TELL ME I'M WRONG: BMW Z8
Harris wonders whether time was the ingredient needed to make sense of BMW's retro roadster
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.