Is The BMW Z1 Finally A Sports Car Worth Coveting?
Story and photos by Davide Cironi
I was a little kid when I first—and last—saw a BMW Z1 on the road in Italy. It was green, too, just like the one I’m looking at today in front of the stunning Reggia di Stupinigi palace, near Turin.
It was a warm summer in the early ’90s when my young eyes first caught one in the wild. The guy at the wheel was a traveler, with black sunglasses, and a beautiful woman by his side. Then—I noticed those doors.
“What the hell is that? A BMW!?” I ran home and start searching on my car books (this was before we had the internet) because I absolutely had to know what engine and technical details were hidden in that little spider with strange sinking doors.
Imagine my face: a 2.5-liter, 12-valve SOHC straight-six engine, for 168-horsepower. The younger me must have thought: “It is not fast at all, so it’s not interesting”.
I forgot its existence until I saw one again, in the same color, but I recognized the same strange attraction that I felt for the car as a kid. I know it’s not quick, but why am I so attracted? The owner, Rino, had let me drive his beautiful, incredible Ferrari 512BBi, and today I’m going to drive another car from his private collection. “It can’t go ahead, but I always loved its line,” he said me in piedmontese dialect, meaning the car “can’t push”. So, with this idea on my mind, the driving experience could only be positive—no expectations.
First, never lift up doors. On the highway people look at me as a rock star, and cruising is very pleasant. The Z1 is comfortable, smooth, and accommodating. It’s like driving a 325i sedan, from which the mechanics are stolen, and like a sedan, the 6-cylinders rev up without rage, merely soft and linear. I can see why that traveler I saw as a child chose this car for his trip around Italy.
My video operator is not as beautiful as that woman from the ’90s, though: he sits next to me asking all the time to lift up and then hide the doors. Would you pay the equivalent of about $50,000 U.S. for two fancy doors? Eight thousand people did.
I believe a very few owners bought a Z1 for its special monocoque chassis, or for the entirely removable body, or for its aerodynamic muffler. Actually, the car was a real laboratory on wheels, with all those futuristic and complicated solutions. It was the first—and only—of what was to be an entire range of lifestyle-oriented vehicles from BMW’s Technik division. (For what it’s worth, the first Z1 concept shown was a shooting brake—not a convertible—with those vertically-sliding doors.)
So: Did you know it can be driven without its body panels? BMW said a complete change of body panels could be done “in 40 minutes”, but it wasn’t really true. Someone tried, and spent a day on the task. But enough about the body…what’s it like to drive?
In a certain way, it is enjoyable, especially if your years of thunder are just a memory—you know, when you used to drive a screaming, sexy, and dangerous sports car. Come on, you wouldn’t be here reading this if you were that guy.
Simply, it’s a ’90s spider with a unique design. Its interior ergonomics are pretty perfect. The steering wheel, pedals, gear knob, visibility, seats, and wind protection are all very good in my opinion. Its engine needs to work high on revs to give me some fun, and I mean, high. Enthusiastic drivers will have to stay next to the red line if they want to feel something, or even hear something a bit more sporty. Luckily, the little BMW can turn—and cornering is not bad. The simple rear axle is always polite and never nervous because of the relative lack of power and its soft-on-its-response suspension. The steering is identical to the E30 Series, so: very precise and strong.
After a relaxing, restful drive up to the hills around Lake Avigliana, I arrived at the photo shoot. The Abbazia Sacra San Michele was built in 983 C.E. on a stunning point of view, over beautiful Turin.
That’s why I didn’t spend this entire day driving the Z1: today, I’m merely a traveller.