In 1989, BMW released their kookiest car yet; the outlandish Z1. Its recipe? A small, two-seater sports car, with eccentric styling features, including vertically sliding doors and removable plastic body panels.
Although initial demand seemed strong, there would only ever be around 8,000 units produced, and by 1991 manufacturing was halted. In truth, the Z1 was a bit of an experiment, and despite the low production numbers, BMW claimed to have received more orders than it could fulfil.
It predicted there would be huge demand for small, cheap, lightweight sports cars in the coming years, and by the mid-nineties this prediction had been proven correct, as the Mazda MX-5 (Miata) had become a runaway success all over the world.
Wholeheartedly encouraged and poised to compete, BMW returned to the stage in 1995 with the brand new Z3.
The Z3 was one of the first BMWs to be built in the USA, and because the price had to be kept as low as possible to compete with the likes of the MX-5, many of the components were taken straight from the already successful E36 3-Series.
The early models were fitted with a fairly lacklustre 1.8 4-cylinder engine producing just 118bhp, but whilst it was down on power, the overall reception to the car was still positive. Largely thanks to a helping hand from one of Britain’s finest…
1995 was the year Pierce Brosnan starred as James Bond in Goldeneye, and for the first time in history, he would be given a BMW to drive. Bond’s trusty colleague, Q, introduced the Z3 to the world, and of course, it was fitted with all the mod-cons any self-respecting international spy would expect.
The stage was set for the Z3 to take the world by storm.
Thankfully the 1.8 wasn’t the only engine BMW fitted to the Z3; in fact, by the latter part of the decade there were a whole range of four and six-cylinder options to choose from.
The bar was set in 1997 when the range-topping Z3M was introduced to the line-up, which initially featured a 3.2 litre straight-six capable of producing 321bhp, and was able to reach 60mph in under 5.5 seconds.
To aid performance and differentiate itself from the rest of the line-up, the Z3M also boasted limited slip-differential, larger brakes, several aerodynamic upgrades, aesthetic changes, quad exhausts and new 17-inch wheels.
By this point, a 2.8 litre straight-six had also been introduced, and was quickly becoming a popular choice for those who wanted a little more power than the earlier four-cylinder options.
A healthy 193bhp and a 0-60 time of under seven seconds meant it could outperform many of its Japanese and European rivals, and things were going well for BMW’s flagship roadster.
In 1998 BMW decided to shake things up a bit, and a coupé model was introduced to the range, for those who wanted the Z3 experience without the sun-tan and ruined hair-do. Styling was unconventional to say the least, but did prove popular, particularly in the USA. Who doesn’t love a shooting brake?
If you wanted a coupé you could choose from the 2.8 or 3.0 engines, or the 3.2 Z3M, and they were produced in vastly limited numbers compared to the roadster. The Z3M coupé proved particularly popular amongst motoring commentators and journalists, and it didn’t take long for the awards to start rolling in, including Top Gear’s award for “Driver’s Car of the Year”.
More changes were abound in 1999, as the Z3 line-up was given a facelift (with the exception of the Z3M models).
New headlights and tail lights were introduced, along with dual-stage airbags, a modernised convertible roof, a selection of new engines, and BMW’s ASC system was upgraded to their newer DSC system. The rear wheel arches were a little wider, and the centre console was redesigned.
Will it be a future classic?
This was a car built for the mass market, and BMW sold more than they likely ever hoped for. All in all, nearly 300,000 were built between 1995 and 2002, with the vast majority of those being roadsters.
The most popular models were the 1.9 four-cylinder and the 2.8 six-cylinder; nearly half of all cars built had one of these engines.
The coupés are particularly rare, with only 17,815 ever produced, and there were only ever 21,613 Z3Ms produced.
The holy grail is the Z3M coupé; just 6,291 were ever made worldwide.
The Z3 has retro looks that have always appealed to both sexes. BMW has a history of making elegant roadsters, and the Z3’s ancestors wouldn’t be too disappointed by the way this one turned out.
Many preferred the wider rear wheel arches, which gave the later facelifted models a bit of an edge.
Price When New
The basic models could be picked up for under £20k when the car was first launched, making it a viable up-market option to the likes of the MX-5 (Miata). Top of the range models, on the other hand, were selling for close to £35k.
No 20 year old BMW is going to be cheap to run, but thankfully there were plenty produced and many components were shared with the 3-Series, meaning parts should be easier to come by than some other models from the same era.
If the car you’re looking at has been well looked after and serviced properly, there shouldn’t be any major areas of concern, although you will need to keep an eye out for corrosion.
Owners have reported the Z3 as generally being a very reliable car.
It was a very important era for cars of this type. The MX-5 (Miata) was taking over the world and European manufacturers wanted to get a piece of the action. BMW timed it perfectly and positioned the Z3 in an area of the market where they knew it would be successful.
The number sold is testament to what a great car they produced, and it was replaced in 2002 by the Z4 which continues to see considerable success today.
Time to Buy?
The Z3 had been under the radar for many years, but with the explosion in price of the Z3Ms in recent years (some of which are listed for £45k plus), the price of the lesser engined models has been on the increase.
The 1.9 is the most common on the market, and you can still pick up a decent one for under £4k, but there are some outstanding 2.8 and 3.0 cars available in the £4k – £8k bracket.
BMW produced a special 007 edition of the Z3 to celebrate its appearance in Goldeneye. Just 100 were produced, each featuring a dashboard plaque and a number of other tweaks.
Sadly, the ejector seat, missiles, and self-destruct button were not included on the production model.
If you’re on a particularly tight budget and want a fun, retro roadster then it may be worth throwing a few grand at a 1.9. But our choice would have to be the 2.8 or 3.0 models; we think it’s worth spending a few extra quid on one of these given the difference in performance and rarity they offer.
Overall, a good, fun little car which you shouldn’t lose money on if you pick a well maintained example. A great opportunity to own a piece of BMW history at a bargain price.