Like many things in the late 1990’s, BMW attempted to appeal to a ‘retro’ style, in the same vein as the Rover 75, the Volkswagen New Beetle, the Ford Thunderbird and the New Mini Cooper. This little chestnut, the BMW Z8, was built to be the company’s leading light in terms of European roadsters, and boy did it do just that!
The concept of the Z8 goes back to a 1997 concept car known as the Z07, which, unlike many concepts which are done primarily to show the abilities of the styling department, was designed to be a full production car. The Z07 was conceived of by a team lead by American designer Chris Bangle, who had previously designed cars for Fiat and Opel, including the Opel Junior concept car (which would later become the Opel Corsa), and the stylish (if terribly unreliable) Fiat Coupe. The external styling of the car was the product of Danish automotive designer Henrik Fisker, who would later go on to design the Aston Martin DB9 and his own car, the hybrid Fisker Karma. The main intention of the Z07 was to be a retelling of the classic 1950’s BMW 507, quite possibly one of the most beautiful cars ever built, and one that cemented BMW’s reputation for stylish but reliable sports cars. The Z07 was launched at the 1997 Tokyo Auto Show, receiving universal acclaim and gaining stellar reviews for its looks, performance and practicality. Spurred on by this reception, BMW began work on producing the car for the masses.
However, most of the design work for the production model had essentially been done for them, thanks to the forward thinking and innovative approach of making the concept suitable for conversion into a production model in terms of appeasing regulatory bodies. The only major alteration was the windscreen being extended upward slightly to provide
aerodynamic stability and reduce wind entering the cabin at high speeds. This was followed by the replacement of the steering wheel from four to three spokes, and the original hardtop was changed from a double-bubble form with a tapering faring to a single dome with a truncated convex backside. The concept’s exotic driver’s side helmet fairing was eliminated to allow easy operation of the power soft top. As such, the final product, the Z8, remained pretty much the same as the original Z07 concept car.
Overall, the design of the car featured an all aluminium body, powered by a 4.9L 32-valve V8 engine developing 300hp. The engine was designated internally as the S62, and was shared with the high performance version of the company’s 5-Series, the M5. The configuration of the car was mid-engined, with the powerplant positioned behind the front axle for perfect 50/50 weight distribution, intended to improve both the car’s acceleration and handling. 0-60 was achieved in 4.7 seconds, with a top speed electronically limited to 155mph. In a test against a Ferrari 360 Modena, the Z8 outperformed it in accelerating, braking and handling. Another interesting feature of the Z8 was the use of neon exterior lighting for the brake lights and indicators, resulting in quicker activation than regular halogen bulbs, as well as outliving them and, probably, the car itself. While neon would never be truly taken up as an alternative due to the expense of fitting and replacing it, it did lead to further innovations in terms of alternate indicator and brake lights, resulting in the LED’s that are now used in contemporary Audi’s and BMW’s.
Every Z8 was shipped with a colour-matching metal hardtop with rear defroster. Unlike many accessory hardtops, which are provided for practical rather than stylistic considerations, the Z8 hardtop was designed from the outset to complement the lines of the roadster. In order to keep the interior uncluttered, a number of convenience functions were integrated into multifunction controls. For example, the power windows and mirrors were controlled by a single instrument. Also, the centre-mounted instrument cluster was canted slightly toward the driver. The displacement of these gauges to the middle of the dash was intended to offer an unimpeded view of the bonnet and the road ahead.
In order to promote the Z8 to collectors and reinforce media speculation about the Z8’s “instant classic” potential, BMW promised that a 50-year stockpile of spare parts would be maintained in order to support the Z8 fleet. Due to the limited volume of Z8
production, all elements of the car were constructed or finished by hand, thereby compounding the importance of ongoing manufacturer support for the type. The price point and production process allowed BMW to offer custom options to interested buyers. A significant number of Z8s with nonstandard paint and interior treatments were produced over the course of the four-year production run by BMW Individual, a division of BMW AG.
The car was launched in 1999 at a price of $128,000, and was intended to be the company’s top of the range model over the likes of the Z3 roadster. Reviews of the car almost unanimously praised its lavish styling, looking and feeling as good as, if not better, than the classic 507. However, issues were quickly raised, particularly with regard to the car’s handling. The position of the engine behind the front axle made the handling very light, causing the car to suffer horrendous understeer. This was compounded by the fact that the car’s lightweight aluminium body meant it would really takeoff like a rocket, so it was essentially lightening and already light car! Also, at $128,000, the car was incredibly pricey, with its tag knocking on the door of Bentley Continental money, but only for a small roadster with not nearly the same luxury features. Here in the UK, the car cost £80,000, and wasn’t even converted into RHD.
However, none of the issues I’ve mentioned matter because the biggest party piece this car had to offer was its looks. It truly is a vanity car, built to gently stroke the egos of all the world’s eccentric billionaires. It didn’t matter that it would understeer something horrid, or that it was only available in LHD so us Brits would have serious trouble trying to get out of difficult junctions in one, or that it cost Ferrari and Porsche money but for half the car. These machines were built for those California Cruisers, trundling up and down California State Highway 1 watching the world admire them and their wheels, and hopefully, if you’re a man who likes to party, pick up some lady friend’s along the way (though I’ve always gone by the rule that if you’re a man attempting to woo potential lovers with your car, you’ll probably end up drawing the attention of more men than women!)
Regardless, BMW were proud of their flagship, and felt that they needed some extra promotion to a car that didn’t really need it, seeing as it was already adored by all. As part of a three-film product placement deal BMW had signed with Eon Productions (the production company for the James Bond films), BMW would provide the film makers with versions of their latest models that 007 would drive around and Q would tart up with gadgets and gizmos (most of which weren’t need and weren’t used). Arguably, this point in the James Bond franchise for Bond cars was its lowest, with the BMW Z3 used in Goldeneye appearing for only 30 seconds and doing the square root of nothing, while Bond was handed an Estate Agent’s BMW 750iL in Tomorrow Never Dies, which, while providing us with an impressive car chase through a German parking lot, wasn’t exactly comparable to the Aston Martin DB5 or the Lotus Esprit.
BMW provided Eon with multiple Z8’s, as well as several miniature models and wooden mockups. The Z8 was certainly the most memorable part of the film, with everything else seeming to run, like the Z8, on autopilot, but the role in which the Z8 occupied wasn’t completely unmemorable too. From what I recall, it drove onto a wharf, fired a missile to shoot down a helicopter, and was promptly cut in half by another chainsaw wielding helicopter. Not exactly impressive when you think about it, especially when compared to the DB5 and its pursuit through Goldfinger’s factory, or the Esprit when it was launched into the water and became a submarine.
Anyway, the Z8 was never truly destined for a long-term production run, with BMW specifying that only between 5,500 and 6,000 cars would be built during its production life. Production of the regular Z8 ended in November 2002, with 5,703 units produced, 3,160 for Europe, and 2,543 for the United States. However, this wasn’t the end of the as behind the scenes was another version of the car, the Alpina V8 Roadster.
The Alpina Z8 replaced the conventional Z8 upon its production end in November 2002,
replacing the M5 V8 with a heavily tuned Alpina 4.8L V8. The concept for the Alpina version actually went back to the car’s conception, as the son of Alpina’s founder, Andy Bovensiepen, had helped develop the Z8 back in the 1990’s. During its production run, Bovensiepen helped spur up demand for a car with an automatic gearbox, and, towards the end of the Z8’s construction life, was able to gain permission to build his own version of the car. Internal changes included the aforementioned 4.8L V8, the replacement of the 6-speed manual gearbox with a BMW 5-speed Steptronic transmission, and the suspension was tuned to be more relaxed, unlike the original sports suspension which was comparatively rigid.
The purpose of the Alpina V8 was to make it the luxury cruiser it was meant to be, with soft suspension, a smooth automatic gearbox and the less powerful, 375hp engine purring quietly up front. Though the Alpina name had usually been associated with the sporty side, the company decided that the Z8 was, for all intents and purposes, more a grand tourer than a sports car, and were merely fulfilling that credential. In an ironic twist, however, the electronic limiter was upped to 161mph, rather than 155mph on the regular sports version (odd). Either way, 555 of these beautiful cars were built in 2003, 450 for the USA and 8 for the UK. In another first for Alpina, the V8 was sold directly through BMW dealerships, rather than through retail channels and private importers.
So, the Z8, truly a fantastic little BMW and one that continues to be seen as a real pinnacle for the company’s creative genius, but is sadly often forgotten. While in recent years the car has seen something of a cult status, there are some who continue to pick out some of the niggling flaws in the car’s performance. One quite notable critic of the Z8 is Jeremy Clarkson, who tested it and the Alpina V8 on Top Gear in 2002. His issues against the Z8 were always with the understeer, while with the Alpina, he questioned the very point of making it, especially since Alpina were renowned for tuning up cars not tuning them down.
Regardless, the Z8, in my mind, was probably one of the best roadsters you could buy in the 1990’s. If its costs weren’t so prohibitive, it could’ve probably sold in the same numbers as the Z3 and later Z4. However, it wasn’t meant for that, it was meant to be a limited run machine that was to remain true to itself, not to become something mundane. Today it’s a very rare car to find, with only 75 registered in the UK, but if you do happen across one of these wonderful machines, spare a thought for the brilliance that went behind such a fantastically built and appointed little roadster!