I was 18 in 1989. It was my most formative year on many levels. What I liked then has resonated stronger and longer than any other year. That is the case for music, but even more so for cars.
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It was, in my view, a great car year. It included gems such as the Ferrari 348 (in my eyes one of the last true beauties from Maranello before it all went too tacky), the Mazda MX-5/Miata, the R129 Mercedes SL, the Acura NSX, the Alfa Romeo SZ, the Porsche Carrera 4 and the BMW Z1.
Like I said, formative.
Fast forward roughly 20 years, and I was still thinking about the Z1. I had been madly in love with that car from the day it was launched. By then, it was time to get up close to my youth hero. I saw some potential candidates, and then some more. And then it got to the point where I was just tired of looking and bought the next decent one I saw.
Not in the color I wanted, but impatience and burning desire got the best of me. It was a two owner example with about 50,000 miles, in the delightfully German color of “urgrün” (“primary green”), with a “gelb” (yellow) interior.
The color-naming-marketeers must have had a field day. It was number 4862 of about 8000 made.
Just from an aesthetic point the car was, and still is, close to perfection in my eyes. The shape and proportions are spot on. The overall stance is great and there is not a bad angle on it. The rear wheel arches and the long bonnet make it just a tad muscular, but overall I’d say it is mostly understated elegance.
I like the way my new fourth-generation Miata looks, for instance, but compared to the Z1 it just looks a bit clumsy. The 16-inch wheels on the Miata are too small, and the yawning chasms between the wheels and the arches are huge. From a the side view the Miata doesn’t work that well at all, and there’s too much going on.
The interior is even better, and it all has a very nice bespoke feel to it. The seats are awesome to look at and good to sit in, even on longer journeys. The light yellow leather in combination with the green exterior is classic artistic color mix. The instrument cluster looks like it belongs on a motorbike. The way the dials are placed more or less on top of the plate they rest on with the speedo slightly bigger than the rev counter is simply gorgeous. To top it of that cluster is an expanse of beautiful dark green leather, with a simple elegant matching green leather three-spoke wheel. I can’t begin to explain how much I love green in an interior.
And then there’s those infamous doors. On a very warm day (which is maybe about 20 days a year, in my neck of the woods) you can actually leave them open and really feel one with the road. It feels like a motorbike. Until you get to around 40 miles an hour, that is, as the wind buffeting gets annoying really fast. The mechanism operating the doors needs to be ever so delicately calibrated or it scratches the paintwork on the doors.
Mine scratches the paintwork.
At both sides.
But it doesn’t really bother me. What’s sad is that the design of the car is undeservedly overshadowed by the doors. Everyone knows these doors, but at this point, they’re a distraction, taking away from the fundamental beauty of the rest of the car. People would appreciate the overall design more if it just had a regular set of swing-out doors.
But driving it is actually completely underwhelming.
Let’s start with the engine. It really is turbine-smooth and linear, but that’s about it. It’s not powerful enough to make the Z1 go anywhere as fast as it looks. Next to the “Busso” engine in the Alfa Romeo SZ, it feels plain and uneventful. The Busso sings at all revs and feels like a pit bull wanting to be unleashed at every occasion, while the BMW feels characterless in comparison and the sound, while not unpleasant, is honestly kind of boring.
Gear changes feature long throws, and are vague at best. The whole transmission feels a bit truck like. Even our family workhorse, a Mazda 6, has a much, much sweeter gear change.
But there’s plenty of grip from the chassis and you don’t upset this car easily. At high speeds it always feels stable (much like bigger BMW saloons, quite an accomplishment). A playful car, however, it is not. It changes direction and brakes ok, the steering is fine, but it all feels very Teutonic. It never makes you giggle.
Five years later I still own the car, and I still love the way it looks. Familiarity did not breed contempt. It’s gotten quite some competition in my garage over these years, but as it turns out however the Z1 is more of a static and aesthetic pleasure.
To me it feels like a sculpture. A work of art. It stirs the aesthete in me, but leaves the driver in me unmoved.
All photos credit BMW archive