These days we take it for granted that BMW sells two-seat roadsters, given that the Z4 is a mainstay in the company’s lineup. But in 1987, BMW showed off its first roadster since the 507 of the late 1950s. Up until then, there hadn’t been a two-place, open-top BMW for decades. The Z1 concept car eventually became a low-volume sports car that looks so cool, we couldn’t help but reminisce on its 25th birthday.
The BMW Z1 was a product of the BMW Technik GmbH, a think tank designed to dream up clever new vehicles and technologies. Although it was originally meant only as a vehicle study, the Z1 made its public debut in summer 1987 at the Frankfurt Motor Show. The public soon fell in love with the car and BMW received scores of inquires as to whether the Z1 would go into production — including from a German car magazine, which offered a cool 150,000 Deutsche Marks to buy the concept car off the display stand.
BMW soon revealed that it would build up to six copies of the Z1 per day for paying customers, and by the time production started in late 1989, the company already had 4000 orders for the roadster. Through the end of production in June 1991, about 8000 examples of the BMW Z1 were built and sold. Twenty-five years later, BMW is proud to note that the roadsters haven’t all become museum pieces: one daily-driven example has apparently covered more than 205,000 miles.
The BMW Z1 was quite an innovative design in several ways. Its monocoque was made from sheetmetal that was doused in zinc to help increase structural rigidity, while the body was made from plastic. BMW used advanced plastic composites that proved exceptionally light and strong. The bumpers could deform and then return to their original shapes after impacts at up to 2.5 mph, while most body panels were strong enough to resist dents and dings without any visible damage. To demonstrate this fact, then-BMW Technik GmbH director Ulrich Bez jumped onto a fender placed on the floor — and impressed journalists when the panel popped back to its original shape, unharmed.
BMW even claims that one could have changed the color of a Z1 in less than an hour by using a screwdriver to replace the body panels. As seen in this photo, the body panels were simply bolted to the monocoque and could be easily removed. There were, incidentally, four colors with quirky names: Nature Green, Dream Black, Fun Yellow, and Top Red.
More striking still were the electric doors, which used two motors and a toothed belt to retract into the sides of the car. This way, owners could even drive with the doors “open.” No production car since has copied this design. The unique doors also had retractable windows, and a special freewheel feature so they could be opened and closed manually if there was a mechanical problem.
Under the hood was a 2.5-liter inline-six engine good for 170 hp. It was mated to a five-speed manual transmission that sent power to the rear wheels, giving a 0-to-60-mph of less than eight seconds and a top speed of 140 mph. Rather than speed, however, BMW claimed that the goal of the Z1 was pure driving enjoyment. Thanks to suspension cribbed from the 3 Series, the Z1 was said to offer “go-kart” handling. The roadster boasted near-perfect 49:51 weight balance, and a center of gravity that was four inches lower than in a 3 Series sedan.
In addition to being a truly stunning vehicle design, the BMW Z1 paved the way for the Z3 roadster to launch in 1996, which was replaced by the Z4 in 2002.