days but you’ll turn just as many heads in a Z1.
What engine does it use?
The Z1 uses the 2.5-litre straight-six M20 engine from the E30 BMW 325i. First launched in 1977, the motor was by now fuel injected but still getting on a bit (think single overhead cam, two valves per cylinder). Even so, 170hp and 168lb-ft of torque are decent numbers for 1990. It’s paired with a five-speed Getrag manual gearbox.
The Z1 perhaps isn’t as light as you’d think, with a kerbweight of 1,250kg, but rear-drive traction is still able to deliver 0-62mph in 7.9secs. Decent aerodynamics (with the roof up, at least) give it a top speed of 141mph.
What’s it like to drive?
It’s truly bizarre in one respect: you can legally drive with the doors open, almost touch the ground as you move. Do so and you feel uncommonly exposed and open, which is an ever-wonderful experience so long as you’re not going too quickly (wind blast takes over at more than 40mph).
The Z1 feels a bit rattly for the first 10 minutes. The chassis is stiff but it still lacks modern car torsional rigidity, so it feels its age. The steering’s a bit twirly, gearchange long-throw and the harmonious engine is tappety and lacking immediacy (it’s not quick by modern standards, although the torque is easy-access). But you soon tune into it and the agedness is replaced by uniqueness.
Up the speed and the Z1 smoothes out, relaxed damping floats it along beautifully (but still in control) and the steering becomes fingertip-input tactile and chatty (with the stuff they tune out of modern systems), almost as if it’s being awakened by at-speed downforce on the front end. An innovative early iteration of a rear diffuser plans the rear too and makes it feel unexpectedly stable and confident at speed. It’s a genuine all-day-long 150km/h autobahn cruiser.
It’s not over-stiff, far from aggressive, is simply neat, tidy, compact and engaging. It’s not focused fun in the way a period M3 is, and certainly rolls a lot more than some sportier cars, but this is all part of the appeal. And, doors open, the torquey engine has enough grunt to require few gearchanges, so you can drive left arm resting on the sill, right hand on the steering wheel. A style that feels ideal for the little Z1.
Reliability and running costs
Cleverly, BMW largely used stock mechanicals for the Z1. And the bits that weren’t pilfered from other models were kept simple and fulsomely over-engineered: the ultra-stiff chassis is evidence of that. Even the doors seem generally trouble free – proof of how heavy-duty they are being the fact the whole car vibrates when they’re operated…
The most niggly mechanical part is actually the engine. Unlike the later M50 engine, the M20 motor uses cambelts, and these need regular, religious changes every three years or 36,000 miles. Factor this into running costs, but you’ll benefit from decent economy and low cost of maintenance otherwise.
Needless to say, replacing the body panels is tricky: repair is probably the best option these days. In theory, you can remove them all in 40 minutes. In reality, factor in two days…
Could I drive it every day?
There are a few barriers to everyday Z1 driving. Of course, it’s only left-hand drive. The doors may drop into the sills but it’s still really tricky to get in and out of – the leather on the side sills takes a beating. It doesn’t have air con (there was the space behind the dash to install it) so gets hot in summer if you don’t lower the doors and roof – and if you do, wind noise quickly starts roaring. The boot is tiny and your relegated gear feels exposed if you use the passenger seat instead. You may find a few leaks inside if it rains.
On the flip side, the tappety engine is ultra-flexible so you can leave it on one gear and cruise easily. The controls are reasonably positive and the brakes – supported by ABS – are less heart-in-mouth than some other older cars. And you can feel the deep engineering integrity of BMW. Even the fact it’s left-hand drive is countered by great visibility and compact dimensions.
How much should I pay?
You can get scruffy ones for less than £25,000 but really you need to budget at least £30,000 to get into Z1 ownership. Some of the nicest cars are now nudging £45,000, even £50,000 (and we’ve seen one with delivery miles only retailing for £79,995).
The days of a bargain Z1 are thus gone, if they ever existed at all. But get a good one and it’s so rare and such a curio, it will never lose money – it’s a bona fide BMW desirable classic.
What should I look out for?
Check those composite panels with a fine toothcomb, as it’s massively difficult to get replacements, warn experts. They shouldn’t fade too badly, as the colour is impregnated within them, although this actually makes repairs easier to spot. It’s near-impossible to replace the interior trim.
Give the engine a good check-over for evidence of good maintenance, regular belt changes and no cracked head gaskets or smoky exhausts. At least here, it’s easier to fix. Also look for the original Z1-branded Sony stereo: they’re worth a small fortune these days and you can mark cars down that lack them.
Should I buy one?
Very few Brits know what the BMW Z1 is. Most were sold in Germany and its lack of official right-hand status here affords it an exclusive image. This makes it a genuine modern-classic BMW curio, one that you can pick up for similar-to-E30 M3 money and turn far more heads.
It’s not as thrilling to drive as an M3 but it’s surely a bona fide classic that, so long as you’re careful with it and keep it in tip-top condition, will surely only go up in value in years to come. Indeed, it’s already starting to happen: if you want to buy one, you should definitely buy one now.
The Z1’s rear Z-axle suspension was later used by the BMW E36 3 Series – and was also fitted to the Rover 75. Although the MG6 reportedly uses components and designs derived from the 75, it doesn’t share the Z-axle rear suspension – apparently because BMW refused to licence the clever design to the brand’s Chinese owners.
Specifications: 1990 BMW Z1
Price (1990): £36,925
Engine: 2.5-litre 6 cylinder
Top speed: 141mph