Back to the Zukunft: The BMW Z1

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In 1987, BMW displayed a car at the Frankfurt Motor Show called the Z1. The “Z” stood for zukunft — “future” in German. The press was smitten, as was the public. Based on the then-current 3-Series, the Z1 featured a bog-standard straight six from the 325i, a five-speed manual transmission and a rethought rear suspension thatwould find a home in the 3-Series built for the majority of the ‘90s. So what’s so particularly futuristic about a suspension redesign? Nothing, but did you look at the photographs?

The Z1 featured a body constructed of fully-replaceable plastic panels, a la the Pontiac Fiero, as well as powered passenger doors that retract down into the sills. One of the alleged reasons the Z1 never made it to our shores is that it was too much work to make the signature doors pass US safety standards. Only about 8,000 of the cars were produced between 1989 and 1991 and very few Americans have ever had a chance to drive one — especially on native roads. To celebrate the launch of the Z4 sDrive28i and the 650i coupe at Pebble Beach, the Germans hauled a Z1 out from their museum in Spartanburg, SC. I jumped at a chance to drive it over one of my favorite roads in California, State Route 33 from the Cuyama Valley to Ojai, north of Ventura. That particular section of 33 winds over the mountains separating the Central Valley from the Pacific Coast, running for a time through the Los Padres National Forest, cresting Pine Mountain Summit at an altitude of 5,160 feet. It’s my route of choice if I’m not in a hurry to get to Los Angeles from Northern California.

Getting into the Z1 isn’t a cakewalk. The wide, high sills necessary to contain the retractable doors make truly elegant ingress and egress impossible. However, with its sports-sedan seating height and position, it was easier to clamber into than a low-slung Lotus Elise or Lamborghini Murcielago. Once in, the seats proved to be incredibly comfortable and supportive — better, in fact, than the chairs in any BMW I’ve driven constructed since the Z1. Plastic panels and left-of-bonzo styling aside, the overwhelming feeling in the car was one of platonic normalcy — above all, the Z1 is a car. It’s a car in the same way the new 650i is a high-speed, stylish, luxury appliance and not a car.

The Z1 welcomes your involvement; the well-used example that BMW brought out from Spartanburg had a bit of play in the steering, suggesting that a front-end rebuild might be in order — still, having driven enough Bimmers of the era, the car’s intended dynamics were easy to decipher. Certain things about modern BMWs have improved — the shifter in the new Z4, for example, benefits from shorter throws; the Z1’s feels buslike in comparison. Still, the marriage of the silky 168-hp six and a relatively lightweight body/chassis combination with an open top is hard to mess with. Over 33 on a warm August day, it was downright impossible to beat. I found myself feeling sorry for the other drivers in our group, stuck in faster, more luxurious cars I’d found quite satisfying only a few hours prior.

What’s the problem? The problem is that we’re in a period of overarching complexity. We faced the same issues in the 1970s when air-quality regulations and sky-high gas prices choked off the rip-snorting engines of the 1960s. By the end of the 1980s, automakers had figured out ways to deliver reliable, relatively powerful engines in relatively lightweight packages. Since then, we’ve demanded more from our cars. We want distracting convenience features. We want a trillion airbags. We want to be able to crash wantonly into Abrams tanks and walk away. And, admirably, we want to use less foreign petroleum while belching less garbage into the air. Despite its radical looks, none of the technologies in use in the Z1 were in their infancy, and what they learned building it went into the cars constructed over the next decade, cars that are revered as some of the finest mass-market vehicles the company has ever produced.

Twenty years ago, the future of the car in BMW’s eyes was very much the car, perfected. Today, their perceived future of the car is in what the company’s billing as “Efficient Dynamics” — a combination of turbocharging, diesel engines, hybrid powertrains, electric motivation and lightweight materials. They claim they want to incorporate all of this without sacrificing driving satisfaction, even as they’re currently doing exactly that. While they ponder their next move, they’d do well to consider the future they first conceived back in the mid-1980s, when even their forays into the bizarre were brilliant.