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


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.

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This 1991 BMW Z1 sold for $27,152 at H&H’s Duxford, England, auction on October 10, 2007.

Though initial demand was fierce-BMW says it took 5,000 orders before production began-that dropped off by 1988, and it’s hard to see exactly who the Z1 was originally aimed at. In any case, it took a few years for all the Z1s to trickle through the dealer network, not helped by a huge $75,000 list price.

There’s no embarrassment about this landmark car though; BMW U.K. keeps one it sometimes lets out for magazine features, and the author spent a pleasant week with it in 1994, when it turned more heads than a Testarossa. It’s as easy to get along with as a 325i, though at a heavy 2,750 lbs, it’s not quite as fast, and explaining those novelty doors quickly gets tiresome.

Clean, tidy, and discreet in black

This BMW Z1 is late in production, clean and tidy, and discreet in black-the second most popular choice after red, with 2,301 supplied in this hue. Metallic Ancient Green was the third choice, with embarrassing (though we thought it was cool at the time) camouflage-pattern bolstered seats. Some owners have had them retrimmed in various catastrophic colors, as the Nubuck covering doesn’t last well, but this car’s dark gray leather had survived unscathed. The vendor described the car’s condition as “very good” (interior trim, chassis, bodywork, paintwork, wheels and tires) and “excellent” (engine, gearbox, electrical equipment), all of which I’d go along with.

What goes wrong? Usual E30 3-Series stuff, and that’s not much. The cylinder head can crack between cam bearings if it’s been overheated, pre-’90 cars had a potential head bolt problem that was sorted by Torx bolts, and lower front ball joints can wear, though that seems unlikely at this low mileage.

Interiors are fragile, and the most serious cosmetic failing is that the inner door trims can get scraped if you play with the doors too much, but the lifting mechanism, via motors, shafts, and toothed belts, seems reliable. There is plenty of info on various club and owners’ web sites on how to tackle it.

Predictably, this sale prompted plenty of “have you seen the doors” comments from casual punters who always make up the numbers at British regional auctions. Dealers are a bit nervous of BMW Z1s, as they’re a bit “weird,” though most don’t get to see one. There were only 86 officially imported to the U.K., though the total here now maybe double that with personal/gray imports, of which this was one. It makes no difference in value, however, as they are all left-hand drive.

One of the better Z1s on the market

There are a few BMW Z1s on the European market at present, and the price has dropped in the last two years from around $40,000 to $25,000-$30,000. This was one of the better ones, with “celebrity” (soccer player) previous ownership, whatever that’s worth, and a year’s MoT. It sold on the phone to a U.K. buyer at the low end of correct for $27,152. The only jarring note was the Northern Ireland license plate, which some owners mistakenly apply to aging “prestige” vehicles in the mistaken belief that they convey a discreet timelessness, but one could change to a proper age-related number easily enough.

The BMW Z1 is not DOT approved except under a special Show and Display waiver, and it will be five years until a first-year 1987 model can be brought to the U.S.

Although BMW builds definitive sports sedans, the ranks of first-tier collectible BMWs is thin indeed, and the Z1 doesn’t help any. In a way, what it shares with the Z8 is a total lack of visual continuity with any other BMW, no mechanical uniqueness, and no competition provenance (unusual door treatment only gets you so far-ask a DeLorean owner).

At this price, no one got hurt, but no one’s going to put their children through college on any potential profits, either. Let’s just call it fair enough for all concerned, at a price that was exactly what the car was worth.

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