After the pre-War 328 and the 507 of the late 1950s, BMW had no two-seater open sports cars on its books.
That was the case until a subsidiary called BMW Technik created a roadster concept called the Z1.
BMW put it into production in 1989, and for almost every year since then it has been possible to buy a Z model of some sort. Here is the story of the Z cars that made it, and one that didn’t, in numerical order starting with Z1:
First, though, there’s the question of why the cars are called Z. BMW subsidiary companies have code names with two letters, and in the case of BMW Technik GmbH (founded in 1985 and renamed BMW Forschung und Technik – or Research and Technology – in 2003), those letters are ZT. The first car produced by the company was both known internally and sold to the public as the Z1.
It’s often said that the Z actually stands for the German word Zukunft, meaning ‘future’. This was not the original meaning, but it has become accepted as an alternative, and BMW Group Classic is happy with both.
Apart from its unadventurous 168bhp 2.5-litre six-cylinder engine, the Z1 was quite radical for a BMW of the late 1980s, with removable plastic body panels, underbody aerodynamics and multilink rear suspension. What most people, noticed, however, were the downward-retracting doors. The car could be driven with them down, though whether this was legal depended on what country you were in.
Production stopped in 1991 after 8000 examples were built, with the vast majority (81%) sold in Germany. There were to be no more BMW Z production models for four years.
The Z model which didn’t happen (or at least hasn’t yet) was the Z2. For several years there was speculation about a front-wheel drive model, and possibly a 4×4 derivative, based on a MINI platform which might function as a rival to the Mazda MX-5.
Recently, however, the story has gone cold. If BMW ever does produce a Z2, it probably won’t be in the near future. PICTURE: Autocar renderBMW Z3 (1995-2002)
The original Z3 was the first BMW built only outside Germany. All production took place at the Spartanburg factory in Greer, South Carolina.
From its launch in 1995, the car was initially available with modest four-cylinder engines of 1.8- and later 1.9-litre capacity. These gave the Z3 a good handling balance, but power outputs of under 140bhp did not impress critics or indeed James Bond fans. Six-cylinder engines producing up to 228bhp became available at the turn of the century.
BMW Z3 Coupe
BMW diverted slightly from the idea of all Z models being roadsters when it developed the Z3 Coupe. Mechanically identical to the open-top version, it was structurally stiffer – always a good thing – but its appearance was not universally admired.
The Coupe was referred to variously as ‘hearse’, ‘breadvan’ and ‘clown shoe’, which may explain why sales were disappointing compared with those of the Roadster, though they’re desirable and valuable today.BMW Z3 M Roadster and M Coupe
High-performance versions of the Z3 developed by BMW’s high-performance M department went on sale in 1997.
Several 3.2-litre six-cylinder engines were used over the next five years, the most powerful producing 320bhp. There were some doubts about how well the car coped with this, but early complaints about the Z3 lacking power were definitely a thing of the past.