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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.