Vital Stats

2.5L I6
167 HP / 164 LB-FT
5-Speed Manual
0-60 Time:
9.0 Seconds (est.)
Top Speed:
137 MPH
Rear-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight:
3,200 LBS
21.4 MPG (comb.)
At One With The Wind Gods In Munich's Ultimate Wedgie

We had ventured out to California for a BMW event tied to the huge Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, and there it sat, unapologetically sassy. It was there and then that we decided it was time to finally drive one of BMW's ultimate curio cars, the plastic fantastic Z1 built between 1989 and 1991.

Officially, 8,000 examples of the Z1 were made, nearly 6,500 of them sold in Germany. No Z1s could be imported through normal channels to the United States due primarily to the car's side-impact crash capabilities – or, more to the point, incapabilities. The 154.4-inch long Z1 was built on a somewhat dedicated chassis using significant bits from the E30 325i. Under full load (as we tested it here with driver, a passenger, all fluids and a bit of luggage), the 167-horsepower Z1 is a little porker at 3,200 pounds. But, you know what? It didn't much matter, because we drove nearly 200 miles in this well-intentioned albatross, and it provided a totally unique driving experience. Having said that, while we are proud to have finally had the opportunity to pilot the Z1, we are quite okay with the fact that we'll probably never do it again.
1989 BMW Z1 side view1989 BMW Z1 front view1989 BMW Z1 rear view

Before hopping aboard, we were certain that the Z1 would drive like a plastic-y stiff-shelled prototype. That was the first surprise: it didn't. The ride and steering were really well dialed-in, with only a little neutral play in the steering wheel on-center. Bumps were handled surprisingly well, with even the roadway weather-stripping in curves only minimally disrupting our trajectory. General stability at even the fastest speed we drove (around 100 mph) was exactly as we'd expect from a perfectly maintained 325i coupe. Midway through the drive, we took a closer look at the odometer and verified an unbelievable total of just 10,000 kms, or just over 6,200 miles. No wonder it drove like new.

The identifying eccentricity of the Z1 is its two plastic doors that open by electro-hydraulically lowering into the sills and beneath the glued-in passenger tub. There is no question that this is a tremendously cool feature, no matter what one thinks of the design. The descent of the 37.4-by-12.6-inch synchronized doors and windows takes around five seconds, while closing them takes maybe seven seconds. Of course, if we had only this one shot at a long Z1 drive in this life, we certainly weren't about to do it with the doors or roof up, better judgment be damned.

1989 BMW Z1 headlight1989 BMW Z1 wheel1989 BMW Z1 door opening1989 BMW Z1 convertible top

With a flat composite plastic underbody panel, a distinctly slippery wedge theme and various vents and diffuser treatments to aid airflow, the Z1 was meant to be a future-tech aerodynamic champion, but it only mustered a 0.36 Cd with its doors and cloth roof up. Roof down, that coefficient of drag climbs to 0.43. Roof and doors down, it felt like the Cd worsened by a hurricane-like factor of 10. It was clear that fully open, the Z1 should never be driven north of 70 mph. Make that 60 mph, just to be certain of not permanently rupturing one's ear drums due to buffeting. Next time, if e'er we be so lucky, we'll keep at least the doors up like sensible folks should at highway speeds.

The Z1's aerodynamics were a source of unending exploration at speed, too. For some reason beyond comprehension, the wind on the right side of the cabin was truly hurricane-like, while on the driver's side, it was merely a tropical storm. As passenger, if we braced our right hand on the door sill firmly and held our arm in a certain elevated position, the buffeting was cut roughly in half. It also helped to lean our upper body in toward the middle of the cabin, practically snuggling up to the person at the helm. Sit normally in the passenger seat, however, and the hurricane returned. Maybe the presence of the steering wheel alone, plus the position of the driver with both arms up, makes all the aero difference on the driver's side.

1989 BMW Z1 interior1989 BMW Z1 seats1989 BMW Z1 audio controls1989 BMW Z1 shifter

This M20B25 12-valve single overhead cam 2.5-liter straight-six engine sounds so good in the E30 3 Series with its solid-roof acoustics and all, but in the Z1, its sound under spirited acceleration is much less satisfying. The leaden powerplant with 164 pound feet of torque at 4,300 rpm just keeps pulling, though, and it was clear that in fifth gear, the Z1 was more than willing to take the party right up to its 137-mph top speed, ears and sanity willing. Under the Z1's severely sloped, light-as-a-tissue plastic hood, the M20 needed to be tilted 20 degrees onto its right side in order to fit.

To complement the E30 3 Series front axle, the Z1 was one of the first Bimmers gifted with a then-new multi-link rear axle suspension structure, referred to at that time as a Z-axle. Between this really fine ride and handling and the not original 16-inch Yokohama ES 100 tires, we were sure that we were having the best possible Z1 experience ever.

1989 BMW Z1 engine

The Getrag five-speed manual gearbox is one of the automotive world's perfect tools, in its time a revelation of shifting precision and smoothness. Though the pedals would need a little work before enabling consistent heel-and-toe downshifts, it's the mechanical silkiness of that gearbox that so much sets the tone.

Roof and windows up, the Z1 doesn't actually look half bad. We were anticipating some atrociousness (There had to be a reason why we had never seen a single photo of a Z1 totally shut.), but this was not the case. One final benefit of the Z1's form with all things down and open wide is its total lack of blind spots. Yes, there is a lot of head-checking to the sides necessitated by the strange lack of a rearview mirror, but we were comfortably able to see absolutely everything going on around us.

1989 BMW Z1

The cabin is basically a late-80s 3-Series cabin, with the exception of a pair of heavily stylized and supportive sport seats. The iridescent material used on these purple-teal chairs must have looked like they were from the latest Duran Duran album cover by Patrick Nagel at the time, but they look truly awful today. We also have a sneaking suspicion that the Z1's slightly mismatched dial instruments, excluding the tach, were taken from BMW's motorcycle parts bins, though no one can confirm this.

So, we did it, had literally a blast, and we've filled an important gap in our automotive history resume. The next somewhat similar roadster to follow our Z1 was the 1996 Z3, and thankfully, it was a far more popular and less plastic machine than the oddball Z1. The current book value for a cherry low-mileage Z1 such as the one we tested from BMW's Spartanburg, South Carolina, museum maxes out at around $40,000... if you can find one.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 3 Years Ago
      More older car reviews AutoBlog! Used car comparisons too. Best X type of car for Y amount of money. Enough car enthusiasts buy used, it's a really under-served market.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Sometimes I think we get caught up in the perfection of the automobile. Cars like this are cool not because they are the most practical, useful, gorgeous, or comfortable. Cars like this are cool because they make a statement. Quirky, interesting cars like this are what made me love cars in the first place. It is is is amusing...I think it is everything a car should be.
        • 3 Years Ago
        Agreed ... you can tell someone had fun making it. All too rare these days. Call me crazy, but I totally dig the design too.
      • 3 Years Ago
      One of my all-time favourite BMWs. It's a pity its weight and underpowered engine unit were such a compromise to its handling.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I loved this car. It's not mentioned, but you could remove ALL the body panels and drive the thing around as-is, totally naked. I wanted it so badly back then. Here's a photo:
      • 3 Years Ago
      Did someone use their smartphone to shoot the 15 fps video? Autoblog., please. Make a small investment with each of your editors and provide them with a proper camera to shoot videos with.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Isn't curb weight without passengers? The actual curb weight for this vehicle should be around 2755 according to a quick search.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I have seen some, and I'm not that impressed with the overall styling, but it sure is a different BMW and the doors are cool.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I saw one of these driving -- doors down -- on Tejon St in downtown Colorado Springs a few years ago.
      • 3 Years Ago
        • 3 Years Ago
        If BMWs are so "unreliable", then why do people keep buying them? Logic would dictate that if people have bad experiences with a product, they will most likely refrain buying the same product again. Fact is 0.8 vs 1.2 dealer visits doesn't translate into "unreliable". Oh, and I drive a BMW, a 2007 118i, no problems whatsoever.
          • 3 Years Ago
        • 3 Years Ago
        Mazdas have excellent handling, I love them for that, but the 3-series of new and old have handling on a whole different level. You don't buy a BMW just for the price, you buy it for the luxury, the looks and the sound and smoothness of the straight-6. It's the whole package, which is why the 3-series is so highly regarded among auto magazines.
          • 3 Years Ago
        • 3 Years Ago
        You're a toolbox windbag. Regards, a Mazda FD RX-7 owner.
        • 3 Years Ago
        Here we go again! A Miata is a fine little roadster, but once again, you speak like someone who has never even sat in a BMW, let alone driven one. Every time you bring up a cheap asian car that has "superior driving feel" or "driving dynamics", you just make yourself sound even less credible. You are just as blind and brainwashed in your hatred of expensive German cars as you claim the "brand snobs" are that buy them, even more so. And of course I'd rather have a new Miata than this fugly plastic thing. You finally found a post about a BMW where you make a modicum of sense.
          • 3 Years Ago
      • 3 Years Ago
      Interesting. I thought I knew cars - I had no idea this think even existed. Thanks, AB.
        • 3 Years Ago
        You're not being serious, surely.
          emperor koku
          • 3 Years Ago
          Aren't you the British guy? By now you should realize that we Americans don't pay much attention to what's going on beyond our borders. And besides, they made so few of these, anyway. It was a blip on the automotive radar. I don't blame Tourian for not knowing about them.
          • 3 Years Ago
          "Aren't you the British guy? By now you should realize that we Americans don't pay much attention to what's going on beyond our borders." That isn't my fault - or BMW's. But since the Z1 in the article is registered in the United States, it's pleasing to see that some Americans do indeed have an awareness of the wider world. "And besides, they made so few of these, anyway. It was a blip on the automotive radar. I don't blame Tourian for not knowing about them." Rare cars are usually of particular interest to the majority of car enthusiasts and collectors. If you're not familiar with a Z1, you're not really what I would consider an ardent enthusiast.
      • 3 Years Ago
      0-60: 9 seconds! Is this a joke? It's slightly less powerful than my 1993 Camry and knowing BMW it probably cost twice as much
      • 3 Years Ago
      Matt Davis sounds like an incomprehensible douch├ębag!
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