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Driving the Plastic Fantastic - BMW Z1

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A little over 25 years ago, BMW shocked the automotive world by introducing a sexy and technically unique 2 place, drop-top sports car prototype at the Frankfurt Motor Show. This exciting show car was the first creation to come from BMW’s new skunk works – BMW Technik GmbH. This was a group of over 50 forward thinking automotive engineers headed by automotive design legend, Dr. Ulrich Bez.

Formed in 1985, BMW Technik’s mission was to drive innovation and foster new ideas that would find their way to the product line – back then BMW’s product offerings were dominated by very conservative, albeit sporty sedans. What made the Z1 prototype so exciting was the fact that, while it had all of the styling cues and exciting design touches of a purely futuristic fantasy, its basic mechanical components – engine, transmission and most brake components – were all right out of the E30 parts bin and therefore were readily available and proven reliable. That meant, the prototype wouldn’t be merely an engineering or marketing exercise. It would eventually see production.Yes, very exciting.

Technical Details

The Z1 is unique in a lot of ways. First, the 1988 press release describes it as “built around a zinc-plated monocoque” or backbone with a flat bonded plastic floor pan. Underneath, the flow of air under the flat floor is directed around a unique wing-shaped transverse rear muffler that acts as an under-body spoiler, reducing turbulence and adding downforce as speed builds.

The fenders, hood, deck lid and bumpers are all plastic (think back to the Pontiac Fiero) with each section made from different chemical compositions and tailored to its specific position on the body and its function. For example, the bumpers are made of urethane as this material is flexible and has greater resistance to impact. The doors and side panels are molded from a special GE thermoplastic and the engine hood, rear deck lid and the flip up tonneau cover are made of sturdy fiberglass. The body panels are painted with a special highly flexible coating that was co-developed for the Z1 project by BMW and AKZO. Speaking of coatings, the car only came (officially) in four colors. Red, black and green were most common, making these the color choices for the vast majority of Z1’s.

Our subject car is painted a fourth option, “Fun Yellow” (fun geld in German), and is only 1 of 133 ever made in that hue and probably the only one in that color in the USA. The rarest “unofficial” Z1 colors – swimming pool blue and oh-so orange - were reserved for the car’s two designers, Ulrich Bez and Harm Lagaay (Lagaay, famous for design of the Porsche Boxster). Near the end of the production run, purple was also made available but legend, rumor and folk lore has it that purple was only available to BMW’s top executives. As Mel Brooks once said, “It’s good to be the king!”

The Z1 was so technically advanced that it earned a slew of patents for innovations such as the drop-down doors, the car’s new high intensity headlight system and the unique underbody aerodynamic design.

Mechanically, the Z1 is mostly 1980s BMW. The engine picked is the 2,495cc SOHC silky smooth 6 cylinder from the E30 325i canted 20 degrees to lower the hood line and fitted behind the front axle for better weight distribution (BMW says the Z1’s weight distribution is 49/51.)

Power was rated as a relatively modest (by today’s standard) 170 hp coming on at 5,800 RPM with 164 lb-ft of torque at 4,300 RPM. The transmission is a Getrag 260/5 connected to the rear axle by a rigid transaxle tunnel (think torque tube ala Porsche 928/924/944). Front suspension is pure E30 front coils and struts. Brakes are vented E30 discs up front and unique-to-the-Z1 solid discs out back with integrated hand brake shoes.

While the Z1 came with an in-dash radio and heater, due to space limitations, air conditioning was never offered, not even as an option.

Where the Z1’s mechanicals really depart from those on the 325 are in the rear suspension and the choice of wheels and tires. The Z1’s rear suspension was BMW’s first production “multi-link” affair called (no surprise) the Z-axle and was probably a precursor to the wonderful setup found a few years later on the early ‘90’s E36 line.

Wheels and tires were upgraded over the base E30 as well with 16 inch by 7.5 inch alloys fitted with aggressive, even by today’s standards, 225/45 ZR 16’s tires.

Performance, based on the 1988 BMW press release, rated the top speed to be 135, (however, the owner’s manual says 140!) with a magazine-tested sub 8 second 0-60 run. Maybe these are not very eye-popping stats in 2011 where many an econo-box could give it a run for its money, but these figures were quite respectable for the era. Unfortunately, based on its stunning good looks, (and price) potential buyers were expecting more.

Even more unfortunate, the Z1 was never officially imported into the United States. In fact, despite the even greater rarity of BMWs like the 507 (only 252 made) and the pre-war 328 (only 467 made) there is a very good chance that you have never seen a Z1 in person, despite the fact that they built 8,000 (give or take a few test mules) and they are a late-80’s early ‘90’s model (1989-1991).

Behind the wheel

The look and feel is very 1980’s BMW with gauges, shifter and controls exactly where they should be. However, your author felt like he was sitting very high in the amazingly comfortable but non-height adjustable driver’s seat, worried all the while that he looked more like Mayor McCheese in Ronald’s shoe car than a suave and sophisticated BMW guy.

Once under way, all of that nonsense faded as we drove the back roads of rural Pennsylvania, bathed by the bucolic sights and sounds that were in early summer blossom along miles of perfect country byways.

We cruised with both doors down and while the experience of seeing the road, literally inches from our grasp was exciting, when our speed exceeded about 40 MPH (about 70 KPH on the metric speedo), the wind buffeting and noise were intense. For high speed cruising, both doors up is the way to go.

While power is certainly adequate, brakes are up to the task and the Getrag 5 speed shifts like it was made yesterday, it’s the Z1’s handling that makes it a star. Turn in on medium speed corners was about as good as it gets – maybe better. Not to take too big a shot at the new BMWs that all have lots of technology flipping bits between the steering wheel and the front tires, the road feel on the Z1 could (maybe SHOULD) serve as the model for all cars. It’s that good.

Of course, visibility with the top down is amazing and, weather permitting, the only way to go. From the driver’s seat, you could see all four corners, making placement in a turn simple and safe.

All in all, the Z1 proved itself to be one sweet BMW - one where its good looks and unique technological features make it a plastic, fantastic ride

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