There’s a simple, traditional formula for the most desirable sports car; lightweight body, powerful engine and rear-wheel drive – it’s as simple as that. Adding a softop into the equation is good, too, although it really is more about the engine than the wind-in-the-hair aspect, as far as I’m concerned.
My initial attraction to the Z3 can be traced back to the late 1980s, some years before it even went into production. At that time, I was working on a book about BMWs, which involved a good deal of trawling through the German manufacturer’s fi lm archive, in Munich (long before the era of digital images and email, you understand!).
While there, I unearthed photographs of the absolutely glorious 507 sports car, and was smitten. In the book, I wrote: ‘This has to be one of the most stunning BMWs ever built’, and I stand by that sentiment today.
Given that the 507 was produced in 1956, you can only guess at what the reaction to the Graf Goertz design must have been; it was futurist certainly, but with lines suggestive of Ferrari and set-off brilliantly by the striking, side air-vents and BMW roundels.
Only 252 of these beauties were actually built before the bean-counters at BMW declared that it was costing more to make than they got from sales. The 507 was designed to sell in the US, hence its 3.2-litre V8 engine that produced what, at the time, was an impressive 150bhp.
Sadly, it was estimated that by the 1970s, there were fewer than 100 still in existence so, nowadays, those left are worth a fortune. Consequently, I don’t expect that I’ll ever be lucky enough to own a 507, hence my interest in the Z3.
The evolution of the Z3 was surprisingly leisurely, almost as if the company wasn’t convinced of its potential. Like the 507, it was targeted at the US market, and it was actually the first BMW to actually be built there. Development of the BMW Z3 E36/7 (this was the roadster version, with E36/8 being the later coupé) was actually started in 1991, but didn’t make its debut until 1995.
Film buff s will also remember that it appeared in the James Bond fi lm, Goldeneye, late in 1995; but let me make it clear that my desire to own one is due to its heritage, its looks and the big engine-rear- wheel-drive concept. You won’t find me wearing a tuxedo, pretending to chase villains and save the world while behind the wheel!
A recent move to the south coast of England also undoubtedly played a part in my decision to go after a Z3. After all, it’s always sunny in these parts, so an open-topped car seemed the obvious choice.
The memory of the glorious 507 has stuck with me, and meant that I’ve always been attracted to the Z3, probably due to that side vent, which remains such a neat, distinctive design. As always, though, there were budgetary considerations and, looking around at the suitable sports car options sitting within my £4000-£5000 range, it was clear that my options were somewhat limited.
The Z3, of course, topped the list, and the big surprise for me was just how many four-cylinder versions I found available, with some – admittedly high mileage – looking amazing value for just a couple of grand. Now, if you’re simply after a combination of sporty looks and open-topped motoring, then the smaller, 1,895cc four-cylinder engine would probably suffice but, for me, the 118bhp it produces wasn’t a great attraction.
While I certainly wasn’t after some tyre-shredding, performance bullet, the prospect of so few horse pushing around a vehicle weighing around 1,300kg, didn’t fill me with excited anticipation. Plus, a lot of the cheaper models were in the 90,000-120,000-mile bracket and, while a properly maintained engine will easily cope with that sort of mileage, there would surely be a lot of other bits that would be getting very tired (and potentially expensive) after covering that sort of distance.
Unfortunately for me, models with most desirable and well-proven, 3.0-litre, six-cylinder engine (with its tempting 230+bhp output), simply weren’t available within my price range. So I faced a dilemma; push my higher budget, or lower my sights and look at a few more 1.9-litre versions.
Then I discovered that there was the perfect ‘half-way house’ option; the rarer but interestingly attractive 2.2-litre model, with its 170bhp, six-pot engine. So I continued my search with renewed vigour.
Buying a secondhand vehicle, whatever model, is always something of a chancy business. A lot of it inevitably comes down to luck, which is exactly how I found myself test-driving HF51 PUV during a February snow storm; the ideal time to buy an opentopped sports car!
My initial inspection revealed the car to be in good, all-round condition. It started immediately (with a nice throaty rumble when revved) and seemed to run smoothly. A test drive was essential, but there was little chance of doing anything other than ensuring it stayed on the road on that blizzardy Saturday morning. So, with great care I did what I could and, although there was no chance to explore the vehicle’s dynamic abilities, I did discover that the power delivery was very smooth and highly controllable – both useful qualities in wet snow.
THE PERFECT CAR?
Once back in the dealer’s office, the news got even better. The car was actually a one-lady- owner vehicle, had never been raced or rallied, and had recorded a documented 65,000 miles which, for a 2002 model, is pretty low. Checking the service history, I discovered that it had been looked after by main dealer HR Owen, in Holland Park, for its early life then, from about 32,000 miles onwards, switched to an independent specialist. All the documentation was there and there were no nasties hidden in the service record.
Checking the paperwork also revealed the car to be a Sapphire Special Edition which, I think, relates to the alloy wheels and leather-trimmed interior. The seats themselves are a little tired-looking – and ridiculously slippery – but very comfortable. Some cosmetic work will be needed to brighten them up, but they are electrically adjustable, which adds a nice extra touch of luxury.
The other features that make me smile every time, are the M-Sport badges on the gear lever and steering wheel. There’s no reason for them to be there but, quite frankly, who cares? They certainly don’t make the car perform any better, but I love them all the same, and they’re probably the closest I’ll ever get to owning an M-Sport BMW!
Overall, the Z3 appeared pretty much like a new car, and it’s clear that it had been well cared for. I imagine that it’s been kept under cover for most of its life, too, as the hood looks in superb condition. There’s no evidence of the green mould that can get into the seams on neglected examples, and the mechanism operates smoothly and easily. It can actually be lowered from the driver’s seat, but I prefer to get out to do this, just to make sure the rear vinyl window folds correctly and doesn’t get creased.
Driving home from the seller was enjoyable; the Z3’s engine has such a smooth power delivery that speed limits need to be recognised. It’s nimble, rather than sharp, in its overall dynamics, making it more of a GT than a highly-strung sports car. But that’s fine for me, as it’ll be used a lot for long-distance motorway cruises.
Enjoying some of the sweeping curves back to the south coast did lead to one ‘moment’, when the rear squirmed rather alarmingly. Initially, I blamed a heavy right foot for this, but it later transpired that the pressure in one of the rear tyres was very low, despite looking fine outwardly.
With the hood up, the radio is easy to hear without having to set it on full volume but, with the hood down, audio quality – from the radio, at least – isn’t so good! However, the turbulence in the cabin certainly isn’t unpleasant and, even in cold weather, setting the heater on full fills the footwells with warm air, which then rolls up to keep everything at the right temperature.
With the car home for the first time, I sat in it for some time, just admiring my purchase and pressing all the buttons – as you do! Everything seemed to work, apart from the windscreen wash/wipe, but I wasn’t terribly concerned about that.
Distracted, I then spent a while with the stereo, tuning in to my regular stations and wondering what a DAB replacement would cost. Flushed with pleasure I went inside for a celebratory cup of tea then, a while later, returned for another look at my prize. But as I approached I was stopped, dead in my tracks.
Rolling down my drive to the centre drain was a steady stream of water from under the car, and my heart sank. I rushed to the bonnet release and started making all the important checks, but couldn’t find anything wrong. Then the penny finally dropped; I switched on the ignition, pulled the wash-wipe lever and, sure enough, the stream of water increased. What a relief that was!
The only other niggle I’ve noticed since then is that, when it gets windy, the car’s alarm goes off – and it’s windy quite often down these parts. It’s annoying and something that’ll need sorting. In the meantime, if there are any Z3-owning readers with any suggestions about this, then please email the magazine and let me know. Now, as I write this, I’m some two months into my Z3 ownership, and have to say that I’m more than happy with the car. All seems to be going well and, as the weather improves, the hood remains down, which is great as it’s the reason I bought the thing in the first place.
The only actual broken bits I’m aware of so far are the seat belt guides, which are fixed to the outside edges of the seat backs. These evidently flimsy units appear something of a weak link, which is a shame as they perform a valuable function. Without them the belts have an annoying habit of slipping back between the door and the seat, making them awkward to find and reach when sitting in the car.
However, their failure – and the presence of unmatched tyres on the rear wheels – did offer me a bit of a bargaining angle, when settling on the price with the seller. As it turned out, we agreed on £4,800, which worked for both of us. OK, it’s not a 507, but I do at least have my very own set of side vents now!
The Z3’s performance is pleasing and it’s certainly a good driver’s car; not perhaps a hairy-chested brute, it’s a bit classier than that. ‘Effortless’ is probably the best way to describe it. There are quite a few Z3s on the road, and many enthusiasts consider it a ‘modern classic’.
Maybe it still has some way to go before it gets to that point and, of course, it’ll never reach the dizzy heights of the 507. But I look forward to driving it every time, and that’s surely what owning a traditional, affordable, front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, open-topped sports car is all about!
The evolution of the Z3 was surprisingly leisurely, almost as if the company wasn’t convinced of its potential. Largish engine, two-seater body and rear-wheel-drive make the Z3 great fun to be in. With the hood down, buffeting inside the cabin is acceptable and the heater does a good job at keeping occupants warm when necessary. The hood is in great condition and is both easy and smooth to operate. It’s obviously been well looked after. Left: The plastic seatbelt guides are broken on both sides of the car; I’m guessing they’re a weak spot, which is a shame as they perform a useful function. Above: The Z3’s side vents present styling echos from the gorgeous 1950s 507. The six-cylinder, 2.2-litre engine produces a respectable and silky-smooth 170bhp. Rolling down my drive to the centre drain was a steady stream of water from under the car. The moment my heart sank! Luckily, the source of the leak wasn’t the engine.