Looking Back At Avant Garde With BMW’s Z1 And 850CSi
Photography by Alex Sobran
Thank you to BMW Classic for providing the cars and the opportunity
When it comes to cars, “avant garde” seems to be a catch-all label for things that are just different. Going by the literal translation, “ahead of time,” this would imply that the vehicles most deserving of such a label would be things like the first pickup truck, the first minivan, the first Prius. Accuracy of the definition aside though, avant garde is usually ascribed to things that excite in some way (whether that be in terms of pure design or pure performance or of course both), and unless practicality is the supreme metric instead, it’s plainly obvious that the biggest shifters of the paradigm—the most avant garde—are not the most interesting.
Sometimes though, a car can have a wheel in both territories. Sometimes a car can show you the future while also assuring you that it’s one to look forward to. From the decade between ’85 and ’95, BMW built two such things: the Z1 and the 8-Series. Though looking at them together may not immediately lend a lot of content to the middle of their Venn diagram, these two two-doors actually do have a fair amount in common, and not because these examples just happen to share a color. They were made for different markets and lived on pretty much opposite ends of the complexity range (one was offered with a V12 and every gizmo BMW could pack into a car while the other had an E30’s simple straight-six and no air-conditioning), but even so, these cars would both shape the future of the brand that begot them. The E31 8-Series was the first of its line and would herald in a new age of fast, luxurious grand tourers, and the Z1 would of course spawn the entire “Z” family tree after it successfully introduced the roadster form to BMW drivers for the first time in modernity.
What else? Well both the Z1 and 850CSi pictured here were cars built without restraints. For instance, it’s tough to imagine pragmatism ever entering the equation of the top-spec 8-Series. The driver who’d rather have improved fuel economy than a nice twelve-cylinder exhaust note and who’d prefer to keep the electric fenestrations to a minimum was not the target consumer for a car like this, and so BMW didn’t allow these considerations to hold back the subsequent dumping of every trick and treat they had into their ultimate symbol of automotive decadence.
People balk and laugh with condescension now at maintaining something like an 850CSi, but as is so often the case in these examples, this is a car that simply requires care; it’s not going to put up with abuse like a Civic because it’s almost infinitely more complex than a Civic. It’s maintenance requirements are as such because there’s simply a lot to maintain. It’s representative of how much is going on in this marvel; maybe it’s too much for some, but the car was made to display the cutting-edge—of everything—so its upkeep should come as no surprise. No limits means no limits.
It’s clear to see how this mindset of blank slate development applies to the exotic-everything 8er, but the Z1 too, in its humble little package, was an exercise in redrawing boundaries. As the first project to officially come out of the then-newly-founded, future-focused subsidiary called BMW Technik GmbH in the mid-‘80s, the creative force behind this one was not aimed with the typical trajectory of a production car. Vehicles in the Z range (Z for “Zukunft,” or “Future”) should try to reimagine, reinvent, or at the very least, reinterpret what the current cars suggest about the ones to come, and the Z1 certainly did its duty.
The immediate work at Technik was not intended for developing production cars on a mass scale. Rather than working within the status quo of conservative construction processes and lowest-common-denominator styling choices and everything else that constricts the dreams of designers and engineers, they were aiming at a future that wasn’t simply a mild continuation of what already existed—theirs lay past the horizons predicted by the present. And in this pursuit, they came up with a novel roadster design at a time when cars like the first Mazda MX-5 had yet to arrive and make them so popular.
It’s hard to look back from our current perspective and realize this though, before the Z3 and MX-5 and TT and Boxster and every other round, open-top roadster became so etched into our idea of the ‘90s and ‘00s. I suppose that this difficulty in seeing through all the ensuing roadsters is just proof of just how accurately BMW “called it” with their Z1 project. Maybe not the retractable doors part, but they did design and in the end manufacture one of the era’s first entrants into the new wave of sporting roadsters. Like the 8-Series that would come soon after, this car had a mandate to add something wholly new to BMW.
I could extend these comparisons between the two into territory that isn’t worth exploring, or I can try to convey what it was like to spend some time driving them. BMW Classic owns and maintains these cars, and like the tests of the E23, E32, and E36 from last week, this meant I was not about to treat them like typical rental cars. They still worked up a sweat though, or at least, I did.
Because the two Bimmers here really are markedly different when it comes to the physical world and how they perform in it, let’s just start with the Z1 because it came first chronologically and so that this isn’t completely arbitrary. Okay I guess it still kind of is. Anyway, I was excited to drive this oddball that I’d seen earlier in the day cruising with its roof folded neatly away and its doors having disappeared somewhere inside the body, as it just looked like a lot of whimsical fun. “Whimsical fun” doesn’t really bode well for things like “high-performance” entering the equation, but aside from guessing based off of the specs, I had no idea how it would perform or just how much whimsy it’d emit. All I knew was that everyone who’d gotten out of it that day was smiling and they all looked back at it afterwards in the way that jaded journalists tend not to.
I didn’t really have a lot of a baseline to compare this car too aside from newer roadsters like the S2000 or sketchy era-correct ones like modified Miatas, and though I’d done some reading on the E30-based front suspension and the bespoke multi-link rear and knew it had the standard 2.5L M20 for power, none of that was very helpful in describing how it finally felt to drive the Z1. If anything, I expected the car to make a little bit of noise and feel a little bit slow, while excelling in the handling arena. In short, it was going to be a great example of a momentum car. However, after the first few minutes behind the wheel I was having at least as much fun as hoped for, but my assumptions were way off.
To begin with the biggest source of my misconception, the ~170hp output from the M20 was more than enough to make the compact Z1 hustle like it was late for an international flight. Alas, it’s not a good candidate for drag racing, but the stout six under the sloped hood is the source of plenty of fun between, and in, the corners. The exhaust (the muffler of which is integrated into a funky rear diffuser that bisects the rear bumper) makes gleeful batches of burbles and burps whenever you let off the gas, and the flywheel is light enough to take full advantage of the perfectly-spaced pedals and the heel-and-toeing invited by their positioning. It’s a supremely easy car to drive, but it isn’t overly-easy either. It’s something that will be very forgiving of sad attempts to reenact Ari Vatanen’s footwork from Climb Dance, but it will also let you know that you are in fact making a sad attempt. It’s just as communicative and strict as you’d want something this fast to be. That is, the controls fit with the speed: it’s not a blisteringly fast car and it doesn’t ask you to drive it like one. Pedals are firm but not stiff, the clutch lets you know when it’s catching but it doesn’t scream this news at you, and the steering is a bit lighter than you’d want for a track day but still heavy enough for when an errand turns spontaneously into a “drive.”
And so while the drivetrain had more life and gusto than I was assuming it might, it seems like this vitality was borrowed from the suspension’s. Even with the bucket seats and the high sills doing a sound job of making the driver feel cozy and secure inside the mostly open cockpit, it still feels as though one could rid themselves of a passenger by taking a sharp left. What I’m saying is that the suspension felt pretty soft, and given that this car is in BMW Classic’s fleet (the same fleet that gets OEM parts from the building next door and has them installed by groups of people with matching coveralls that have “BMW” stitched into them), it’s likely not due to worn out springs or tired bushings. The dampened response and the lean from the body aren’t awful by any means though, it’s just that the car would perk up nicely from a set of stiffer coils and dampers or maybe just some more aggressive sway bars. That said, this took nothing away from the fun of driving the Z1, even adding some welcome drama on the slower portions of the drive up and down the mountain. Body roll or not, the whimsy was left intact.
The 850CSi experience was another lesson in assumption. While it can be jarring or even a little embarrassing to be proven incorrect about something by that same something, having your preconceived notions upended can also add to the fun of being surprised. This was what happened after being in the E31. Piloting BMW’s 11,xxx km example of the big GT car was my first time in the driver’s seat of one, though here was a car I’d spent years thinking about and imagining in the lead up to finally being able to test these theories. I had fantasies of smoky launches accompanied by the shrill vocal cords of the large-capacity V12, of how its size and its hefty engine would require stout, harsh suspension that would make this more Motorsport than tourer, and of how dated the whole experience would feel so far after the time of its initial release.
Reality showed me a different 8-Series. Though still the completely hedonistic luxury GT car that I’d hoped for (and this is something that can be conveyed without even sitting in one), nothing felt “old,” nothing felt like it was a novelty or something to chuckle at with a “What were they thinking?” smile. It’s not often that just getting in a silent and still machine can bestow a real sense of purpose, but getting into the matching-blue and black leather command center of this particular car felt pretty damn important. It shouldn’t, because this is the height of unnecessary human fun—driving a rare classic BMW on Romanian mountain roads for “work”—but it did. I think it’s because it felt to me like being in a spaceship. Not to make a trite aside on the design of the car, but because it reminded me of all the real footage and Hollywood scenes alike that have the astronauts leaning back and looking up at an array of controls that all sort of falls away from them once the chair is in “go” position.
Go. That’s where the first assumption fell. The car certainly goes, but not in the way you might think. Or maybe you knew all along that it didn’t really have a lot of low-end push even though it has over 400 ft-lbs of torque. What it lacked in on-demand thrust though, the 5.6L V12 redeemed itself in its ability to stretch its legs; it felt like the faster you went the more it wanted to accelerate, which is of course not possible, but the fact that it makes you feel like it might be was extremely real. The entire time I spent weaving it around the Transfăgărășan’s myriad curves I was yearning for a stretch of lifeless, flat, straight road instead. The reason is that this car can quickly turn that bland boringness into a game of “How fast do I really want to go?” It’s made for the highway; the gearing, the torque and power profiles, everything about the drivetrain seems like it’s been optimized for the top end.
If you are relegated to exiting the freeway for the back roads though the CSi will not disappoint here either, despite its bulk. There’s no disguising the weight and mass of it, but there’s also no need to. It feels big, but it’s supposed to feel big: it’s a big GT coupe, not a small and sprightly sports car. And while it feels big, it feels big in the sense that “This car should not be handling this road this well.” I can’t tell whether the four-wheel steering is playing a big part of this sensation of cheating physics, or what, but whatever it is that can rotate the E31’s large dimensions through the smaller ones on roads like this one, it’s working. That’s the best part of this car, and also the part I did the poorest job in predicting.
The suspension is magic. It’s not that it drowns every bump and rut into obscurity and it’s not that it makes the car feel like it loses more weight the faster you drive it and it’s not that it tells you what’s happening while also not taking away comfort for the sake of feedback, it’s that it does all of these things. That’s typical and to be expected on something like the forthcoming 8-Series that’ll be loaded up with sensors and suspension that can react to those sensors almost as fast as they can read the road, but this was in the ‘90s. This was when the advent of the “Sport” button was still major news. This is what it means to be ahead of its time: to drive a car made over 20 years ago and compare the way it handles the many different types of possible road with something that was made two years ago. If the Z1 was softer than expected, the 850CSi was, ineloquently but honestly, everything-er than expected.
This pair of BMWs is set firmly in their era: the Z1 is late-‘80s and the 850 is mid-‘90s, but there is a significant though sometimes hard to perceive difference between looking dated and showing your age with grace. Both cars are part of the latter. To some they are too new to be classics, to some they are too old to be modern, but to everyone they should stand as examples of the rewards to be reaped from pushing one period into the next.