Driving with open doors, feeling free and representing innovation – the BMW Z1.

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During a press trip with BMW, experiencing the all new roadster Z4 in Portugal, I had the opportunity to grab hold of another legend amongst the roadster family.

The BMW Z1

The BMW Z1 is a real contradiction to its roadster successor, the BMW Z8 I previously presented and of even more so its predecessor, the BMW 507. The Z1 doesn’t have much in common with the elegant V8 cruiser known as the 507. It has short dimensions, a function oriented glass-fabric body and a 170 hp delivering six-cylinder engine. The roadster was a technology bearer with whom BMW wanted to present itself as an innovative manufacturer.

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Who has once driven the BMW Z1, remembers the light crunching, while the doors lowered by a timing belt in just about three seconds. However, the whole process as such a coolness-factor, that the braggart factor of a Z1 door ranks not too far behind gullwing doors. Besides, the sunk doors provide even more open-air fun, one feels almost like driving a small British roadster. To look loose and careless also while getting in and out, it does required some practice. I am a lucky in that sense, as I am used to even tighter movements, jumping in and out of my Lotus Elise on a daily basis…

The Z1 is comfortable, smooth, and accommodating. It’s like driving a 325i sedan, from which the mechanics are stolen, and like a sedan, the 6-cylinders rev up without rage, merely soft and linear.

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The vehicle has attributes, not many series production cars have to offer:

  • The doors do not contribute to the stiffness of the vehicle and were concealable in the side skirts, so that the car could be driven with open doors.
  • The engine was inserted, like it was common till the late 1930s, behind the front axle by which the weight distribution was brought between front and rear axle for an ideal relation. (Today this is also called front middle engine.)
  • The complete, welded and fully assembled chassis was galvanised in one piece. This extended the life span and raised the torsion stiffness compared with a chassis from ungalvanized or pregalvanized metal by 25%. The technology was brand new and only known from the Renault Espace.
  • Non-weight-bearing body parts like side walls, doors, door sill linings, fenders and bumpers, are screwed together with thermo-sculptural plastic and with the chassis. This should reduce the time invested in repairs drastically.
  • The central double wishbone rear axle was newly designed and then taken over in the great serial production of the class E36.

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In the matter of driving dynamics the BMW Z1 left behind many other open roadsters. This is not only rooted back to the weight of 1250 kg, realised by the light plastic car body – as there were more puristic roadsters which would show even less on a scale. Munich engineers chose a  2.5-litre-row six-cylinder engine from the 3 Series, with 170 horse power and longevity.

Enthusiastic drivers will have to stay next to the red line if they want to feel something, or even hear something a bit more sporty. Luckily, the little BMW can turn—and cornering is not bad. The simple rear axle is always polite and never nervous because of the relative lack of power and its soft-on-its-response suspension. The steering is identical to the E30 Series, so: very precise and strong. 

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In the middle of 1988 the production of the roadster starts, some months later launches the Z1 the in a limited series of precisely 8000 cars at a price of 83,000 Deutsche Marks. For the proud sum the solvent clientele receives an extravagant and trendsetting roadster. Thanks to its compact construction method, the front middle engine and the body made of glas fibre which sits on a galvanised sheet steel chassis, leave an incredibly light car with ideal weight distribution.

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