Everybody knows of BMW’s Motorsport division but hardly anybody has heard of Forschung und Technik, created in 1985 to develop the firm’s future concepts. To mark the occasion, at the time of its creation, its engineers dedicated to research and innovation set out to develop a whole new car completely offbeat and quirky in comparison to any of the other cars the firm had ever built. They launched the Z series for ‘Zukunft’ (or future in German) with the surprising Z1.
To put the Z1 in its proper context at the time of its presentation at the 1987 Frankfurt Motor Show, we need to recall BMW’s model lineup back then: the 3 Series E30, the 5 Series E28, the 6 Series E24 and the big 7 Series E32. An attractive lineup, sometimes powerful, but rather conservative. The very opposite of the Z1. Although its engine, the famous 2.5 litre flat-six with 170 hp that it borrowed from the E30, was solid and a conservative choice, the Z1 seemed ostensibly shameless, with its roadster look, its extremely low grill and its doors that disappear into its sides.
Zukunft: lot’s of innovation.
A first time introduced, multi-rod arm, Z-axle rear suspension, an interior inspired by another BMW subsidiary (Motorrad), a Cx drag coefficient of 0.36, a rollbar integrated into the windshield, a galvanised steel chassis frame: the Z1 BMW was particularly modern for an 1980s car. The project began thanks to Doctor Ulrich Bez (who later would be found at the head of Aston Martin during its full transformation) and found its design thanks to Harm Laagay (who already proved himself by his work on the design of the 924 Porsche).
Once the project got the green light from the BMW board in 1986, and then that of the general public in 1987, the order books were opened in 1988 for production to began at the beginning of 1989: buyers then had to wait almost a year to receive delivery of their Z1. Even at the showroom price of 375,000 French francs at the time, it had no trouble to meet the sales objectives of the factory of 5,000 units produced. Better yet, an extra 3,000 units were built to fill the total enthusiastic demand of its admirers.
Despite its outstanding design and all its modern attributes, the Z1 is a calm and peaceful ride. To drive with the doors open certainly gives it a sports-like feel but with only 170 horsepower and a rather heavy weight (1250 kilos), not to mention a 5 speed gearbox with an eerily long shift, there is nothing sporty about it.
But like others before and since (I am thinking of cars such as the Alfa Romeo SZ/RZ), the attraction of such a car is not in its sportiness. The exclusiveness of such a model made you back then (and still now) a one of a kind man (or woman of course!); it’s design made you back then (and even today) somebody distinctly modern. Even today its doors, that disappear by magic, seem futuristic, while its nose hasn’t gotten any new wrinkles. But better still, as BMW sometimes loses itself in disproportionate noses, the Z1’s is subtly inspired by the mythical M1 and proves that in design, sobriety can be a virtue.
The first « Z »
Driving a Z1 these days still makes quite the statement: all heads turn, recognising a BMW at first glance thanks to its double bean grills, but they are perplexed in its wake trying to figure out which model it could possibly be? This impression of driving a concept car is the privilege of this funny BMW, which no other model since seems to give (except maybe the 8i). The production was stopped in 1991, and remained without any direct heirs until the introduction of the Z3 in September 1995, reinstating another Z in the collection. Yet, with it’s neo-retro look and fairly classic structure, the Z3 seems to be guilty of identity theft by using the last letter of the alphabet in its name. In the 1990s, Forschung und Technik was more focused on styling prototypes like the famous Z13 and the Z21.
Now-a-days a Z1 costs more than an 325i E30, with the same motor, or a conceptually close Z3 (the two seat roadster). According to LVA* (2018) you’d have to write a check for about 85,000 euros (or maybe more depending upon the highly speculative desire for limited series cars) to go back… to the future!
**LVA = “La Vie de l’auto” is a renowned French journal dedicated to old collection cars.