BMW rarely launches a quirky car. It’s an automotive giant and, therefore, everything in the product line-up needs to serve a purpose and, crucially, return a profit. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for experimentation. But once in a blue moon BMW decides to fast-track one of its left-field concept cars into production.
Just look at the i3, for example. Using a carbon fibre reinforced polymer for the passenger compartment is still relatively space age for a ‘normal’ car, and yet the manufacturer was using recycled plastics for bits of the interior well before others thought it was cool. Just as its production finished it looks like the trendy EV city car many are clamouring for. But you need to wind it all the way back to 1988 and the launch of the BMW Z1 to find its next brilliantly bizarre road car.
Let’s clarify something first. The Z series stands for zukunft (or future) and there’s nothing all that futuristic about the Z3 or Z4. Hell, the Z8 was a throwback to the then-40-year-old 507 Roadster. But the Z1 was really a car of the zukunft. Making the switch from concept to production car largely unaltered, the model was, on the surface at least, a masterstroke in design. In a bid to bring down the repair costs, BMW employed an elastic-synthetic material, which was essentially a type of plastic that could spring back to its original shape after being deformed – allowing you to have as many fender benders as you desired.
Here's the brilliant bit, though. The idea behind the plastic body panels was that they could be easily interchangeable. Yes, this is primarily for fixing the thing, but BMW marketed it as a means of changing the colour after purchase. Bought a green Z1 but fancy a red one for the summer? Just pop the panels off and swap them over to a different shade – a process that allegedly took less than an hour.
Then there's the party piece. Quite possibly the only thing most people remember about the Z1 are those doors, which retract into the bodywork when opened to make it easier to get in and out of. That, and the lower crash structure allowed you to open the doors on the go for a view of the tarmac below and its blender-like capabilities if you fall out.
It's all really rather clever, so why do you never see them on the road? Well, they were mighty expensive when new, costing around £37,000 (over £80,000 in today’s money). That’s a lot for a car that shares a fair amount of its components with a 325i, including the same 170hp inline-six. It was also considerably more expensive to produce than originally thought, with different compositions of paint needed on the body panels so it didn’t crack when bent.
Only 8,000 examples were produced, most of which were for the German market, until the project was shut down in 1991. That means the Z1 is a bit of a collector’s car today, but luckily you won’t be paying nearly £80,000 (well, not yet anyway) to find a clean example. This car is not only green but it’s clocked just 54,000 miles since it was registered in 1989. It’s listed at £39,995, which doesn't seem all that bad at all given that some ultra-low mileage cars are creeping towards the six-figure mark. And that would be a lot for a car with bendy body panels, on the surface at least, but it’s one of BMW’s quirkiest cars to date and is appreciating fast. Besides, how many other cars will let you stroke the tarmac while driving? Exactly.
SPECIFICATION | BMW Z1
Engine: 2,494cc, straight six
Transmission: five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 170@5,800rpm
Torque (lb ft): 164@4,300rpm
Year registered: 1989
Recorded mileage: 54,000
Price new: £36,925
Yours for: £39,995
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