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Why the Z8 is one of the most important cars in BMW history

By Andy Enright, 30 Jul 2020 Features

BMW Z8

The most beautiful BMW ever built? Your mileage may vary, but we’d back the stunning Z8 to carry that vote.

In order to understand the BMW Z8, first you need to understand the man behind its genesis, Prof Dr Wolfgang Reitzle. And to understand Reitzle, you need to know two things. The extravagant BMW 8 series was his pet project and his autobiography was called Luxus schafft Wohlstand – Luxury Creates Wealth. A deeply vain, yet fiercely intelligent executive, Reitzle believed he was being primed for coronation to the top job when the man who’d held BMW’s chief executive position for 29 years, Eberhard von Kuenheim, retired in 1993.

To give the aristocratic von Kuenheim a grand send off, BMW arranged a party at the Chateau de la Messardiere in St Tropez in May of that year, attended by senior executives. To underscore the marque’s achievements, it had arranged a display of BMW’s finest cars, amongst them the slinky 507 roadster from 1956. R&D boss Reitzle was captivated by the 507, as was head of production Bernd Pischetsrieder. Together they mulled the prospect of a successor that would appeal to a clientele who turned to Mercedes-Benz or Porsche for their statement roadsters.

BMW Z8 rear angle

What Reitzle didn’t know then was that von Kuenheim had knifed him. Tipped off that Reitzle had mulled a job offer from Porsche for entirely too long, he’d recommended the quietly-spoken Pischetsrieder for the top job. Reitzle, as BMW’s top product guru, was nevertheless determined for the sports car project to gain traction. With Pischetsrieder’s backing, board approval for the project quickly followed. Reitzle gave senior designer Chris Bangle the green light to proceed and the American tapped the brightest talent in the design department, Henrik Fisker, on the shoulder to envision the shape.

Read next: 2019 BMW Z4 review

“So I remember the design chief came back and said, ‘Would anybody like to take a stab at this? You know, do a model on what the 507 could look like today’,” says Fisker. “Similar to how a Porsche 911 evolved over time, how would the 507 look if we produced it today? So I start working on this project, and instead of making the car kinda look like a 507, I decided to make something entirely new that still had heritage. It was summertime, and everyone was on vacation and I volunteered to stay behind and model it as a ‘no promises’ design exercise.

“I only had five engineers working with me. It wasn’t even officially a project, so we had absolutely no restraints. That’s why the design could be so pure, because it didn’t go through the traditional channels,” adds Fisker. “When we showed it to the board they immediately green lit it without really knowing how we were going to make it. We had to create a whole new platform, which was very exciting as that gave me an opportunity to keep the proportions of the car. It was just decided that this was going to be the ultimate BMW at the time.

BMW Z8 front

With Fisker on exterior styling duties and Scott Lempert responsible for interior treatment, the design work was finally signed off in 1995, whereupon Fisker was transferred to another iconic BMW design, the first-gen E53 BMW X5. The first driveable prototypes appeared in 1996 and the Z8 was premiered at the Tokyo Show the following year, dubbed the BMW Z07 concept. This was a coupe with a Zagato-style double-bubble roof, but foreshadowed the sleek fuselage and classic long bonnet, cab-back dimensions of the production Z8. The 4.9-litre V8 S62 engine that was to appear in the Z8 then saw its debut at the 1998 Geneva Show under the bonnet of the E39 M5.

Read next: BMW confirms it will kill the i8 hybrid sports car

Neither Reitzle nor Pischetsrieder survived at BMW to see the Z8 into production, with both being ousted in an extraordinary putsch in February 1999. Board members disagreed with Pischetsrieder’s handling of Rover, but it was a genuine shock to many that Reitzle also got the axe. Ford’s Premier Automotive Group became his next port of call where he eventually became embroiled in a low-wattage spat with fellow director Nick Scheele, a man determined to curb the good Professor’s extravagance. Pischetsrieder jumped across to Volkswagen.

BMW Z8

The public’s first sight of the Z8 came in the mostly dreadful 1999 Bond movie The World Is Not Enough. BMW supplied three fibreglass mock-ups which came into being after the producers of the Bond movies spotted a Z8 model being finessed. Having signed a three-movie deal with the Germans, they were insistent the car feature in the third movie, following previous arrangements to feature a Z3 and a 750iL.

Based on a Cobra kit car chassis, one car had no engine and the other pair had Chevrolet 5.7-litre V8s. Most of the static scenes of the car were  the fibreglass mules. The driving shots were inserted after much of the other filming had been wrapped and even then, BMW insisted that Brosnan cross his arms to hide the unfinished steering wheel design. Henrik Fisker hadn’t seen the script at all and was apparently aghast when the car that he had put so much of himself into was sawn in half in the movie, despite it being the engine-less plastic mock-up

BMW Z8 front grille

Series production began in 2000, the car’s custom spaceframe being built at the Dingolfing plant with hand-finishing taking place in Munich. There’s a common misconception that the Z8 is effectively an E39 M5 roadster, and while it does share engine, gearbox and some suspension componentry, it rides on a bespoke aluminium chassis and the engine sits behind the line of the front wheels, making it front-mid engined. It’s also the sort of money-no-object exercise rarely seen these days, with a production run capped at 5703 units.

The Z8 was very Reitzle, simultaneously cerebral in its storytelling and grandiloquent in its vision, yet initially tricky to warm to. Early reviewers struggled to pigeonhole it, many expecting a raw throwback roadster and finding something fairly urbane. It adopted the X5 V8’s rack-and-pinion steering system and while this sounds far superior in theory to the recirculating ball set-up found on the E39 M5, perhaps it needed additional development time that BMW didn’t have, because its helm is slightly aloof.

BMW Z8 engine bay

Wheels’ first acquaintance came in 2000 when Peter Robinson drove the car in California. He seemed to find it a slightly odd blend of dynamic qualities. “Strangely, for all its civilised manners, it doesn’t feel as quick as the driver expects, unless you work the engine above 4000rpm,” he said. “From here it’s going to take a very quick car to maintain station with the Z8. Of the current 911 range, only the Turbo offers Z8-beating performance.”

Then there was the vexed question of the steering. “The steering is meaty and, at least around the straight-ahead position, is quick and direct in its first movement, but as lock is applied there’s no real feel”, he said. “In spite of the weight saving benefits of the BMW-produced aluminium construction – the spaceframe weighs 230kg, 30 percent less than if it was steel – the Z8 never feels especially nimble or agile. Rather, it’s glued to the road, stable and predictable with vast reserves of adhesion unless, of course, you switch off the DSC, when power oversteer is instantly on tap.

BMW Z8 dash

“Switching to Sport mode produces a more aggressive throttle action, though unlike the M5, it doesn’t change the steering weight. Away from second gear bends that push the nose wide, the Z8 is wonderfully invigorating to drive,” concluded Robbo.

It attracted celebrity owners, including Apple’s Steve Jobs, who loved the sleek, machined look of his silver Z8. He was apparently far less enamoured of the BMW-branded Motorola car phone that was supplied with it, but that’s probably understandable. His car was auctioned by RM Sothebys in 2018 for $510,000 and many other cars, even without such provenance, have realised prices approaching half a million dollars. In short, this car never depreciated. Perhaps it hit a vanishingly tiny sweet spot for limited run, naturally aspirated, rear-drive, manual-shift exotica with retro appeal but relatively modern power and driving characteristics. It certainly manages to escape the rather affected kitschiness of many turn-of-the-century retro designs.

BMW Z8 centre console

The fact that values of the Z8 never really slumped means that the parc of existing cars tends to be in extremely good condition. Many owners quickly realised that the Z8 was on a steady path of appreciation and locked them away, keeping mileages low and auction values correspondingly lofty.

BMW vowed to maintain 50 years’ worth of Z8-specific spare parts stock including body panels, roof mechanisms and interior switches and mouldings. Many of the faults are fairly easy to diagnose, such as warped aluminium shock mounts, valve cover leaks, failing VANOS solenoids, tired cam sensors, and UV-damaged plastics both inside and out. Be prepared for a bit of sticker shock when it comes to refreshing even fairly minor interior trim parts though, and the subframe that incorporates the shock mounts is a $40,000 part. Uneven panel gaps in the bonnet are a sign of this issue.

BMZ Z8 dash

In many regards the unashamedly retro design theme of the Z8 has served to future-proof it, from a design aesthetic at least. It still looks astonishingly fresh compared to its contemporaries; cars such as the Aston Martin DB7 and Ferrari 360 Modena which are both firmly lodged in a 1990s styling sensibility. It’s not even particularly rare, by the standards of its class. There are  more than four times as many Z8s as Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradales, and there are more than eight Z8s for every Porsche 996 GT3 RS. It’s just that you never see them. They’re magical. And that still makes Wolfgang Reitzle smile.

SAFETY FAST

BMW has a long tradition of supplying safety cars to MotoGP, stretching back to 1998 when it introduced the Z3 M Coupe. The Z8 featured at the 2001 German round and is red underneath but wrapped in white. It also has a roll-cage, light bar and other upgrades. Periodically seen at the Nurburgring museum but more often residing at BMW Classic in Munich, chassis #AF70050 comes from the initial batch of 81 show and press fleet vehicles from 1999.

 

ALPINA DIALS UP THE DROOL...

When production of the BMW Z8 ceased in ’02, responsibility shifted from Munich to Buchloe. Alpina’s take was subtly different, turning it into a US-focused GT car. The big change was dropping the S62 V8 and manual ’box in favour of a 280kW/520Nm 4.8-litre F5 engine from the Alpina B10 V8 S mated to a five-speed ZF auto.

Alpina had wanted to fit a BMW V12 but ran into space issues. BMW North America ordered 450 cars from a run of 555 globally. With their multispoke 20in wheels, blue-faced dials and Switchtronic gear shift buttons, the more sybaritic Alpina Roadster V8 was perhaps the road car the Z8 should have been all along.

BMW Z8

THE GOOD

Undimmed aesthetic appeal; mighty M5 V8 powerplant; rarely seen on Australian roads; rugged mechanicals; place in BMW’s heritage; manual transmission

THE BAD

Parts prices are steep; heavy front end for a sports car; few buyers are willing to sell; steering a little odd; no height adjust on steering wheel

BMW Z8 badge

BMW Z8 SPECS

Engine: 4941cc V8, dohc, 32v

Max power: 294kW @ 6600rpm

Max torque: 500Nm @ 3800rpm

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Weight: 1585kg

0-100km/h: 4.7sec (claimed)

Economy: 14.5L/100km

Price: $450,000 (value today)

 

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