Drive Modern Classics The BMW Z1

In Modern Classics by Chris RandallLeave a Comment

When it comes to producers of quirky cars, BMW isn’t a name that springs to mind.

Although the BMW Z1 certainly fitted that particular description.  And while the type of car didn’t surprise – the Munich firm are pretty adept at classy convertibles – the execution certainly did.

The BMW Z1 Driving Modern Classics

A galvanised steel chassis was clad in mostly plastic panels, but it was the drop-away doors that really caught the eye.  Not satisfied with a conventional arrangement, BMW equipped the Z1 with a pair of small doors that motored down into the sills, a system that looked great but did make entry and egress a bit undignified, especially with the roof in place.  The car was launched at the 1987 Frankfurt Motor Show, with the first cars delivered to customers the following year.  By the time production ended in 1991, around 8000 had been built with 86 cars coming to the UK, all in left-hand drive (sales could have been higher but the US market missed out on the odd-ball Z1 as those doors fell-foul of American legislation).  A price tag of around £36k made it pretty expensive for the time too.

Drive Modern Classics by Chris Randall the BMW Z1

Under the bonnet was the 170bhp 2.5 litre M20 engine familiar from the 325i, enough for a top speed of 136mph and a 0-60 time of 9 secs.  Not earth shattering figures even back then, and perhaps one of the main criticisms of the Z1.  However, there was greater sophistication beneath the neat rump in the form of BMWs ‘Z-axle’ multi-link suspension system, an arrangement destined for the E36 3-series.  So while the mechanicals may have been pretty conventional, the design certainly wasn’t and that makes it a BMW well worth celebrating.

Buying One

The starting point for checking any Z1 is that unusual bodyshell, particularly those clever doors.  They are moved by belt-driven electric motors so you’ll want to ensure they are working properly as labour costs will soon mount if they need fixing.  The plastic panels should still be in good condition so a case of watching for any scrapes, though replacements are getting rare now, while the galvanised chassis should be rot free.  Incidentally, BMW (rather cheekily) suggested that owners should buy a second set of panels so they could change the colour of their car now and again, something they reckoned could be done in about 40 minutes.  Hours if not days were more like it, but few owners took them up on the offer!

Those familiar mechanicals mean there is little to worry about under the bonnet and the M20 engine was a robust unit if properly looked after.  Most Z1s had careful owners and covered fairly low mileages, so evidence of regular servicing by a main agent or specialist should put your mind at rest.  Oil leaks and worn valve-gear were the most common problems so you might want to check just to be sure.  Worn brakes and suspension bushes are the only other areas to watch out for but a test drive will reveal any problems, while the hard-wearing interior should still be in fine condition – just check for damp or signs of water leaks from worn hood seals.

A quick scan of the classifieds revealed a number of cars for sale in the £22-25k bracket, so values are clearly holding up well for this collectable Beemer.  Those prices have made it tempting for owners to import cars from Europe but you’ll need to be sure of the history before taking the plunge.

Chris Randall Driving Modern CLassics on


If you want something different from the legions of 3-series convertibles on the market, then the Z1 is hugely tempting, and with prices looking set to rise now could be the perfect time to grab one of these characterful roadsters.  And with proven running gear and BMW build quality, you won’t be taking a big risk either.  Find a car with a thick wad of bills and you’ll be all set for next summer.  You might just want to practice a few graceful exits though…

Read more Drive/Modern Classics by Chris Randall

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