Unless your an avid follower, enthusiast or historian of BMW chances are you would think the E36/4 Z3, produced between 1996 and 2002 was the first roadster to be built by the Bavarian automaker in the modern era. However that is not the case. Unbenounced to many is the Z3′s predecessor, a futuristic and technologically-forward two-door roadster that paved the way for the successors that have followed, the BMW Z1.
Back in 1985, when BMW conjured up the idea of creating the company’s first two-door sports car in 30 years they wanted to design and build something revolutionary. Much like the Z1′s ancestor the 507, built during the late 1950s, the Z1 was meant to be a pinnacle of automotive design, engineering and forward-thinking. In order the achieve this harmony BMW gathered 60 of its best and brightest and created a think-tank completely separate from the rest of the company called BMW Technik GmbH.
With a strong group of talented individuals at its core it didn’t take long for the masterminds at BMW Technik to form sketches and preliminary designs for what would eventually become the Z1. The BMW to brass signed off on the initial renderings and just 12 months later the first prototype Z1 hit the streets.
As soon as it took to the road BMW knew they were onto something special. The two-seat roadster was far more that just another vehicle designed to capture people’s attention while driving with your significant other at the beach. The Z1, with excellent weight distribution, a front mid-engine setup, low weight and center of gravity made it a driving enthusiasts wet dream. Sure, it wasn’t the most powerful thing to take to the road, but it didn’t need to be. A 2.5-liter inline six-cylinder engine with a peak of 170 horsepower made the Z1 more than capable of holding its own.
At the 1987 Frankfurt Motor Show the Z1 made its world debut with massive amounts of interest and fan-fare from both the automotive press and the public. And how could it not? The Z1 was light years ahead of it time, not only in its design but in it technology.
The most striking and awe-inspiring aspect of the Z1 was undoubtably its vertical sliding doors. If you think Lamborghini thought of a cool way to enter and exit a vehicle, just take a look at these (video below). By pressing the key hole located on the side of the Z1 the doors would retract into the side sills. Not only did this allow for easy access into and out-of the vehicle, but it enabled the driver and their passenger to drive with no doors. Now how cool is that?
The frame of the Z1 was made from a self-supporting monocoque made of individual sheet-steel that was galvanised in an immersion bath to give the structure added rigidity and torsional strength. The floor of the vehicle was comprised of two layers of glass fibre-reinforced epoxy resin with polyurethane foam. This plastic concoction was not only lightweight, weighing in at just 33 pounds, but it was immune to corrosion and produced smooth underbody contours, making the vehicle that much more aerodynamic in the process. And no, not just the floor was made from plastic. Rather, the vast majority of the Z1 was made up of different types of the material. The front and rear sidewalls, the doors and the side sill covers were made from a high-tech thermoplastic with high impact strength. On the complete opposite end of the plastic spectrum was the front and rear bumpers, made from a highly flexible and elastic plastic that could return to it original shape following collisions of up to two and a half miles-per-hour.
While the extensive use of plastics made the Z1 stand out, it wasn’t the only part of the vehicle that made the Z1 one-of-a-kind. The four exterior colors available; Green metallic, Dream Black metallic, Fun Yellow and Top Red was specially designed to adhere to the variations of plastic used on the body.
Despite a hefty sticker price of 83,000 German Marks (approximately $53,000) the demand for the Z1 was immediate and pronounced. When the first production models rolled off the assembly line in 1989 4,000 of the eventual 8,000 Z1 to be produced already had been purchased, causing the vehicle to be sold out until the end of the following year.
Unlike its two successors, no M variant of the Z1 was ever put into production. BMW Motorsport did produce a one-off Z1 M prototype, with a wider sport chassis a more powerful engine, larger wheel arches, a low-slung front end and twin headlights. Two air scoops arched behind the head restraints, and sitting atop either side of the deep rear apron were two pairs of circular rear lights.
Although the production run of the hand-built Z1 was short (1989-1991) the two-door roadster had created a new segment for BMW, and would pave the way for the Z3 and Z4 to follow. It might not be the more widely known BMW ever made, but it is one of the most important.
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