Driving with the doors down? | BMW Z1 test drive

By Tim Suddard
Jul 1, 2022 | BMW, Radwood, GRM+, Test Drive, BMW Z1, Z1 | Posted in News and Notes | From the April 2012 issue | Never miss an article

Photography by Tim Suddard

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Grassroots Motorsports. Pricing has been updated to 2022 values.]

What if BMW built a Miata and powered it with their legendary M20-spec, 2.5-liter six-cylinder? Would the result be the best car ever built? 

Such a machine actually came to life in the late 1980s in the form of the BMW Z1, and it was pretty much a marriage between BMW’s silky-smooth power and the tossability that has since made the Miata such a favorite. 

The first thing you notice about this car are the doors. Rather than opening outward or even upward, they open down into their sills with a turn of the key. First, the windows go down automatically. Then, almost simultaneously, the doors begin to magically retreat into the body. 

Inside the car, standard ’80s BMW window switches fitted in the center console operate just the windows. Switches located low on the sills raise and lower the doors. Raise the doors all the way, and the windows automatically follow.

For the ultimate roadster feel, yes, you can drive this car with the doors in the down position. Of course, wind noise is high when the car is driven in this configuration, and during our stint with the Z1 on a typically chilly night in Monterey, California, we began to freeze. With the doors up and the top down, however, the car was comfortable. 

Climbing over the sills and doors is not as hard as it looks. They’re quite low, and once inside you sink down into very comfortable suede and Alacantra sport seats. While the rest of the cockpit is also unique to the Z1, the other trimmings, including the dashboard, shifter and even the steering wheel, all scream E30-chassis BMW

[Project Car: 1991 BMW 318is]

The driving experience is also totally E30 BMW. Push in the light-as-a-feather, hydraulically operated clutch, turn the key, and the M20 engine comes to life instantly. Like the rest of the car, the nicely weighted, power-assisted steering and Getrag five-speed transmission also come from the E30 BMW—and we have no complaints about their parts-bin origins. 

The top is nicely designed and fits under a slick fiberglass cover. It’s easy to put up and down, and when up it leaves a smallish trunk—typical for this class.

If there’s a downside to the car, it’s availability. Only about 8000 were built during the model’s 1989-’91 run, and none were officially imported into the United States. A few cars have come to our shores, however. We drove one that belongs to BMW and is housed at their Zentrum Museum in South Carolina. The Z1 has been deemed eligible for legal importation and road use by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for what they call “show and display” use. 

When available, cars in No. 3 condition run in the $50,000 range. While that may be a lot for a Miata or an E30-chassis BMW, this car is something different—a milestone machine that delivers true sports car thrills.

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mainlandboy Reader
7/26/22 12:10 p.m.

I would argue that the Z3 was the Miata made by BMW. 

Woody (Forum Supportum)
Woody (Forum Supportum) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
7/26/22 12:15 p.m.

In reply to mainlandboy :

I bought a Z3, expecting it to be a Miata made by BMW. It was more powerful, but it felt absolutely nothing like a Miata. It was beautiful, but it drove like a sedan, not a sportscar.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
7/26/22 12:50 p.m.

The Z3 was clearly BMW's Miata, and everyone knew it.

The Z1 was an interesting critter, though. Those doors!


I can't post that cover without also posting this one :)

hybridmomentspass Dork
7/26/22 1:19 p.m.

I had that gen capri...a great car, but not a fun car. So very reliable and great on gas, spacious. 
Id be very interested in seeing that article and how they compared the two

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
7/26/22 2:07 p.m.

In reply to hybridmomentspass :

I may have that issue in my collection, I'll see if I can pull it out.

The Miata in that picture was almost definitely the R&T long term loaner that they decided really needed to be tested to 50k instead of 30k, then Dennis Simanaitis bought it. AFAIK he still has it. It's Miata 348, built 10 cars after my own.

Robbie (Forum Supporter)
Robbie (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
7/26/22 2:55 p.m.

Only on GRM: 

A discussion about BMW Z1 quickly switches focus to the venerable FWD Mercury Capri.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
7/27/22 8:52 p.m.

Let's hope this is legible :)


jb229 New Reader
7/30/22 11:07 p.m.

Genuine question: Did nobody have back problems before 1990?  Because those doors are insane and absolutely make me understand why people started buying tall-riding SUVs right around the time this came out (also vans with 'command chair' seats, remember that fad in the 90s?)

Gotta love 80s BMW though, add complexity and weight.  Surely this is how we defeat the Japanese makers.

livinon2wheels GRM+ Memberand New Reader
7/31/22 11:55 a.m.

I wonder what pulled bmw away from the well executed 2002? It was light and responsive for the day and is iconic in appearance.

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