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BMW Z1 buying guide, history and review

Words: Matthew Hayward

Clever door mechanisms are often the preserve of supercars these days, but in the past you had plenty of options. Whether it was the DeLorean’s gullwing doors, the Toyota Sera’s dihedral arrangement or even the Mazda RX-8’s rear ‘suicide’ doors, these deviations from the norm really do stick in the minds of enthusiasts. That’s a shame in the case of the BMW Z1, as those futuristic sliding doors – which drop electrically into the sills – are the only thing most people remember about it.

The doors might be the reason most of us remember the Z1, though its legacy lies in the fact that it paved the way for BMW to return to the two-seater sports car market. Without this car, would there have been the Z3, Z4 or Z8? It was always seen as a bit of a curio, and remains something of a BMW outlier, missing much of the cult appeal that has driven M Sport cars up in value over the past decade. Yet prices have always been firm, because those in the know appreciate it for a lot more than its performance. It’s unconventional and individual, but it’s also well-built and extremely well-engineered. That’s a combination that doesn’t often occur, and it has resulted in a rather special thing to own.

BMW Z1 history

Development of the Z1 was started in 1985 by BMW Technik GmbH, a small think-tank set up to help push the business into new areas, and create interesting new technological advancements for the company. Although the doors offer some visual wow- factor, it was actually the way the Z1 was constructed that was genuinely ground-breaking for BMW. The steel monocoque structure was clothed in a set of plastic and GRP panels styled by Harm Lagaay that were completely removable – meaning you could potentially change the colour of your car by simply swapping the panels. In reality, it wasn’t quite the 40-minute job initially promised by BMW.

Under the skin, the Z1 was powered by a 2.5-litre six-cylinder BMW M20 engine and five-speed manual transmission taken straight out of the E30 325iX. The front MacPherson suspension is pure E30, too, but the real game-changer was under the rear end: a multi-link set-up known as the Z-axle, an arrangement that became widely used on most of BMW’s cars, improving handling and stability a great deal.

The first prototype was unveiled to the press in 1986, and the reaction was so positive that a production-ready version was then presented at the Frankfurt motor show in September 1987. Despite the strong initial orders, there was no disguising the strong nature either of its £40,000 list price.

BMW went on to build exactly 8000 Z1s between 1987 and 1991, and most of those were sold in Germany. Due to poor timing and the fact that it was not deemed economic to convert the Z1 to right-hand drive, only 85 officially found buyers in the UK. The Z1 was ultimately let down by the driving experience. Its 170bhp power unit was sweet and smooth, but it had 1290kg to propel and simply didn’t thrill the way a sports car at this price should have. A 0-60mph time of 7.9sec was firmly in hot hatch territory, as was the 136mph top speed.

BMW Z1 common problems

BMW Z1 deconstructed

• The outer panels don’t rust, but they can crack, so check them carefully, especially if they have been repaired.

• The monocoque was galvanised at the factory, so corrosion is not a huge problem.

• Door mechanisms are easily adjusted, and their belts are cheap to replace.

• Engines and gearboxes are very strong and easy to maintain. An M3 LSD is a popular upgrade.

• Some parts unique to the Z1, such as the 16-inch alloy wheels and three-spoke steering wheel, are incredibly hard to find – so ensure they are fitted and in good order.

What to pay?

At the very top end, expect to pay around £55,000 for an immaculate, low-mileage car. Generally speaking, though, you can find very tidy, extremely usable examples around £30,000-45,000. You may find something in need of work from around £20,000. Most are red, green or black, though a small number were sold in yellow, blue or purple. Expect to pay a small premium for these.

BMW Z1 with door open BMW Z1 interior
BMW Z1 rear BMW Z1 range of colours

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