BMW’s Z1 Turns 25 and Now You Can Import It to the USA

Posted: June 6, 2012 in BMW
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An interesting news tidbit came through the BMW PR department recently. The Z1, the ground-breaking plastic-paneled roadster with vertical power sliding doors, is celebrating its 25th anniversary. In 1985, BMW’s Board of Management formed a 60-member team of engineers and designers specifically tasked with creating what became known as the Z1. That group, BMW Technik GmbH, came up with the Z1’s radical design incorporating BMW’s goals: superior performance, the ability to drive with the roof down, a sense of sheer originality and a dash of extravagance.  To say they succeeded would be a grave understatement.

The BMW Z1

The BMW Z1 in Top Red

The Z1 had a very low weight (2,760 pounds, about as much as a MINI Cooper Convertible) and low center of gravity, front mid-engine placement and compact dimensions. The “wow factor” came from the unique vertical sliding doors and the supporting sheet-metal structure with a plastic outer skin.  BMW announced on August 10, 1987 that it would present the Z1 Roadster at the Frankfurt Auto Show on September 11, 1987.  It would have a 170 hp straight 6-cylinder engine and it would go into production in June of 1988.

BMW Z1 Interior

While the Z1 may look radical, beneath that sexy skin beats the heart of a garden variety BMW 325i of that era [internal code E30]. The HVAC system and most controls and gauges were lifted straight from the E30.  The Z1 had a 2.5-liter straight-six with 170 hp (as advertised) and all Z1s had a 5-speed manual transmission.  The front single-joint spring axle was taken from the 3-Series, but the rear multi-link axle was unique to the Z1.  The car had excellent directional stability and it exhibited strong anti-squat and anti-dive control. The weight distribution was 49:51.

The Z1 would be considered slow by today’s standards. It’s zero to 62 time was just under eight seconds.  But it rode like a go-cart and it hugged the ground like it was a roller coaster on rails.  With the doors tucked safely under the carriage and the top down, people said it was like driving a 4-wheel motorcycle.

The BMW Z1 in Dream Black metallic

Only 8,000 BMW Z1 models were built between June of 1988 and June of 1991 – three short years.  Under U.S. law, in order to import a classic or antique car for personal use, the vehicle must be 25 years old or older so it doesn’t have to comply with the Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS).  Vehicles 21 years old and older don’t have to comply with any EPA requirements.

The BMW Z1 in Nature Green Metallic

To determine the age of the vehicle, the calendar year of manufacture is subtracted from the calendar year of importation. That means starting in 2013, the first Z1 models are eligible to be imported to the US without burden of Federal emissions or safety regulations (2013 less 1988 = 25).

Naturally, it’s not that simple for California.  Model year 1976 and newer vehicles are still required to pass a smog check. The good news, however, is that the engine and exhaust system for the Z1 are nearly identical to the BMWs sold in California at that time.  A good BMW mechanic should be able to make sure that an imported Z1 would pass California smog checks.

The metal frame of the BMW Z1

It lots of time and paperwork to import a classic to the U.S. and there are lots of companies that will assist with the process. It also may take some time to find a nice living example of a Z1 to purchase.  They are still expensive – at least $30,000 – and that’s before it gets on a boat and all the federal and California paperwork is done. But it’s just so damn cool. Who wouldn’t want one?

See the BMW Z1 press release.

In the spring of 1991, artist A.R. Penck decorated a Top Red Z1 with black graffiti. This Z1 was added to the other legendary members of BMW’s Art Cars.

A stripped-down Z1 without its unique plastic body panels and its futuristic, never copied, drop-down vertical doors.

Testing a Z1

The Z1’s engine, transmission and suspension.

A BMW Z1 in the styling studio.

An early Z1 design study.

Designer sketches for the Z1

The interior of the Z1 sported the driver-focused cockpit from the 3-Series. The seats were unique to the Z1.

The Z1’s styling is still fresh today. It was an instant classic and demand never waned during its short, hand-built run. They are highly sought-after as collector classics today.


  1. las artes says:

    This car of the future featured a completely new chassis specially designed for the Z1. Several unique components include the removable body panels, continuously zinc welded seams, a composite undertray, and a set of dropped doors. As is typical with any large manufacturer, BMW went to the parts bin of the 3-series to utilize some major working components, but the Z1 was largely new from the ground up.

  2. The fenders, hood, deck lid and bumpers are all plastic (think Pontiac Fiero) with each section made from different chemical compositions and tailored to its specific position on the body and its function. The bumpers are made of urethane as this material is flexible and has greater resistance to impact. The doors and side panels are molded from a GE thermoplastic and the engine hood, rear deck lid and the flip up tonneau cover are made of fiberglass. The body panels are painted with a special highly flexible coating that was co-developed for the Z1 project by BMW and AKZO. Speaking of coatings, the car only came (officially) in four colors. Red, black and green were most common, making these the color choices for the vast majority of Z1’s.

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