The Z1's clean lines are less contrived than the Bubba-built Z3's cow-
catcher face-and we won't even mention the Z4


BMW's sensational Z1 sports car was essentially a concept car that went into production. The Z1 was special indeed, a front-mid-engined sports car with rear-wheel drive and excellent handling. Its straight-six, 2.5-liter, 170-hp engine gave it a top speed of around 140 mph, with 0-60 mph achievable in eight seconds. Some 8,000 examples were built.
The BMW Z1 on offer here is attractively presented in Fun Yellow livery with yellow leather/cloth interior and equipped with a black top and alloy wheels. It is to left-hand-drive specification with a manual gearbox. The car was invoiced for £38,432 (approx. $61,000) in December 1989, and has covered just 2,528 miles since.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1990 BMW Z1
Years Produced:1988-1991
Number Produced:8,000 (series production, not including 12 prototy
Original List Price:DM 80,000 (approx. $45,000)
SCM Valuation:$25,000-$40,000
Tune Up Cost:$600
Distributor Caps:$50
Chassis Number Location:VIN plate attached to the upper radiator support, VIN and frame number stamped on chassis by Motronic control box under the hood
Engine Number Location:left rear side of the engine block, above the starter
Club Info:BMW Car Club of America, 640 S. Main St., Greenville, SC 29601
Alternatives:1990-1997 Mazda MX-5 Miata, 1988-1991 BMW 325i convertible, 1984-1989 TVR S convertible
Investment Grade:C

This 1990 BMW Z1 sold for $41,378 at the Bonhams’ London auction, held Dec. 6, 2004.
The father of all future BMW Z cars was introduced at the Frankfurt Auto Show in 1987. Intended initially as a think-tank car from BMW’s then-new FIZ technical center, it used “space age” plastic body panels laid over a steel monocoque chassis. (This was similar to the way GM would later build its “Dustbuster” minivans and Saturn econo-boxes.) Customer demand for the Bimmer concept was strong enough to entice management to build the car-by the end of the Frankfurt show, BMW reportedly had 5,000 orders. When the green light for production was issued in October 1988, the entire project was farmed out to Bauer of Stuttgart.
Right from the start, the Z1 encountered problems, as its limited production numbers and engineering complexity drove the MSRP far higher than originally thought. Once projected to cost a few thousand marks more than a conventional 325i convertible, the on-sale price was considerably higher: 80,000 marks (approx. $45,000). Most of the 5,000 orders evaporated, and sales trickled to almost nothing once the few look-at-me types had their car.
Worse than the escalating price, the Z1’s performance was underwhelming. The bone-stock powertrain lifted from the 325i, while adequate in that lighter car, lacked the power to propel the heavier Z1 to a level of performance befitting its price and stated purpose. By comparison, when the Mazda Miata bowed in 1989, it was right there with the Bimmer in the eight-second, 0-60 mph range, but listed at about a quarter of the Z1’s price.
Although the Z1 concept used a transaxle, economies of manufacture ruled the day and the production car has a conventional transmission with a torque tube running to the differential. Because the Z1 was the first production BMW to use the Z-link independent rear suspension, its handling was better than most. Its basic mechanicals are as good as any 3-series, with the weak link being the use of a timing belt in lieu of a chain, meaning the four-year/60,000-mile replacement schedule is to be heeded. The only component that is now getting difficult to obtain is the correct rear muffler, unique in that it is basically an underbody rear wing.
The BMW Z1 is not unlike a kit car, which is to say that much of the build quality is not up to usual BMW specs. None of the trim is common to any other BMW, as it was either sourced from the aftermarket or fabricated by Bauer. Seating materials readily wear out from regular use, and interiors are notorious for just falling apart, as the low-grade leather appliqué glued onto the plastic panels needs constant maintenance. Body gaskets and weather-stripping materials were also sub-standard, with torn A-pillar and headlight seals being the most problematic.
At least the plastic body panels hold up well, although collision-repair parts are becoming hard to find. Panel fit is usually good with the exception of sinking doors, so be sure to look for rubbing caused by misalignment, not uncommon on earlier production cars. If you have to get into aligning the doors, a prudent upgrade is to change out their drive belts, especially if operation is erratic or slow.
Aesthetics are subjective, but I’ve always thought that the Z1 was a far better looking car than the later Z3. While the Z1’s front fascia might come off as a 1990 Camaro with a Roundel on it, its cleaner lines are less contrived than the Bubba-built roadster’s cow-catcher face. As for the garish Z4 with its droopy-drawers side sculpture and Bangle-butt rear-let’s not even go there.
Almost from the time the Z1 was first seen at Frankfurt, there was some interest in bringing it to BMW’s largest export market, the U.S. However, due to its already high price and additional costs to federalize the vehicle, none were officially imported. Even though it’s still 11 years away from being exempt from general importation regulations, getting one in is a little easier thanks to the “Bill Gates law” which allows importing individual cars under 25 years old that were never officially sold in the U.S. Just know that completing the paperwork to do this is not for the novice who is weak of heart or checkbook. An experienced broker who is well versed in customs laws and their idiosyncrasies is your best bet if you absolutely have to have the only one in your local BMWCCA chapter.
While the majority of Z1s were sold in Germany, a respectable number crossed the English Channel. This may be the best source for immigration to these shores, as all Z1s are left hand drive and the U.K.-spec cars are fitted with non-metric instrumentation. The BMW Z1 pictured here falls into this category, a desirably low-mileage car that also benefits from its later production date. From 1990 through the end of production in 1991, a design change in the head bolts fixed their propensity to break over time.
Z1 owners in Europe are a tight-knit group, and have always tended to use their cars regularly on tours and in driving schools. (When I attended the BMW Club Europa’s annual driver’s school at the Nürburgring in 1994, the largest contingent by far was the Z1 club.) As such, Z1s will generally fall into only one of two categories: used hard with lots of clicks on the clock, or time-capsule condition. This one is the latter, so I’ll say that $41k bid is money well spent for a buyer jonesing for a no-excuses Z1.
(Historical and descriptive information courtesy of the auction company.)

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