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New Zealand Classic Car - - MOTORMAN -

High hopes

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.

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