In 1985, when BMW was on a serious roll, Executive Board member Wolfgang Reitzle established the German version of a skunk works "to develop innovative, future-oriented and original overall vehicle concepts and sub-concepts away from the constraints of a specific series workflow schedule. The objective should always be to develop solutions that have the potential for series development." Ulrich Bez, a brilliant engineer who is now Aston Martin Lagonda's CEO, served as the new BMW Technik's first director. To get the ball rolling, initial efforts were placed under Auto 2000 and Local Vehicle project titles.
Over 18 years, the Technik crew concocted 29 project cars to explore various future possibilities for BMW. Inevitably, the business mood changed and by 2003 the Executive Board was less interested in any department having so much fun. (Bez was long gone, having moved to Porsche, Daewoo, and then Ford.) So the German word for research was added to the department's title and BMW Forschung und Technik's focus was shifted away from complete running project cars to more specific technical exercises-such as using hydrogen as a carbon-free fuel for combustion engines.
Those project cars that survived the shredder began collecting dust like discarded children's toys. Thankfully, someone in authority who appreciated BMW's heritage suggested a party to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Technik's founding. The cars were dusted off and rolled forth for the automotive world to enjoy. A sampler of the most interesting experimental BMWs follows.
Z1 ROADSTER The first major project car and the first BMW adorned with the company's illustrious Z badge was the Z1. It paved the way for the Z3, Z4, and Z8 sports cars that made the leap to production. (Z is shorthand for zunkunft, German for future.)
Created in 1985, the Z1 investigated advanced structural and material concepts. A steel spaceframe was clad in thermoplastic body panels and reinforced with a bonded composite floor panel. Sills were raised to provide extra side-impact protection and space for the unorthodox vertically sliding doors. While that arrangement seems impractical, the Z1 not only provided convenient entry and exit, it could also be driven safely with the doors lowered.
The Technik crew fitted BMW's first multi-link suspension system in back and a 170-hp six-cylinder engine up front.
The Z1 so exceeded expectations that a production run was approved. During the late 1980s, 8000 units were constructed in response to more than 30,000 orders for the car. (None were imported because the vertically opening doors contradict our safety standards.) A Z1 coupe coded Z2 was designed and one static example was constructed using wood, clay, and plastic.
E1 ELECTRIC While it was initially coded Z11, BMW's next major project was rechristened E1 for its public introduction at the 1991 Frankfurt show. A 50-horsepower electric motor was positioned between the rear wheels. The experimental sodium-sulfur battery pack was located under the rear seat. This aluminum and plastic 2+2 city crawler had a top speed of 75 mph and a 120-mile range. A carried away Auto Bild magazine dubbed it "the most advanced car of the century."
Follow-on versions called Z15 and E2 were slightly larger and powered by sodium-nickel-chloride batteries.