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Friday 14th December 2012


TELL ME I'M WRONG: BMW Z8

Harris wonders whether time was the ingredient needed to make sense of BMW's retro roadster


I first drove a BMW Z8 on a race track. Short of testing a Formula One car at a motocross course, this was about the most pointless means of introducing a car to the person who was going to write about it. Because the Z8 was more of a cruiser than a sports car, wasn’t it?

I suppose it was – it’s just that, back in 2000, we didn’t quite know what the Z8 was trying to be, and this indecision appeared to be reflected by BMW itself. It wasn’t badged as an M-car, but it used the E39 M5’s powertrain in a lighter body.

Bond's was actually a Mustang underneath
Bond's was actually a Mustang underneath
And this is the trouble with the Z8. I still don’t quite know what it is – an opinion that becomes harder to maintain as values climb higher and higher. And higher. Is the Z8 a complete cop-out in the fortunate position of having been used by J Bond Esq (although his was actually a Ford Mustang in drag) or is it actually a gorgeous GT car built in such small numbers that collectors are right to get all frothy over them?

To drive, the E52 Z8 was pretty disappointing. Despite the knowledge that it had a far better power to weight ratio than the equivalent M5, and even though it tripped the timing gear a few tenths faster than the saloon, it somehow felt no more special to use. Remember, these were the days before fancy valves and intake resonators, so your 5.0-litre V8 was strangled by ample exhaust boxes.

The steering was rather lifeless, but the real killer was the understeer. If BMW was coy about its real intentions for the Z8, then the fact that it engineered as much oversteer out of the car as possible perhaps confirmed what many people suspected: this was a California cruiser. More than half of the 5,703 cars built ended up in the US, so this was probably a wise decision.

Teutonic blonde did not come as standard
Teutonic blonde did not come as standard
And yet so many of us had visions of a real drivers’ car. In 2000, BMW M was in perhaps the best form of its life: the E46 M3 and E39 M5 were instant hits, the Z3 M Coupe was a cult all of its own, and what we – well, I – wanted was the Z8 to be the big M Roadster, but in a package that actually drove like a sports car, when in fact it was nothing of the sort.

The car sold slowly in the UK – being £80K and LHD only, that was always going to be the case. Initial depreciation was harsh, and then quickly became catastrophic as people decided the Z8 was less appealing than the latest Ferraris and Porsches.

Around this time Alpina got hold of the Z8. Actually, that’s not strictly true because Andy Bovensiepen, son of Alpina’s founder, worked at BMW on the Z8 project and once he’d seen the potential demand for a car with an automatic gearbox (and had been granted the necessary permissions by the parent company) he created the Alpina V8 roadster – basically a Z8 with the company’s 4.8-litre V8 and ZF auto ‘box. Over 500 were built, over half of which went to the states. But it still wasn’t a sports car.

Stunning looks promised much
Stunning looks promised much
Just look at the ingredients: BMW M, Alpina, a special spaceframe, rear-wheel-drive. It’s like being given the very best aged rib-eye and perfect King Edward potatoes and then producing a cottage pie – not offensive, but rather less than was expected.

So in the middle of the last decade, the Z8 was kind of where it deserved to be: a little unloved by people, mostly unloved by the market and nowhere near the serious car collector’s radar.

Then suddenly, overnight, the Z8 was big news. I have no idea what triggered the change – general enrichment of the population, a sudden art-deco retrospective splurge, the realisation that on paper the Z8 had about it the perfect ingredients for future success: scarcity, beauty and a decent badge?

It certainly is a beautiful car. Lighting by LEDs is now a common sight, but back in 2000 only the Maserati 3200GT could claim a set of rear lights as slinky as the Z8’s. The cabin was unexpectedly cool from a conservative brand like BMW too: central instruments and completely bespoke switchgear, which must have cost a fortune.

Has time made the Z8 less confusing?
Has time made the Z8 less confusing?
You know what, writing this is actually proving to be quite cathartic, because I think I’m beginning to understand the Z8. Finally, after 12 years, it is beginning to make sense. What BMW built was a new classic car. The problem was that no one, neither journalist nor first owner - is ever going to judge a car in those terms, so the Z8 was poorly received. But once it had ceased being a new car, around five years after it was launched, the way it drove no longer mattered: it had earned its place as a very occasional cruiser and a static object, and in both of those roles it is a very desirable machine.

But for me the Z8 still serves as a reminder that the brand which has given us some of the very best drivers’ cars of the past 40 years has still failed to deliver a memorable machine built on a special platform and ideally placed to show Porsche where it can go stick the 911.

It makes Audi’s achievement with the R8 all the more admirable, and leaves the Z8 as a monument to what might, and should have been.

But what do I know? Please feel free to tell me why I’m wrong.

Author: Chris Harris