After exposure to the remarkable Z1 in Austria in 1989, I had high hopes for the Z3. BMW simply redefined the roadster with the Z1, and its designation was nothing if not appropriate, with the ‘Z’ signifying Zukunft, German for ‘future’. More than 5000 orders flooded in soon after the prototype was unveiled at the 1987 Frankfurt Motor Show, with many of these being from speculative investors. Of total production made in three years until 1991, 6443 were sold in Germany, and none of these was right-hand drive. Auckland-based Emilio Lourdes imported the only Z1 into New Zealand in 1990, and it joined an equally rare midengined M1 BMW in his stable.
Twenty-five years after Rover introduced the 2000 sedan with body panels bolted to a skeleton frame, BMW advanced the idea and produced plastic body panels detachable from a fully galvanized zinc-dipped steel chassis, forming a corrosion-resistant backbone for the Z1. The floor was made from a moulded sandwich of epoxy resin and foam, and the car could be driven with all 13 clip-on body panels detached.
Sliding doors made of a light thermoplastic disappeared into the sills within five seconds at the touch of external lock buttons, and the glass windows receded as the door dropped. In case of an electrical failure or accident hampering the electro-hydraulic operation, the door could be lowered manually. Z1 designer Harm Lagaay recalled how his car yielded several patents for BMW in the ’80s, including the sliding-door mechanism, underbody air deflector, integrated roll bar, and high-intensity headlamps. Its multi-link rear-axle suspension was adopted for the upcoming E36 3 Series from 1991.
Powering the Z1 was the 2.5-litre 127kw (170bhp) six-cylinder from the 325i, repositioned further back in the car to assist in the excellent 49:51 weight distribution, a feat that was almost repeated with the Z3. The Z1’s amazing chassis most impressed, providing more grip than any previous BMW, and so high were the levels of lateral acceleration during skidpan testing that the engine was starved of lubrication!
In many ways, the Z1 marked BMW’S return to a true sports car, a model which had been absent for 50 years. Yet, seven years on, the mass-market Z3, with its nearidentical wheelbase of 2447mm and slightly longer overall length of 4025mm, struggled to emulate the plastic-bodied Z1 that seemed much more than a mere curio car.
From an economic standpoint, of course, the higher-volume Z3 made more sense than the scarce and costly Z1 that retailed for US$45K new. Unsurprisingly for a car so rare and special, current market values are never less than their original, and one example with fewer than 200km on the clock was recently advertised for US$100K.
It’s said that the Z3 did not find true form until the arrival of the 2.8-litre about a year after the 1.9-litre four-cylinder versions went on sale in New Zealand in 1996. Early in 1997, an early production left-hand-drive 3.2-litre M Roadster Z3 arrived here, with the promise of stunning performance.
At 1350kg, it was 165kg heavier than the four-cylinder equivalent, and $50K more expensive, with a $125K price tag. The M version was the fastest-accelerating production BMW at the time, with the 236kw (321bhp) power plant producing a zero to 100kph time of 5.4 seconds, compared with 9.5 seconds for the 103kw (140bhp) 1.9-litre model.
Technically conventional the Z3 may have been, but this front-engined / rear-driven two-door was also highly refined, with good rigidity and a distinctively styled body, even if some see the bulges and curves as slightly odd and bordering on retro. Apart from the obvious BMW styling characteristics of the double-kidney grille and 3 Series– style dashboard, designer Joji Nagashima incorporated a long, flattened bonnet with wrap-over guards, a short tail, and longish wheelbase, with seating set well back. Dual circular headlights and indicator lenses were located beneath a glass cover plate, and the four air scoops with the BMW symbol on the front side panels revived classic memories of the legendary 507.
Only minor changes were made for the 1999 facelift, with rear bumper and tail-light revisions and a lower tailgate. When the Z4 arrived, there were mixed feelings about the abrupt rear-end treatment, which was not as harmonious as on its predecessor. With an unusually complex nose, sharpish body angles, and creases and folds, the somewhat busy-looking Z4 was always going to be more polarizing than the smoother Z3.
Even more controversial was the dumpy Z3 M coupé that arrived in September 1998, nine months after the Z3 M roadster. This was a car certainly not lacking in character, and, as a modern-day equivalent to the 1940 BMW 328 Mille Miglia coupé, the enclosed GT rendition of the Z3 was something of a modern classic. With special detailing like the chrome-plated side scoops that were reminiscent of the BMW 507 roadster and two-colour leather upholstery, the coupé was aimed at a niche the Germans figured hitherto had not been filled.
New Zealand took Uk-specification Z3 roadsters with ABS as standard, and ASC+T (automatic stability control) optional. Like the UK, we did not import the entry-level 1.8-litre M42 four-valve 85kw motor, and instead specified the newer 1.9-litre M44 16-valve DOHC motor, producing a more acceptable 103kw. The 2.8-litre M2 142kw six arrived in 1997, and, in June 2000, this power plant was replaced by a 3.0-litre version of the straight-six. With the facelifted Z3 came a 2.0-litre 110kw six, an electric soft-top, and cruise control.
All New Zealand–new 1.9-litre cars had disc brakes all round and air conditioning as standard, along with a catalytic converter, 7Jx15-inch five-spoke alloy wheels with 205/60 tyres, leatherette upholstery, twin airbags, electric windows, central locking, fog lamps, an on-board computer, velour floor mats, painted mirror housings, and a lockable storage box. Over and above the 1.9i, the 2.8i Z3 came with 7Jx16-inch alloy wheels and 205/70 tyres, full leather upholstery with wood trim and a different front air dam, side skirts, and a revised exhaust system, while a hardtop became optional.
Twenty years on
My introduction to the original Z3 came in 1995 with a visit to BMW’S Spartanburg factory in South Carolina, which had been operating for little more than a year. It began assembling E36 sedans for the American market before concentrating on the Z3, the first all-new BMW made in the US. Spartanburg also made the Z3 M roadster, M coupé, and first-generation Z4, before manufacture was transferred to the Regensburg plant in Germany. Following a billion-dollar injection in 2014 to boost capacity to 450,000 a year, the Spartanburg output is now second only to BMW’S Dingolfing factory in Germany, and it currently produces the X3, X4, X5, and X6.
Mindful of American build-quality and paintwork standards of the past, unusually sensitive and critical eyes were cast over the finish of those early Z3s. At the time, I wrote that BMW could not afford to get this one wrong, especially in a car engendering so much enthusiasm and attention. Some of the early examples struggled to meet German standards, and the paintwork did not match that from BMW’S home plants, but these quality issues were soon resolved in cars that had more than 60 per cent US content. A first for BMW was Spartanburg having its body shop, assembly, and painting facilities all under one roof.
Two decades on, many of those early Z3s are still in use on New Zealand roads, and, surprisingly, for those on offer, there is little difference in values between the four- and sixcylinder models. You would expect the sixes to be worth considerably more, but they are not. Asking prices start from as little as $5K, and it is not difficult to find examples with relatively low mileages.
The most expensive Z3 recently available was a 2002 four-cylinder with less than 40,000km showing, and a quoted price of $18K. Yet, from the Z3 roadsters listed, it was clear $10K would buy you a good example, and the cars clearly represent excellent value for money.
Pre-owned Z4s are obviously much more expensive, given that they are newer and more sophisticated, with prices varying from $15K for a 2004 with 104,000km to $52K for a rare 2006 M roadster. Newest was a 2008, 64,000km roadster, which the owner hoped would make $26K. From new, the E89 Z4 was priced from $87K to a hefty $125K, with the option of three in-line sixes. Least powerful was the 150kw (201bhp) 23i, while the 190kw (225bhp) 30i was the mid-range choice. Topping the line-up was the stonking 35i, with 225kw (302bhp) of power. There were no four-cylinder Z4s, and the Z3 suspension was replaced by the more advanced multi-link rear set-up. Unlike Z3, the newer Z4 was combined into one roadster and coupé body, with an automated folding hardtop.
So, how does the Z3 fare as the years roll on? Engineers suggest that the radiators should be replaced every five years, since the cooling systems are made of aluminium core, and the plastic tanks become brittle and leak with age. Thermostats are known to lock in an open position, so the engine will not overheat, and apparently it is easier to replace the water pump on the six-cylinder models than on the four. Watch for overheating, with cylinder heads that can crack and lifting head gaskets. The rear differential mount is secured to the chassis by a flimsy piece of metal near the muffler, and should be inspected.
Optional power-operated hoods can be troublesome, and, while the rear window plastics discolour and crack, replacement is apparently easy. The soft-top is easy to erect and lower, but there are two windscreen fixings for the hood instead of one centrally-mounted catch like on the 3 Series convertible. The lined 180-litre boot is generous and is accessed via an external push-button release. An emergency spare wheel resided under the load compartment on a fold-down support.
Roads in North and South Carolina are mainly well surfaced, but our initial drive route from the Spartanburg factory in Greer was over a twisting course, underscoring the chassis integrity and excellent rigidity. BMW dug into the parts bin for the Z3, with the front axle from the 3 Series, albeit with an increase in track, and the space-saving semi-trailing-arm rear suspension from the Compact instead of the more costly and sophisticated multi-link Z-axle employed on the 3 Series sedan. This allowed a larger boot, while the 52-litre plastic fuel tank was located in front of the rear axle. The large rear-hinged bonnet is supported by twin gas struts, and offers good access to the power train.
The rear suspension has 14mm more track than the Compact, while springs, shock absorbers, and rear-axle mounts are retained. The all-steel monocoque is hot-galvanized on both sides, and the welded floorpan consists largely of strong steel plate. A-pillars are strong, the windscreen is bonded, and the flexural rigid pipe-in-windscreen structure determines good safety in a rollover. Larger body panels are reinforced to avoid vibration, while two elastically connected antivibration weights right and left in the rear bumper largely compensate for any torsional vibration. All panels forming the outer skin are bolted on for easy and quick replacement.
The 1.9-litre is responsive and flexible at low and medium speeds, and the gearing is ideal for local conditions. Expect a light and precise gear change, even if lever action is a shade long. The car is silky smooth up and down the ratios, and, while many examples have the electronically controlled four-stage auto transmission, the Z3 is best as a manual. Most owners are very satisfied with cornering, ride, and adhesion, even if overall handling is more subdued than in the newer Z4. Reasonably sharp power-assisted steering is geared to 2.9 turns of the steering wheel from lock to lock. Expect restrained mechanical noise until pressed, when the note from the flattened exhaust pipe is enough to arouse the senses. Admirable, too, is a lack of cockpit wind turbulence.
When new and up against the popular Mazda MX-5, the Z3 faced a $20K price penalty, but it had the prestige of the BMW badge and was not lacking in style. Most buyers were less concerned about performance or handling. In spite of the presence of rival high-profile sports cars like the Mercedes-benz SLK, Porsche Boxster, and Lotus Elise, the Z3’s sales success was proof positive Munich had the right recipe. And, for good, fresh-air motoring, used Z3s in New Zealand currently represent an enticing low-cost proposition, with minimal long-term depreciation.