BMW Z1 – 1988

The glaring eccentricities of the BMW Z1 are a wonderful testament to the confidence of the company. For the Z1 was conceived with no rationale other than to test new ideas which might later prove to be valuable. A two-seater compact roadster at first seems to limit opportunities for research, but the Z1 merely miniaturized a trunk load of theories about aerodynamics, aspiration, structure loads, ratios of ratios, and plain interesting new ways of doing things.

The most obvious is the ‘doors’. There aren’t any. Instead, you push a button and on either side, the window glass withdraws into the body panel as the panel itself withdraws into the lower body, leaving a gap like a boat’s entry port. The sill is still fairly high, and getting in and out a clamber; it’s even been suggested that BMW have not tried very hard to solve the difficulties of getting out of the car in a skirt. The Z1 does fascinating things. Body panels can be substituted far more readily than on a normal car.

A skilled technician is said to be able to ‘change the colour of the car’ in a day, just by panel swapping. The Zl’s structure is in any case unique: the smooth body contours and flat composite undertray covering the bottom of the car draws air towards an integral rear diffuser, generating ‘ground effect’ and sucking the car towards the ground. At speed, the Z1 remains stable — without significant spoilers.

So familiar now, ground effect was unique to BMW when the Z1 appeared, and the car incorporates several major engineering enquiries to which the solutions would later appear in many different vehicles. The Z1’s only real problem was its high price. It was a lovely, tough little roadster, if too heavy to be quick — definitely a one-off classic to treasure.


FIRST MANUFACTURED: 1988 (until 1991)

ENGINE: 2,494 cc BMW Straight Six

PERFORMANCE: Top speed of 136 mph (219 km/h); 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 7.9 secs

YOU SHOULD KNOW: The 7′ of the BMW Z1 is said to stand for the German word Zunkuft, meaning ‘Future’; or perhaps for the Z-axle rear suspension it used, and which was being tested for the forthcoming E36 BMW 3-series. Or perhaps neither, because the Z1’s successor, the Z3, was retro-styled instead of futuristic, and re-used a much older form of suspension. But Zunkuft is what the Z1 was truly about.


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