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Here's Why the BMW Z1 Is the Strangest Modern BMW

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author photo by Doug DeMuro October 2017

The moment has arrived: I must tell you about the BMW Z1. This is an exciting moment for me, and it should be an exciting moment for you, largely because the BMW Z1 is quite possibly the weirdest BMW ever manufactured. You wouldn't know this at first glance, but you'd be well aware of it the moment you tried to climb inside one, because the doors are just absolutely ridiculous.

Yes, that's right, the doors. I'm driving around in a classic, stick-shift, rear-wheel-drive, 2-seat BMW roadster, and I'm taking about the doors. But if you know the BMW Z1, you know why I'm highlighting this: because the doors don't swing open. Instead, they're retractable, and they collapse into the bodywork when you're trying to get into the car. I'm serious. Push the silver keyhole located on either the driver or passenger side, just behind the doors, and the door goes up or down at your whim. It's the coolest party trick in BMW history.

The Z1 also has a few other interesting party tricks, but I'm getting ahead of myself. I borrowed this Z1 from La Jolla Independent, an independent BMW shop in La Jolla, California, near San Diego, which is basically heaven for BMW enthusiasts. They have this ultra-rare, never-sold-in-the-US, super-weird BMW registered in California, which is truly impressive, as California is always doing its best to crack down on anyone driving anything unusual or bizarre. So they let me borrow it, and I drove it around with the doors down.

That's right: I drove it around with the doors down. You can do that with the BMW Z1, and you can seriously feel like you're driving a sports car version of the Jeep Wrangler. It seemed fortuitous I was driving the Z1 in La Jolla, which is a nice beach community, because it's really the perfect California beach car: Cruise around in the sunshine, top off, doors down, and then you can head into the canyons and drive your sports car at break-neck pace around all the wonderful mountain curves.

Except, well, you can't. The strange thing about the Z1 is that -- despite its appearance, its BMW heritage, its rear-wheel drive and its stick shift -- it's not really all that sporty. The Z1 was based on the E30 BMW 3 Series, and it used the same engine from the 325i, which means it has just 170 horsepower. That also means it does zero to 60 in eight seconds, which wasn't really fast by the standards of its day (1988 to 1991) and especially isn't fast by modern standards.

Interestingly, despite its mediocre horsepower, the Z1 wasn't cheap to buy: Back in 1990, BMW priced it higher than a new 7 Series, basically on the level of a Porsche 911. For a car based on the 3 Series! You had to reeeeealllllly want some doors that retracted into the body work in order to justify that kind of money for this thing. And, indeed, some did: BMW sold around 8,000 units of the Z1, mostly in Germany, never in North America.

So, you have an ultra-expensive BMW roadster with retractable doors. Is that where the weirdness ends? It is not. Oh, no, it is not.

Another truly crazy thing about the Z1 -- often overlooked due to its doors -- is its body panels. They weren't made from metal, like the body panels on most other cars, but rather from plastic -- a precursor to the Saturn, which came out shortly after the Z1. That meant the panels couldn't dent, but they could crack, and they have cracked on the Z1 I drove.

But it also meant something else. Because the body panels were simply light, durable plastic, you could change the color of the panels in your Z1. I'm serious. BMW designed this thing so you could remove the body panels and fully change the Z1's color -- and they claimed you could do it in 40 minutes. Unfortunately, the TV show Wheeler Dealers attempted this, and it actually took them six hours. So probably not that many people ever actually took advantage of their color-changing Z1.

Still, it was there, and so were the doors and the crazy price tag -- and for those reasons, the Z1 will go down in history as quite possibly the strangest BMW since the Isetta; a bizarre vehicle from a company that doesn't make many bizarre vehicles. It may not be fast, thrilling or especially high-performance, but I loved the chance to drive this thing -- in sunny Southern California, on a beautiful day, with the doors down.

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Here's Why the BMW Z1 Is the Strangest Modern BMW - Autotrader