THEN AND NOW | Revisiting the iconic 1989 BMW Z1

Brenwin Naidu introduces the latest BMW Z4 to its genesis

28 June 2019 - 15:56 By Brenwin Naidu
The BMW Z1 meets the new BMW Z4.
The BMW Z1 meets the new BMW Z4.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Arguably one of the most beautiful cars ever made, the BMW 507 was a mighty sales flop.

Around 252 units were built in its short lifespan, 1956 to 1959, a grossly underwhelming number compared with the thousands projected by the company, forecasting that the US, in particular, would be keenest for uptake.

So severe was the sting of this commercial ignominy that BMW took a break from building roadsters for nearly three decades. Then, in 1987, it decided to dip a toe in the water with the Z1, which debuted at the Frankfurt Motor Show.

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Good reason that it looked unlike anything ever birthed before by the Munich-based car maker, with no aesthetic or spiritual references to the last two-seater, open-air model it built. The “Z” in Z1 denoted the German word, Zukunft, which means future, if your Deutsche is rusty.

While my colleague, Bruce Fraser, found himself mingling with rare exotica bearing blue-and-white propellers at Lake Como, Italy, recently, I seemed to be doing the same, albeit on the southernmost tip of our continent.

Your chances of spotting a Z1 on local roads are slim to none. This fine specimen arrived for our inspection on a trailer, courtesy of a rather generous, trusting businessman and avid collector.

The rare BMW Z1 still catches your attention, 30 years after its release.
The rare BMW Z1 still catches your attention, 30 years after its release.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Its presence may have eclipsed the dazzle of the Z4 (G29), the latest instalment in the Z-car lineage. The custodian of the sports car genesis presses a button and, in a most impressive fashion, its passenger door retracts into the lower sill.

A nonchalant, oil-slick-smooth motion that elicits as much awe today as it would have all those years ago – forget the cutting-edge conveniences offered by its 2019 successor. That said, the technological gap between the two is reiterated when we opt to drop the tops for the filming session. The fabric roof of the Z4 requires the mere flick of a switch. The Z1 required three men, a quick Google search and plenty of fumbling with obstinate latches.

Its minder offers up the keys, an act of grace that I politely decline. Sometimes you have to say no to such opportunities, lest a mishap results in more social media hits than you anticipated..

The Z1 interior is simple and ergonomic.
The Z1 interior is simple and ergonomic.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Numerous models fill the gap between this Z1 and the newest to wear the letter, including the Z3 of 1995 and the Z8 of 2000, both earning the unique distinction of playing cameos in the James Bond film franchise. And, of course, we cannot forget the two Z4 generations that preceded the car pictured above.

There are more than a few commonalities between past and present, aside from the timelessness of crimson paint. Take, for example, that enduring six-cylinder legacy. Obviously, the contemporary incarnate has a more potent heart, with its turbocharged unit delivering 250kW and 500Nm via an eight-speed automatic.

My ears bore witness to the distinctive noise of the normally-aspirated sextet in the compact prow of the Z1. An especially soulful playback when wound-up, through its five-speed manual.

Times have changed. BMW builds crossovers, sport-utility vehicles and minivans now. Yet it is heartening to note that the Zukunft roadster recipe has stood firm against the vagaries of time.

 

  • See more of the BMW Z1 and Z4 in tandem on IGNITION GT, DStv channel 189, in July.
Quirky drop-down doors are a Z1 design trademark.
Quirky drop-down doors are a Z1 design trademark.
Image: Walso Swiegers
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