Ever-conservative BMW seemed perfectly content with building sedans, coupes, and convertibles that pretty much all looked like one another in the late 1980s. Sure, there was the shark-faced 6-Series and its 8-Series replacement, but even these two sporty 2-doors generally fit the Teutonic mold.
And then along came the bonkers Z1, a 2-seat roadster with flush headlights, zero brightwork, a spartan interior, and, because why not, doors that dropped into the rocker panels for access to the cabin.
The Z1 was so, so weird, and something virtually nobody expected from BMW.
The Z in its name — or zed — refers to zukunft, the German word for future. With that single letter, BMW launched a line of roadsters that continues to this day and has included the retro-style Z3, the wide range of Z4 models, and the megabuck Z8.
The Z1 was conceived by Ulrich Bez, a German engineer whose motorsports background was appreciated in Munich but whose real claim to fame came at the helm of Aston Martin as the British brand came into the mainstream in the early 2000s.
But back to the Z1. It rode on a platform derived from the contemporary 3-Series, albeit with decidedly petite dimensions. Even in an era when cars were relatively small, the Z1’s 154.4-inch overall length was an entire inch shorter than the Mazda MX-5 Miata. The structure necessary to accommodate those doors that drop away for cabin access meant that the Z1 was relatively plump even though its body panels were made from lightweight composite materials. Thus BMW chose to use the 2.5-liter inline-6 from the 325i, though instead of sitting straight up it was tilted to the side to accommodate the sleek hood line.
A 5-speed manual gearbox was the only choice, and power of course went to the rear wheels. There were some conventions BMW had to stick to.
BMW built exactly 8,000 Z1 roadsters from 1989 to 1991, not one of which was earmarked for the U.S. The vast majority were bound for German showrooms. It took until about 2013 for the first few Z1s to be eligible for importation to the U.S., though only a handful are believed to have made their way over here by now.
This Dark Green Z1 offered by a BMW specialist in Cincinnati is said to have been built to U.K.-market specifications, though all Z1 roadsters were left-hand drive. Like other Z1 examples, it has a simple interior with mostly 3 Series bits inside plus leather and suede on its bolstered seats. No Z1 left the factory with air conditioning due to packaging constraints, but the black cloth top tucks back behind a hard panel for nature’s version of ventilation.
Though a $90,000 budget will also buy you a lavishly-equipped 2021 Z4 roadster, you’d have to settle for conventional hinged doors. Find a BMW on Autotrader