The traffic is threatening to set like concrete. It’s early evening rush hour in Berkshire and now is not a good time to lie feeling self-conscious. Alongside us, a maxed-out hot hatch discharges atonal dance beats at the volume of artillery fire, its driver’s face a picture of blank amazement. His female companion, meanwhile, offers a half-smile before taking a photo on her mobile. Dignity is relative when you’ve forgotten to douse yourself in sunblock and have since taken a turn for the crimson.
‘Our’ BMW Z8 E52 is noticeable, that’s for sure, as much for its dramatic styling as its pimpadelic cabin. It screams ‘look at me’, the surprising part being that those who have passed comment thus far believe that it’s a new model. The thing is, it wasn’t entirely new even when it first broke cover in concept-car form at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1997, if only stylistically.
Like so many other manufacturers in the late ’90s, BMW wasn’t above cannibalising its back catalogue for this former range-topper as retro design became the hot ticket. The Z8 unashamedly cribbed the sublime BMW 507 and, like its 1950s inspiration, this glamorous soft-top was greeted with mixed reviews although it has since gone on to become highly sought-after. It seems hard to believe now, but Z8 values once dropped like a stone - yet those days are long gone.
Top right: 400bhp V8 is shared with E39 M5 and gives searing acceleration; cabin garish but comfy - wheel apes sprung types: echoes, of 507 in front end. From top: squat stance; six-speed gearbox is a tad baulky but there's so much torque that it's rarely a problem; blingy vent; back end is finely resolved.
That the Z8 happened at all is remarkable given that the original idea pre-dated the pastiche boom. Legend has it that the car was conceived at a leaving do hosted in the factory museum in 1993. BMW’s then-chairman Dr Bemd Pischetsrieder and his number two Wolfgang Reitzle toasted the departure of a colleague before going for a wander. On stopping to survey the fluid lines of a 507, they were lulled into a sepia-tinged fug of nostalgia and conversation turned to BMW producing a modernist take on the theme. Four years later, the result of their brainstorming broke cover in Japan and caused a furore.
The Z07 concept represented pure show car theatre. Styled by Danish-born Henrik Fisker under ex-Fiat man Chris Bangle, it was unquestionably inspired by the 507 - although the ’50s styling theme also stretched to a sports-racer-esque head fairing behind the driver’s seat.
Such was the response to the car, BMW was almost obliged to put it into production. That said, it could be argued that it was intended for manufacture from the get-go as a means of showcasing new construction techniques, the Z8’s use of a bespoke aluminium spaceframe chassis - with body panels fabricated from pressed ally - proving that this was no mere cut ’n’ shut saloon-cum-parts-bin lash-up.
Unlike, say, the Porsche Boxster, the Z8 didn’t lose much of its stylistic impact during the transition from concept to production reality: the head fairing was deleted, the windscreen was extended ever so slightly, the front/side indicators were relocated to the faux chrome air vents in the wings and a deeper front airdam was installed for stability reasons. Otherwise, the production model remained remarkably faithful to the one-off that sired it. The same was true inside, with most of the show car’s Michael Nimic - conceived cabin being carried over intact.
Beneath the rakish skin, the front end was suspended by MacPherson struts, the rear via a multi-link set-up and coil springs, with anti-roll bars at both ends. Powering the beast was a 4941cc, all-alloy M-Power V8 shared with the boisterous E39-generation M5. Their power outputs were identical: a thumping 400bhp at 6600rpm and 368lb ft of torque at 3800rpm. Tipping the scales at 1585kg (180kg less than the M5), this translated into 0-60mph in 4.7 secs, 0-100mph in 11 secs and a top speed governed electronically to 155.4mph if the factory stats were to be believed. There was no reason not to.
The Z8 went on sale in 1999, its profile being boosted by a marketing tie-in with the so-so James Bond flick The World Is Not Enough, even if the Bavarian roadster appeared only fleetingly (and the stunt cars were actually rebodied Dax Tojeiro chassis). To some media types, however, the artful artifice of old-style design was too much to stomach. The public, on the other hand, was more receptive and BMW couldn’t make them quickly enough despite the £80,000 price-tag. This figure reflected the large amount of hand-finishing required during assembly, with no more than 10 Z8s being completed per day. What’s more, punters could also opt for custom paint finishes and special trim treatments via BMWs Individual department.
Production of the Z8 ended in November 2002, although that wasn’t quite the end of the story. In 2003, it morphed into the Alpina V8 Roadster, which did away with sporting intent, the new strain being more a boulevardier by design. The M5 engine made way for a 4.8-litre V8 from the Alpina B10 V8S, while a reworked five-speed Steptronic transmission replaced the previous six-speed manual ’box. Peak power was reduced to 375bhp, but, bizarrcly, the electronically limited top speed was raised to 161 mph.
The Buchloe concern had initially wanted to shoehorn in its version of the BMW M73 V12, but it wouldn’t fit because the engine’s sump would have occupied the same space as the rack-and-pinion steering system. Softer suspension settings and conventional tyres rather than the previous run-flat items made for a more relaxed tourer, with 450 of the 555 cars made heading Stateside. In a first for the standalone Alpina marque, these cars were sold via the BMW North America dealership network. Just eight V8 Roadsters found their way to the UK, one being acquired by pop crooner Ronan Keating.
Some 5703 Z8s of all kinds were made to 2003, which is some way north of its inspiration (a mere 252 507s were built). As with most exotica, second-hand values took a plunge, but they bounced back remarkably quickly.
“During the first few years, prices almost halved,” says long-time Z8 owner and Hexagon Modern Classics principal Paul Michaels. “Honestly, there was a time when you could have bought a nearly new Z8 for £40,000. Then, out of nowhere, there was a jump to £60k, then £80k and beyond. For some weird reason, it always seems to go up in increments of £20k. Right now, a good low-mileage Z8 will set you back between £150,000 and £180,000. The Alpina version has a slight premium, with prices around the £160,000-£190,000 mark. Even a high-ish mileage Z8 is going to be six figures.
“We follow where the German market leads, and demand over there is very high at the moment. BMW lost money on every Z8 it made, and I doubt that it will ever produce another low-volume, partially handbuilt car again. For that reason alone, I expect that prices will continue to soar. Just look at the S07: it has quadrupled in value in what, five years?”
Unlike its 1950s predecessor, the Z8 seems huge in every direction - especially for a two-seater roadster - yet appearances are deceptive: by modern day standards, it’s positively dainty. The Z8 is 14ft 5 ¼ in long (4400mm, or an inch more than a 507) and 6ft wide (1830mm). By way of comparison, a new Ford Focus is 14ft 3 ½ in long and 6ft 8 ½ in wide. It was shorter even than a contemporary Porsche 911.
'UNLIKE MANY OTHER RETRO DESIGNS, IT DOESN'T SEEM CONTRIVED. IT HAS A LOOK ALL OF ITS OWN'
Thankfully, the styling stops short of being just a slavish retread (think Ford GT), although you could argue that few customers had so much as seen a BMW 507 up close. Perhaps that was the new model’s saving grace.
It if an attractive car. The stance is perfect, the rear three-quarter view being particularly accomplished thanks to the hunched wing line and those slender tail-light clusters. Unlike so many other recycled designs, it doesn’t seem contrived. It has a look all of its own. There are one or two naff details, though, not least those chintzy vents punched into the wings, which up close appear horribly cheap and nasty.
It’s only once you step aboard that it veers towards the stomach-turning. On the positive side, at least it’s comfortable. The seats embrace your contact points without pinching. The actual driving position is excellent, too, with the steering wheel and pedals in line rather than randomly offset as with a great many other exotics we can think of. Commendably, all of the controls are unique to the Z8; there are no castoffs here. This serves to make it feel all the more special, more expensive, although the instruments aren’t easily visible at a glance thanks to their positioning in the centre of the dash.
It isn’t necessarily the most appealing of cabins, either. Indeed, it was described by C&SC in period as ‘porno chic’, and that opinion still holds true. Much of this is due to the ghastly ‘banjo’ steering wheel and the bright red leather trim. You almost feel compelled to don a long furry coat and a feathered fedora because the overall effect is more pimpmobile than designer cool. The use of body-coloured plastics, brushed aluminium, polished chrome and scarlet hides no doubt looked fabulous in the styling studio, but it’s plain embarrassing when you’re stuck in traffic in Bracknell wishing that the options list had stretched to an invisibility cloak.
But, and it’s an important but, the Z8 more than makes up for its tacky interior treatment with outright performance. That, and noise. It’s hard not to snort like a pig as it detonates V8 fanfare out of the back pipes with sky-filling lack of subtlety. Off the line, it is super-quick. Press the Sport button, and throttle responses are halved: the Z8 can reach 30mph from a standstill in less than 2 secs and you’re into three-figure speeds shortly thereafter.
What may come as a surprise is how easy it is to drive. The M-Power quad-cam V8 feels unburstable up to the 7000rpm limiter, yet it will pull away from 40mph in sixth without protesting. The engine’s flexibility is astonishing, although the gearshift action feels a little baulky despite the short throw between cogs.
The Z8 is blisteringly quick in a straight line, but historically it fell down - fell over - when you arrived at a corner. The use of run-flat tyres was a last-minute decision and it cost the car dearly.
'IT MORE THAN MAKES UP FOR ITS TACKY CABIN WITH BLISTERING PERFORMANCE, AND NOISE'
Scroll forward to the present and it’s highly unlikely that you will encounter an example still employing its original rubber, more conventional low-profile Bridgestones as here making all the difference. The steering is precise and it doesn’t feel overly assisted. Ultimately, the front end washes away first, but understeer is mild and it takes brutal stabs on the throttle with the Direct Stability Control disengaged to get the rear end to budge out of line.
The large vented discs brakes also offer bruising levels of retardation, 60-0mph taking 2.5 secs according to the brochure. There is less buffeting than you might imagine, too, which makes it all the more enjoyable to drive at speed.
The V8 dominates the driving experience; it’s the Z8’s trump card. Drive one with enthusiasm and you can sec the appeal. It’s writ large, and in upper case. Sure, it does send out conflicting messages: the Z8 is dragster quick, but it’s also refined; it feels more like a luxo-GT than a sports car, though there’s relatively little room for your luggage in the shallow boot. It isn’t a point and squirt B-road fun car, but nor is it a cruiser.
Yet, by trying to describe what it isn’t, you miss out on what it is: a classically handsome roadster that, unlike many other retro-styled vehicles, has endured - improved even - with grace. BMW clearly set out to create an instant classic, to the extent that it guaranteed a 50-year supply of spares. On many levels, it succeeded. The Z8 is a true original rather than a low-resolution copy of a past master.
Thanks to BMW GB and Paul Michaels: 020 8348 5151: www.hexagonmodernclassics.com
TECHNICAL DATA FILE BMW Z8 E52
Sold/number built 1999-2002/5703
Construction aluminium spaceframe with pressed aluminium body panels
Engine S62B50 / S62 all-alloy, dohc-per-bank, 32-valve 4941cc V8, with electronic fuel injection
Max power 400bhp @ 6600rpm DIN
Max torque 368lb ft @ 3800rpm DIN
Transmission six-speed manual, driving rear wheels via DSC III traction control
Suspension independent all round, at front by MacPherson struts rear multi-link, coil springs; anti-roll bar f/r
Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
Brakes ventilated discs all round, with ABS
Wheels & tyres 275/40ZR18 Bridgestones
Length 14ft 5 ¼ in (4400mm)
Width 6ft (1830mm)
Height 4ft 3 ¾ in (1317mm)
Wheelbase 8ft 2 ½ in (2505mm)
Weight 3494lb (1585kg)
0-60mph 4.7 secs
Top speed 155.4mph (limited)
Price new £80,000 (1999 UK)
Price now £100,000-150,000+ (2017 UK)