The 'Z' in Z1 stood for zukunft, which is german for 'future'. This was BMW's vision of the future.
Only 8,000 were ever made between March of 1989 and June 1991. They were never sold in North America, probably in large part because the slide-down doors were deemed illegal. The majority of Z1 cars, fittingly, were sold to Germans, where the quirky shape and driving configuration would be literally right at home carving a route along the autobahn or an alpine pass.
Although it shared some parts like the legendary M20 inline 6-cylinder engine and accompanying transmission with the E30 325ix, the Z1 featured a completely new chassis and multi-link suspension. The engine was mounted behind the front axle. Power was sent to the rear wheels. It accelerated from 0-60 mph in just under 8 seconds, not as fast as you'd expect but still acceptable.
The most interesting aspects of the Z1 are design and construction. The seams were continuously welded with zinc. The entire body is composed of removable plastic parts. The sides and the doors were made of high-strength thermoplastic that could withstand 5 mph impacts. BMW actually encouraged owners to buy an additional set of body parts to change the color of the vehicle at any time. The Z1 could also be driven with all body panels removed.
The entire underbody is covered in a flat composite tray to increase aerodynamic flow and decrease turbulence and rear lift. The whole vehicle achieves a drag coefficient of 0.36.
Styling is extremely interesting. It doesn't look like any other BMW, although a lot of small details seem to have inspired subsequent models. The whole shape is wedge like, particularly the down sloping front nose and small twin grille holes which are reminiscent of the later 8-series. The large square taillights might have inspired the 1992 E36. And of course the whole compact two-seater idea eventually led to the Z3.
Despite the good looks and impressive stats, the Z1 was not a big seller. Apparently BMW was unable to manufacture more than 10-20 units each day. The car is in no way seen as a failure however, as it debuted dozens of innovations, but more of an exclusive, low-volume piece. However, one can't help but wonder what would have become of the car had BMW made it slightly more conventional, as it arrived at the same time as the Mazda Miata. The Z1 could easily have beaten it in performance and possibly even sales.
Fortunately, a few examples have since been independently imported here. This is such an example, and it looks terrific in deep green (the seller says the exterior color is black but it sure looks to have a green tone in light) over red and black two-tone interior. A lot of these were painted red, so it's nice to see a dark color that flatters the shape. Red leather interiors were quite rare, but I don't know if this interior is original or modified. It looks good either way.
The seller is a dealer and states the mileage is only 47,246. Since these are the ultimate open-air cruisers, it's not surprising to find them with low miles, as most were used as third cars only on weekends.
They also say it has never been in an accident, and has no visible dents or rust. Since the body was plastic, I wouldn't expect any rust. I would check the undercarriage just in case. Maintenance records (or lack thereof) will flesh out the rest of the story.
Another nice aspect of this vehicle is the removable hardtop that comes with the sale. I'm assuming these are rare (as most removable hardtops are a hassle to store and install and are therefore often not ordered) and it's great to have one with this vehicle. It flows perfectly with the design and looks sharp.
The seller is mum on how it got here but says it is "imported legally and ready for your enjoyment." Cheers to that. This is an extremely rare car that featured a lot of technologies innovative for the time and still intriguing today. It is unknown how BMW intended for the Z1 program to go, but one thing is certain: it's almost guaranteed to be a collector classic soon, if not already.
My friends over at germancarsforsaleblog.com had featured this back in April here.
Find it currently here on ebay in Westchester, New York, with bidding already at $12,445 but reserve not met.