A history of the BMW Roadsters, from the 30s to the present dayBMW's roofless cars are loved the world over, so we decided to take a look at the company's drop tops. From the charming 327 to the newest Z4, we look at what makes Beemer's open top motors great.
-This is the Z4, the newest of BMW sports car. It looks good. It goes quick and it's the latest in a long and illustrious line of BMW roadsters. -And to tell the story of these roadsters we have to go back to 1929 in BMW's entry into the world of cars because BMW didn't start of in cars. This plane engine is where it starts at making World War I fighter engines. After that it moved in to motorcycles and in the late 20's it bought a factory. That factory was producing the Dixi, which was a licensed Austin 7. BMW bought its way into the car industry. BMW's license to build the Dixie ran out in 1932 and the decision was made to develop their own cars from scratch. And by 1933 the 303 was born. The 303 was the first BMW to feature the kidney grill which is also present on this car and every BMW from then on. It was also the basis of BMW's first ever roadsters, the 315/1 and the 319/1. Both cars set the bar for what roadsters needed to be, great-looking, sporty, and able to put a smile on your face. There were both however still only roadster versions of existing saloon cars. The 303 that they were based on made way for the 326, BMW's first 4-door sedan. And the 326 led to the 327, the first of which was the convertible, this car. Launched in 1937, it had a 2-liter straight 6 engine and a top speed in excess of 75 miles an hour. Today this car is still driving remarkably well dodging gear shifts aside. It's not a race car though and this was a pleasant and sedate car. It's soft and comfortable and refined and everything points in that direction except one thing, the exhaust. This thing sounds like a Spitfire, which is kind of ironic when you think about it. You see this production of this had to pause for the Second World War when BMW had to go back to building World War II plane engines. There isn't a huge amount of styling on this which is still present in BMW's of today of course. Fashions have changed wildly. The kind of the straight line, angular, boxy BMW's that we came to know and love in the 60's, 70's, 80's, not around this. This is a typical car for its age, swooping lines, something that you only see these days on a Morgan. The 327 was a success, but it was overshadowed by its sibling. BMW's follow-up to the 315/1 and 319 roadsters. This is the 328, the first BMW roadster to be built on a custom-built chassis and engine platform. This was the motorsport car. Whereas the 327 was a cruiser with no roof this one was meant to tear up tracks across Europe, the NÃ¼rburgring, the Mille Miglia, this car did it all in style. The 328 also had a 2-liter straight 6 engine, but this one had 79 horsepower and a top speed of 93 miles an hour. In 1938, the BMW 328 won its class at Le Mans and the Mille Miglia amongst others and continued its motorsport success right up until the beginning of the Second World War, and it's beautiful. This car is absolutely stunning and out here on the track you just get the embodiment of the gentleman racer of the 30's when this new motorsport thing was really something daring and lethal. There's no safety precautions in this car. If you roll it you are gone, so I'm not going to. I was taking a few laps right here to get it warmed up but this car is going as well today as it did the day it rolled off the production line. It's fantastic. The sad thing was after the BMW Company had been pruned back into the war machine by the Nazis to create plane engines and motorcycles during the Second World War, they wanted to resume production of cars after and of course they did. The problem was the factory where this was made was the original factory that BMW bought in 1929. That was the factory that made the Dixi or the Austin 7 under license. That factory now found itself in the half of Germany under Soviet control. The Soviets still built BMWs in fact for a couple of years until copyright trademarking law came in and snatched it away from them. But unfortunately the 328 never resumed production after 1940 and it's a crying shame, making this one of the rarest but one of the most pleasurable to drive BMW's I've ever been in. BMW struggled to get back into car manufacturing after the war. They hand-built a car in a decade, they had lost 3 factories to the Soviet occupation of Eastern Germany and another to aerial bombing. The designs for the 326, 327, and 328 became official war recreations were brought back to the U.K. where they became the basis for the first cars to be manufactured by Bristol Cars. Some of them even kept the kidney grill. By 1957, the company was desperate. The few cars that have managed to develop in the early 50's have not sold well, and it needed something new to turn its luck around. Once again BMW would build a roadster and this was the result, the 507. Brainchild of US importer Max Hoffman, the 507 used the new V8 engine BMW had developed for its 502 saloon car. Many designs were rejected before they settled on the heartstoppingly gorgeous car you can see here. Compared to the American roadsters of the day, the elegant simplicity really sets it aside from anything else at the time. This car had its fans. Elvis Presley owned one. He bought one while he was stationed over in Germany and brought it back home to Memphis where he replaced the engine, BMW's V8 with a Ford V8. Oh, who's gonna say no to The King. The 507's 3.2-liter V8 delivered a 150 horsepower, would do 0 to 62 miles an hour in just over 11 seconds and had a top speed of 122 miles an hour. Now the last roadster we saw from BMW was the 328 and this is a very different beast. That was a track-hungry racing car, but this is built to cruise. This was built for the Californian mountain roads and you can just feel the Hollywood class oozing off of it. This car should've been immense. This car should've conquered the world. I'm driving this today. It is such a privilege. It is so rare and the last one to go on sale sold at auction for a million euros; that's about 800 thousand pounds, and I'm driving one right now. This is the most expensive car I think I've ever driven. Oh, it's exciting. But more than the driving experience of this car, what strikes you most about it is its looks. It is absolutely stunning. You're hard-pressed to find anything better looking from the era. It's right up there with the likes of a Stingray and the E Type. This is the last of the swooping machines. This is the last of the graceful era of BMW's before the powerhouse came to play. The 507 could've saved BMW. It needed to save BMW. It needed to conquer the US and open the doors to a whole new market for BMW. What it did though has almost killed the company. Growing production cost drove the retail price up from $5,000 to over $10,000. BMW intended to produce 5,000 507's per year, but only 252 were ever built and money was lost on every single one of them. This car may have been almost responsible for killing BMW, and if it had we wouldn't have thanked it for it, but my God what a car. What a stunning machine? One experience being behind the wheel of something like this, if it's good enough for The King it's good enough for me. As beautiful as the 507 was, it proved toxic to BMW. If it hadn't been for the intervention of German industrialist Herbert Quandt, it would've been the last we ever heard from the Bavarian motor works. BMW survived though and spent the next decades rebuilding its image as the leading name in reliable luxury. But it would be 30 years before BMW would retake to the roadster market. -Fast forward to 1989 and you end up with the BMW Z1, the first product of BMW Technic, a division of the company freed from the usual limits of manufacturing and allowed to express itself. The chaps at Technic went a bit nuts with the Z1 and gave it a party piece that'll make you go all funny because you can drive it legally with the doors open. When I say open I mean down because they slide into the sills and that one thing alone makes the Z1 pretty awesome. The Z1 or Zukunft in German for Future 1 was officially unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1987 in concept form. Demand for the car was so great that BMW said it had 5,000 preorders before the car went into production. Because of this, the top brass decided to rush it through. Production began in 1989 and lasted through to 1991. The Z1 trick doors aside is pretty cool. Its engine, gearbox, and front suspension came from the E33 series and its body panels are all plastic wrapped around a metal skeleton and that means 2 things. One, you can drive it without any body panels on it whatsoever and two, BMW claims you can change every single one of them in less than 40 minutes. It's 2.5-liter straight 6 produces 168 brake horsepower and 161 pound foot of torque, not earth-shattering by today's standards but still pretty brisk. Naught to 62 happens in 9 seconds which isn't all that quick and its top speed is 137 miles an hour, but the Z1's forte is its handling. It does handle incredibly well. The car we have has 31,000 miles on it and I got about 200 of those and I've enjoyed every single one. And while its engine isn't the quickest in the world, it does sound really rather lovely, but the thing that really, really makes this car is not the handling. It's not the fact it goes around corners very nicely. No. I've gotta say the thing that really does it for me is the doors because as you're driving along, you just lift them. And then when you're done, now. I want the wind in my face as well as my hair. As a thing, that makes the Z1. It is a great car. I really like it, but if it didn't have those doors, I don't think it would be quite as special. Despite massive orders, there were a few problems with the Z1. Only 8,000 Z1's were ever made and 78 of those were pre-production and development cars that were sold off later. Finally enough, most Z1's ended up in Germany though apparently Italy absolutely loved them. There were never officially imported into the UK which is probably a good thing because they only have made one in right-hand drive, the very last. Now BMW offered a few colors, the rarest being fun yellow, but there were 2 more rare ones to find. There is one Z1 in swimming pool blue and one in oh-so-orange and if you spot them, you spotted yourself a very, very rare car. You see those were reserved for the Z1's fathers Ulrich Bez and Harm Lagaay. 3 years after the Zukunft 1, the Z3 arrived. It was a Bond car once you know. That's what many current owners will tell you anyway. It sold well and the M version was very quick indeed, but it's not very sporty. Thank the Lord Almighty then for this, the Z8. It's based on a 1997 concept car, the Z07 designed by Henrik Fisker. It was supposed to show what a car linked to the stunning 507 could look like in the modern world. It caused something of a stir and BMW knew it had a hit on its hands. The Z07 was designed with production in mind. So BMW's buds didn't have to do too much to turn it into a real car, but its production line wasn't going to be as wide as the Z3's that preceded it. No. BMW wanted to keep this one exclusive so kept its production run short. It was built from 1999 until 2003. 5,703 Z8's were built. Each came with its own color coded hard top and BMW revealed that it would be stockpiling parts to keep cars on the road for another 50 years. The Z8 is powered by the E39 M5 4.9-liter 400 brake horsepower V8. Now BMW claims it'll do naught to 62 in 4.5 seconds, though it was tested a lot faster than that. Its top speed as is the way with fast Bimmers is limited to 155 miles an hour, but as a car to drive it's just lovely. It feels really special. Now it's been common to say that while it has super car pace it might be a little bit soft and yes it can be a bit floaty and there's a bit of lean to it, but the highlight of this particular car, well there are 2 highlights if I'm honest. There's the noise, the beautiful V8 noise produced by that V8 which is just astounding, I love a good fast powerful V8, but also it's the incredible turn of pace this thing has. You put your foot down and it's like being hit in the chest with a giant German efficient hammer. As well as being a rocket, the Z8 was all about design. Thanks to being designed with production in mind, they weren't that many changes to be made from the Z07 which is a good thing because this is absolutely stunning and every single Z8 is special. Everyone was finished by hand. The rear lights and indicators were made using neon tubes because they looked better, reacts faster, and will last a lifetime over the car. And just look at this steering wheel. It's so ornate and beautiful. I absolutely love it. Now inside BMW wanted as clutter-free experience as possible so a lot of the controls are bunched in together for ease of use on the move. Similarly they canted towards the driver. I know the Z8 was designed with the 507 in mind, but personally I think the Z8 can stand as one of the most beautiful cars BMW has ever made in its own right. The Z8 is a truly special car, something that has a timeless design, a decent turn of pace and sounds pretty awesome too. So how do you follow that out? With difficulty but in 2002 as the Z8 was fading away, BMW brought out the Z4. It was designed by the controversial Chris Bangle, you know, the chap that made the 5 series go we would believe. Bangles' jam was flame surfacing and the Z4 looked good for it certainly better than the Z3. Fun fact though. In each first-generation Z4 the new rule Z and 4 had been styled into the bodywork. In 2009 a new one was announced but this one doesn't have a soft top. No. It's got a folding metal roof which means you can choose between a coupe or a convertible on the fly. That's great but it does mean it's not as sporty as its lineage might lead you to believe. The engine lineup offers everything from power to economy; in some cases, a happy medium of both at the same time. It doesn't feel as lithe as the Z8 nor is it as groundbreaking as the Z1. And it's not pretty as the 507 either, but it's still really good fun albeit in a relaxed way. You see the Z4 is a sports car, but it can also be turned into a nice comfortable machine and then with the press of a button turn into something a little bit unruly, which means in comfort mode everything is nice and soft and lovely and it's sort of waft about and it's all very relaxed. And then you put it into sport or sport plus. Then everything gets a little bit raw. You hear this awesome noise, an incredible turn of pace, and what it does if I'm honest is it feels a little bit more sorted but even the Z8 and the Z8 is supposed to be, well, a kind of supercar of sorts. At least it's got supercar pace. You can have it homed. You see you throw it into a corner and it'll just hold you there and the levels of grip you have are simply astounding. But as a driver's machine it's just-- it really is good. You can tell that leap in evolution from the Z8 to the Z4. You really can and compared to the Z1 this is light years away. This is just someone else, really. So Drew you were driving the origins of BMW's roadster ridge. What happened? Tell me about it? -It's just brilliant to see how BMW went from starting in cars in 1929 to already building really, really accomplished luxury vehicles by the 30's. And this is within 4 or 5 years that they actually starting to develop its own cars and it's brilliant. It looks amazing. It drives really well and it sounds so good. It sounds so good, but the 328, oh that car it's lighter. It's more powerful, faster. Even by today's standards it's a lot fun to drive. -It is. -I even got some tire squealing there. It was fantastic. How about the Z series? -It's weird because you start with the Z1 which is party piece. I absolutely adore the doors. It's really cool. In fact I'm-- -I am very partial to the doors of the Z1. -But then you graduate up to the Z8. Jesus, the look of the thing, the noise of it, the sheer power. But then you get into the Z4. Even though the Z8 at the time was a massive technological advancement, it's kind of dwarfed by this. This thing can hustle, I'd almost say. All those is good. -Yes. -Maybe even a little bit better. -But today has been all about the 507. -Yes. I'll grant you that. It is beautiful. -Absolutely magnificent. In fact I think it might be, might be the best-looking car to ever come out of Germany. -Oh. -You have a stretch? -Yes. I've got a few, Porsche Carrera GT, Porsche 959. -Yes, very attractive car and then there's the 300SL. -Yes, achingly beautiful and Z8. I'm gonna put it up there. It's a very pretty car. -But the 507 if not at the top is definitely amongst them. -Yes. I'll agree with that. -Shame almost crippled BMW, but-- -Well, these things happen, you know. You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs. We've seen just how far BMW has come today, but one question remains. Where can they go next?