1991 BMW Z1

BMW reckoned owners could swap body panels in hours for a color change, though people who have tried it say to allow two days

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Like its predecessor the 507, which bristled with trick technology but ultimately failed to go as well as it looked, the Z1 is a bit of a novelty.

But it did mark the return to a forgotten line for BMW: the two-seat sports car. Under that long-nosed plastic body hides a fine automobile. It is arguably more attractive than the Z3 that followed and has exclusivity on its side, with just 8,000 built.

That it never came to the U.S. was almost certainly due to the sliding doors, unique half-depth devices that dropped electrically into the sills when the door handles were pulled, taking the windows down with them if they were raised.

It was built on a galvanized steel punt built by Baur, clothed in thermoplastic panels made by General Electric Plastics, and it rode basically on E30 325i mechanicals. This was the first BMW to use the multi-link “Z-axle” at the rear, next seen under the new-generation E36 3-Series.

Other innovations included a bonded plastic undertray that channeled air over the inverted wing-section exhaust tailbox, which provided meaningful downforce at speed.

The potted official history is thus: Founded on January 1, 1985, as an R&D think-tank, BMW Technology GmbH was tasked with developing technologies that challenged the accepted basics of automotive design. Headed by Ulrich Bez, now the boss of Aston Martin, (he stayed after the sports car maker’s release from Ford), the new subsidiary’s first challenge was to build a car that encapsulated “Freedom on Four Wheels.”

The resultant BMW Z1 concept (Z standing for Zukunft, or future), was green-lit for production after the intervention of BMW AG chairman Eberhard von Kuenheim. It wowed the crowds at the 1987 Frankfurt Motor Show, though the press had had a few sniffs the year before.

Impressively rigid for a soft top, the BMW Z1 would do 0-60 mph in just over 7.5 seconds and top out at 140 mph, with excellent handling and creamy smooth power delivery from the small six. BMW reckoned owners could swap the body panels in a matter of hours if they wanted a color change, though people who have tried it say you need a couple of days to get them off and back on again.

In retrospect, perhaps the bravest thing for BMW was that it looked so unlike a Beemer that most folk didn’t recognize it for what it was, which, in the shoulder-padded big-haired yuppie ’80s, was a compelling reason for buying it.

Paul Hardiman

Paul Hardiman - SCM Senior Auction Analyst

Paul is descended from engineers and horse thieves, so he naturally gravitated toward the old-car marketplace and still finds fascination in the simpler things in life: looking for spot-weld dimples under an E-type tail, or counting the head-studs on a supposed Mini-Cooper engine. His motoring heroes are Roger Clark, Burt Levy, Henry Royce and Smokey Yunick — and all he wants for next Christmas is an Alvis Stalwart complete with picnic table in the back and a lake big enough to play in.

Posted in German