BMW Z3 M Roadster | Spotted
Not the most powerful Z3 ever, but still a stunning car nonetheless
By John Howell / Monday, 13 February 2023 / Loading comments
It’s the mid ‘90s. BMW is at the beginning of a purple patch that, arguably, produced a model line-up that it’s never eclipsed. I for one wouldn’t challenge that. The classy E38 7 Series arrived in 1994, followed a year later by one of the best cars ever built, in terms of the completeness of its package, the E39 5 Series. And that was followed soon after by the E46 3 Series, which was as good to drive as it was pretty.
With the core of its models looking strong to the point of unbeatable, and feeling cash rich and potent, BMW decided to keep pressing on with new and exciting cars to enhance its brand’s reach. It had dabbled in the two-seater drop-top market in the late ‘80s with the Z1, but that was a quirky car with plastic panels and drop-down doors. It lasted just two years and BMW only sold 8,000 of them, but someone within the heart of the Munich machine obviously saw an opportunity left untapped in the sports car arena. It had to get it right this time, though, and appeal to more than just a few. It needed to tap into a zeitgeist, so it did. And the zeitgeist was retro styling.
The Dodge Viper was an early adopter, and by the end of the decade through to the beginning of the next, retro-looking cars were to become commonplace. The Audi TT, Ford Thunderbird, Chevy SSR, Jaguar S-Type and Rover 75 were just a few of the cars that took their inspiration from the past. Oh, and yes, I deliberately left out the PT Cruiser just in case you’re eating. But BMW was one of the very first mainstream car makers to see which way the wind was blowing, and with it came the scent of yesteryear.
The BMW Z3 was launched in 1995, and while not everyone appreciated its misty-eyed modernity, enough people were wowed by this period of the automotive renaissance that the order books were filled for two years. The excitement was palpable. I mean, what could possibly go wrong? You had a car company at the top of its game, styling that was bang on point, and the world had fallen in love with two-seater sports cars all over again. There was even a touch of glamour. The Z8 Roadster was waiting in the wings, which was to be something exclusive, and the Z3 offered a slice of that ‘50s nostalgia for a fraction of the price. On top of that, both cars were driven by James Bond, and that’s always a shot in the arm.
BMW did get it wrong, though. The Z3 wasn’t based on the full E36 3 Series platform, which was current at the time; it was based on the shorter wheelbase BMW Compact. That meant the rear suspension borrowed heavily from the E30, which is said to have been used because it took up less space than the E36’s more complex multi-link Z-axle, allowing for a flatter boot floor. Hampered by old tech, it couldn’t compete with the Porsche Boxster around corners, and that wasn’t the end of its issues. The puny eight-valve 1.9-litre four-cylinder was another. It was the only engine available at launch and offered just 120hp, which meant 0-62mph in, wait for it… 10.1 seconds. Oh gawd blimey, it was yawn inducing.
Realising it needed to act, BMW introduced the 2.8-litre ‘six’ in 1997. With nearly 200hp, that was more inline with the Porsche Boxster both in terms of power and its 0-62mph of 6.7 seconds, but what ended up fulfilling the Z3’s early promise was the car featured here: the wonderful Z3 M Roadster. You voted the Z3 M tenth on our list of All-time best M cars, and for good reason. It came with the E36 M3’s S50 3.2-litre six cylinder with 321hp, along with the accompanying limited-slip differential and larger brakes. To differentiate the Z3 M further from its lesser brethren, it had M oval wing mirrors, more aggressive front and rear bumpers, a wider rear track and those broad Roadstar wheels, necessitating meatier arches to cover them. It was also the first M car to come with quad exhausts, which have since become a trademark feature of anything M. At last the Z3 had become a truly exciting prospect, although this wasn’t the most powerful model ever built. There was a skunk-works prototype fitted with an M73 V12, would you believe. It was finished in bright orange and reputedly had just one more horsepower than the Z3 M, but was rather nose heavy.
This example looks fantastic in Cosmos black with twin-tone red and black hide, and it looks as clean as it should for a relatively light 43,000 miles. It’s not the cheapest around, but at £22,000 it seems to me it still offers a lot for the money: huge performance, thrill-a-minute handling, a great noise and, of course, those 507-esque looks, which have aged so very well.
SPECIFICATION | BMW Z3 M ROADSTER
Engine: 3,201cc, inline six
Transmission: Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 321 @ 7,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 258 @ 3,250rpm
First registered: 1998
Recorded mileage: 43,000
Price new: £40,570
Yours for: £22,995
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