History of the BMW Z sports car

With the 2019 BMW Z4 being revealed at Pebble Beach, it’s the perfect time to see how the Z car progressed through all its generations – good and bad

BMW’s Z sports cars have gone through an evolutionary journey over the past 33 years, starting with the quirky Z1 and leading to 2019’s thoroughly modern Z4 that’s just been revealed at Pebble Beach. Some incarnations have been inspirational and have cult followings today, but others didn’t make their mark. Here’s the BMW Z timeline.

More from Pebble Beach…

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1985 BMW Z1

BMW formed a new division called Technik to explore future technologies and push the boundaries of car design. Zunkuft 1, or Future 1 in English, was its first big project, which took the form of a two-seat sports car. While the car’s wedge shape was inspired by the flagship BMW M1, it had plenty of unique features to accompany the styling.

The Z1’s biggest talking point are those doors. Instead of opening outward as per convention, they retract down into the sill. They might seem sci-fi, but their inclusion is perfectly logical when you think about tight parking spaces. Another innovation for the period was the Z1’s thermoplastic bodywork, which could be easily detached and replaced in the event of an accident. In fact, BMW also suggested that owners could completely change the colour of their car as a result of the design.

Under the bonnet was a 2.5-litre straight-six from the 325i, which gave the Z1 168bhp and 164lb ft of torque. Despite this the car still took a leisurely nine seconds to get from 0-60mph.

Just 8000 BMW Z1s were produced between 1989 and 1991.

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1995 BMW Z3

The Z3 was BMW’s first mass-produced Z series car, and was available as a ‘clown shoe’ coupé or conventional convertible. In coupé form the chassis was actually 2.7 times stiffer thanks to the addition of a solid roof and hatchback opening.

While a premium product, the new Z3 was gunning for the much-loved Mazda MX-5, but in doing so welcomed a comparison it was never going to win. An MX-5 was light, nimble and good value for money; the Z3 was relatively costly and didn’t have the handling prowess of the Mazda.

By today’s BMW standards it was a relatively simple car that shared many parts with a 3 Series, making for a low-maintenance modern classic today. James Bond even had one.

Check out our BMW Z3 buying guide.

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1997 BMW Z3 M Roadster and Coupé

While some people were dissatisfied with the Z3, the M performance variant that arrived in 1997 more than made up for it. These cars featured larger, more powerful engines, a wider track, brakes borrowed from the M3 and a limited-slip differential. The driver-focused nature of this car was highlighted by the only gearbox option being a five-speed manual.

These models are now highly collectable, with values increasing steadily.

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BMW Z3 V12

In a rare moment of German amusement, BMW decided to see what would happen if it put a V12 engine into a Z3 chassis. That’s right, a 5.4-litre 12-cylinder in a little car such as the Z3. 322bhp and 361lb ft of torque gave this sports car concept a 0-62mph time of 5.5 seconds.

This was purely an engineering exercise, with just one prototype being built.

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2000 BMW Z8

The BMW Z8 started life as the Z07 concept car designed by Henrik Fisker. It was a celebration of the historic BMW 507, but when it was revealed at the Tokyo Motor Show there was strong support for a production variant.

Evolving from concept car to the Z8, this all-aluminium sports car became BMW’s halo model for the new millennium. A 4.9-litre V8 gave it 395bhp to go along with that sleek styling. The low-volume nature of this car meant that it was built almost entirely by hand, but BMW did promise a 50-year stockpile of parts for this future classic.

James Bond drove a gadget-laden Z8 in the film The World is Not Enough.

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2002 BMW Z4

The Z4 marked a sea-change for BMW mainstream sports cars, with lessons learned from the Z3. This new model would be more upmarket, with a focus on luxury and equipment that included a new electric folding soft-top. It was initially available only as a roadster, but strong demand for a coupé lead to its production in 2006.

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2006 BMW Z4 M Coupé

The M badge returned for the Z4 in coupé and convertible guises, but its the coupé that hit the real sweet spot. It might have been 5kg heavier, but it could match the convertible’s 0-62mph dash of five seconds while increasing rigidity. This handsome sports car packed a 338bhp straight-six and is highly sought after today.

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2009 BMW Z4

The second-generation BMW ditched the rag-top and coupé in favour of a folding-metal convertible roof. This gave customers the best of both worlds – something the Audi TT couldn’t do. While an M Sport trim was offered, this generation went without a full-blooded M model.

This Z4 was praised for its added comfort and technology, but it lacked the dynamic ability of key rivals.

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2012 BMW Z4 Zagato

Revealed at the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, the Zagato-bodied Z4 coupé combined the sports car’s proportions with design language from the legendary styling house. It followed on from a roadster variant that debuted at Pebble Beach.

These cars were never destined for production.

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2019 BMW Z4

We had a good idea what the G29 BMW Z4 would look like from the concept car, but the finished thing is almost as striking. The 2019 Z4 is the result of a joint venture between BMW and Toyota. Toyota will make use of this platform as the reborn Supra in coupé form, while the convertible is badged as BMW’s latest Z4.

The Z4 has been revealed in hot M40i guise making this 335bhp sports car a prime Porsche Boxster rival. This is a significant step-up in performance and target audience for BMW with the new car capable of 0-62mph in just 4.6 seconds. There will be smaller engines offered such as 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol, but the big question mark relates to a potential M performance model in the near future.

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