Back to the future

One a lightweight vision for the future, a technological showcase of sorts, the other a powerful and quite cumbersome blunt instrument made to look like something out of the 1950’s. But is either of them actually any good? Front engined. Rear driven. Two seats. Retractable roof. A simple recipe for an open top sports car invented by Brits to make every car journey the one to be remembered. In theory, that is. Mostly these motoring ‘adventures’ consisted of some kind of irritable breakdown either caused by a faulty water pump, an oil leek, or an overheating problem. But that was the charm of it all, and what actually could be remembered forever were those times when people were finally able to get to their destination without any incident, or using solely their willpower to carry on regardless of the fact their wheels have just fallen off. Either way the focus was on driving pleasure and fun, drop dead gorgeous looks that evoked speed and movement (that in some cases may be argued with – Frogeye Sprites for instance weren’t particularly beautiful), but most of all on taking in the scenery. Cars built around the emotional response one gets while subjected to the process of driving. A sort of unity of man, machine and countryside views, all synced in perfect harmony until something went wrong again. Then of course came the Japanese manufacturers and introduced some reliability into the mix and the car market, just as the motorcycle one, changed forever. Became a little bit better, and maybe a little bit more boring. But even if this story is retold from time to time in the exact same manner, from the same ‘UK-centred’ perspective, it can’t be ignored that the Germans, for some time now, have also been having a go at creating roadsters of their own. And as they usually do, have become quite good at it over the years. This is the story of two exceptional ones.

This is one German that likes to pretend to be Italian. Just look at the way it looks somwhere on the outskirts of Verona.

BMW Motorrad It’s just after ten o’clock on a Monday morning and the sun is already well high up in the sky. The scenery is here, right on schedule. Ready to be absorbed with all the available five senses. Lago d’Iseo or ‘Lake Iseo’ is lying calmly warming its waters in the early sun rays, reflecting them like a gigantic mirror that someone installed at the bottom of a deep valley. A sapphire blue, ice cold, and deep as hell itself, glacial lake completely surrounded by mountains covered with a carpet of green, thick forest. The heart of Lombardy, Italy. The absolute silence of nature in all its glory, disturbed only by an occasional motorcycling enthusiast blasting up or down the hill. Fully committed, leaning, one knee out on the asphalt, sparks almost flying from underneath his kneepads. But motorcycles are dangerous. No crumple zones, no seatbelts if an error in judgement is made and the rider slides on his ass towards a metal barrier, nothing will prevent sudden decapitation. Even though you can kind of understand what it's all about. Again, it’s the connection to the machine, an adrenaline rush, an undiluted spinal tap type of a thing. They say that you can’t get close to what those guys are feel while driving a car. They’re wrong. On the hard shoulder observing it all with indifferent (Harm Lagaay designed) headlights a red BMW Z1 stands parked. It’s an early 1989 model so it’s 25 years old, but even in 2014 and at a standstill it manages to turn some motorcyclists heads, making them lose their concentration, ideal cornering line and overall momentum. It’s getting more dangerous for them by the minute. Can’t blame them though. Only eight thousand Z1’s were ever built (and none sold to the US) so seeing one is actually a big deal. But still, better to drive away and explore this German-made idea of a perfect roadster than to put random motorcyclists in harms way. And the roads around these parts are every petrolhead’s dream. A spaghetti ribbon of tarmac with all types of bends, from swooping fast ones, through technical blind ones that tighten when you least expect them, to narrow hairpins. Not a lot of straights. Ideal for this slightly underpowered (170 hp at 5800 rpm, and 164 lb·ft of torque) car that uses an engine (12-valve SOHC straight-six, tilted a bit to fit under the hood) which still remembers the times of the BMW E21. And the ‘Z’ in the Z1 name stands for ‘Zukunft’ that means ‘future’ so having an antiquated powertrain doesn't seem like a great start. But let’s move on because what counts most around this part of Europe is agility. Chassis balance, steering precision, and of course good brakes. Secondly even though it’s the least impressive part of the Z1 recipe, this engine is one of the great ones. It seems to rev without end, never missing a beat, relentlessly climbing towards the red line, as if it was no problem at all, a purely effortless task. It might be underpowered by today's standards but it doesn’t make the car feel slow. And that’s because of the way this car was thought out.

It was a pet project for BMW’s newly formed ‘Section ZT’ and BMW Technik AG’s chief Dr. Ulrich Bez. Radically new in terms of architectural design and production technique. Examples? Each Z1 was made by hand. Which partly explains why so few were ever produced. The chassis was made out of galvanized and zinc coated steel combined with composite materials (for example the entire floor undertray is made of composites). The body was plastic, which meant that you could change the color of the car whenever you wanted, but also that you could drive the essentially monocoque car without any of the body panels bolted on – just like with a frame chassis. This was cutting edge, completely new technology back then. Invented especially for the Z1 project. It made the car 35% stiffer then any of its contemporaries, very light at 2,760 lb, with a center of gravity that was 10mm lower then the M3 of the period. Four different, new painting techniques were invented to paint the Z1 plastic elements. And Dr. Bez demonstrated their overall toughness by jumping on them in front of a bunch of surprised journalists during the press launch. The complicated multilink rear suspension design (called the Z-axle) made its way to the then-new BMW E36, and was so good it got canned only in 2005 when production of the Rover 75 stopped. Not to mention the radical doors that can be electrically lowered into the car’s sills, which is a unique piece of futuristic design never to be repeated again.

What is the Z1 like to drive? There are a couple of words that come to mind. One of them is: brilliant. You sit practically on the floor, with the small, thin, no-nonsense, button-less steering wheel aimed straight at your chest. The bucket seats hold you nicely in place, even though in the bends G-forces try their best to pull you out of the car through those quirky, open doors. And you almost always drive the Z1 with the doors open. Just because you can. The wind in the cabin only augmenting the sensation of speed (no aircon fitted nor needed). When it came out journalists compared the Z1 to a motorcycle, and they were right to do so. Even the rev counter that has been slightly extended forward gives away the fact, that those were actually motorbikes that inspired this design. Total immersion in the driving experience. Being “one” with the machine. But the Z1 is so much better than any ‘bike. It has the perfect 50/50 weight distribution, so it’s not nose heavy. Using the ultra-direct steering you turn into a bend, and the nose immediately follows your lead. This is not driving. It’s telepathy. There’s plenty of grip and not a smidgen of understeer. This car is so light it doesn’t need fat tires to put to shame most new sports cars on 20” rims. Doesn’t need huge brakes either. You have to work very hard transferring mass, being brutal with the throttle to destabilize it, and when it does let go, even though it’s wheelbase is only 96.3 inches, it’s progressive and very easy to control. It’s somehow natural to drive the Z1 at the limit, and beyond it. So you just sit there working the short-throw Getrag 260/5 ‘box, looking out for those apexes, overtaking motorbikes mid-corner, and grinning like a maniac. And when you get into town you can throw one leg out the door for the public's amusement. Why do we need the likes of the Subaru BRZ or the Mazda Mx-5, if this car is just as good or even better? No idea.

If Carroll Shelby was German. Then it’s another day and you get the chance to drive the Z1’s younger, but slightly bigger brother. This time around another Italian lake – Garda – stretching from Lombardy straight into Trentino, and then the Dolomite Mountains. It’s in the tunnels around it that the famous opening car chase from the James Bond movie “Quantum of Solace” took place.And coincidentally this ‘younger brother’ of the BMW ‘Z’ family is also a Bond Car. When it came out, journalists around the world engaged in a big BMW bashing campaign accusing the company of ‘not knowing’ what the BMW Z8 was supposed to be. They couldn’t see a good, agile roadster in it, they couldn’t call it a supercar even though it was priced like one at $128,000 (in comparison the exotic Ferrari 360 Modena was $175,000), and the car was too hard, too brutal to be a good long range GT cruiser. Jeremy Clarkson famously compared the way it drove to a Scania Dump truck. He said that steering it was as hard a job as getting a wardrobe up a flight of stairs. So this model went down in history as a failed styling exercise, a half-arsed attempt at creating a future classic by evoking the retro inspired design of the BMW 507, and botching it by sticking a big old 400 hp V8 under the hood. A car mostly famous for getting split in half by a chainsaw-carrying helicopter while parked on a dock in a Bond movie.

Let's see what you've got Mr. Bond

Somehow though, eleven years later it’s hard to imagine what all of those critics were on about. The body design (by Henrik Fisker) is stunning. Muscular but not ‘heavy’, the curves like a tight t-shirt on some jocks torso. The car doesn’t look very Teutonic, unlike the modern day 6 series (or M6), it’s not an ‘in-your-face-get-out-of-my-way’ nouveau riche autobahn stormer. It looks almost… Italian. And so did the original 507 from which the Z8 draws handsomely (the side vents are a dead give away). Compared to the bulky uninspiring 502 and 503 it looks as if it wasn’t designed by the same man (Graf Albrecht von Goertz) but by someone born in Turin like Giovanni Michelotti (there is a special Michelotti bodied 507 but that’s another story). The interior of the Z8 is fairly minimalistic. Painted the same color as the body with a few buttons and switches in silver aluminum. The easy to read, big rev counter and speedo mounted centrally on the dash, so that you can scare the passenger even more when he takes a look at them while you blast along. No excessive stuff like a satnav or complicated stereo (it’s actually there only hidden by a panel). In this car you listen to the engine note. And what a sound it is. Fire up the S62 M5 motor and all hell brakes loose. It’s not a deep burble like a small block American V8, it’s not a ‘banshee wailing’ Italian one. The Z8 somehow sounds more metallic, technical. Like some hammers, nuts and bolts that are stuck in eight sophisticated space-age metal buckets. A very pleasant, but also aggressive sound.

The car was built by hand (only 5,703 were ever made and as with the 507 and Z1 BMW lost money on the Z8) using a complicated aluminum space frame and aluminum body panels. Thanks to such construction technique it only weighs 3,494 lb. That’s just 734 lb more then a Z1, and it has a 400 hp, 4941 cc, 32-valve V8, that develops 370 lb·ft of torque. The results are… well… deep. 0-62 takes only 4.7 seconds, and feels a whole lot faster. Put the car into the first gear of the manual, tight 6 speed ‘box, rev to about 4000 rpm then dump the clutch. The fat 295/30/19 rear tires light up for a split second and then the car launches forward with ferocity that glues the occupants to their respective seats. The roads in this part of Italy are not ideally smooth and the Z8 is very stiff for a car without a roof, but it never gets uncomfortable. The thin three spoked steering wheel (there are actual metal spokes in it) is small and the steering is nicely weighted. It’s direct too, reacts instantly and gives you plenty of feedback. If you sneeze, you change direction. While driving the Z1 was pure pleasure this is more hard work. Not like hauling a wardrobe up a staircase but the Z8 makes its driver concentrate and sweat in the process. It’s just so damn fast! The breaking points between bends arrive faster then the brain can cope. And until you adapt you end up overshooting them. And there are no driver aids here (just a simple traction control easy to switch off). This is no Nissan GTR controlled by a computer brain that delivers the exact amount of torque to each individual wheel via a clever differential. In a Z8 you have to do the work, and only you – heeling and toeing properly, applying the power with a watchmaker’s precision. Go to fast into a corner and the front washes wide. Apply to much power to early upon exit and you’ll end up going backwards into a ditch (or crevasse this being the mountains after all). But the brakes are excellent (again the car isn’t very heavy, so no problem of fade) and keep saving the day again and again. The Z8 also manages to pull enough lateral G in faster corners, that in the tunnels surrounding Garda the bad guys in their Alfa’s would surely struggle to keep up. In some ways it reminds one of a British TVR, or a Shelby Cobra for that matter. Fast, brutal, hard to drive but once you understand it, really understand what it’s all about – very rewarding indeed. Not a supercar (not flamboyant enough), not a roadster for purists (not subtle enough), not a GT (to uncompromisingly sporty in the suspension department) but a full-on, German interpretation of an open-top muscle car. If Carroll Shelby was German and working for BMW this would definitely be his project. And that’s why if you have the chance, leave your preconceived notions at the door, forget all you read about it, and just drive one.

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