2002 BMW Z3 1.9 E36/7

2002 BMW Z3 1.9 E36/7

No other car here – not even the MX-5 – sums up the Nineties roadster revival quite like this unmissable Dakar Yellow BMW Z3. The Z3 seemingly picked up where the odd, conceptual disappearing-doored Z1 (1986-1991) left off, but there was much more to it than that.

Firstly, when it was conceived in 1992, impending Euro I legislation and Super Touring racing regulations killed off BMW’s much-loved halo-car, the E30 M3. The E36 replacement was much more soft and nondescript, not to mention expensive in a recession. To make matters worse, the 1987 stock-market crash had dropped the value of the US Dollar against the Deutschmark, making BMW’s cars unfeasibly expensive in its biggest export market. The success of the MX-5 was a godsend to BMW. It already built rear-drive saloons, so adapting the E36 platform to make a roadster was much easier than MG’s task in fitting a transverse front-drivetrain in the back of a bespoke chassis. And BMW set up a factory to build it in Spartanburg, South Carolina, taking advantage of the cheap dollar to keep the price down – not only in the United States but around the rest of the world too.

Just four months after the MGF endeared itself to Brits, BMW’s marketing department played a blinder by putting one in Goldeneye, the first James Bond film in six years, the first starring Pierce Brosnan, and yet another part of that confident British cultural surge of the era. That said, the deal was tied up at the last minute, so there was no scope to write in any scenes in which it got to fire the missiles that were supposedly hidden in its headlight units. It didn’t stop everyone wanting one though, and it gave the Z3 a far more macho image than the MX-5.

Like the MX-5, it’s another emotionally-led piece of design, but its inspirations seem rooted in an even earlier era. Those gills and side-badges recall the 507, and the long crocodile bonnet and pinched waist are reminiscent of the Jaguar XK120’s. Get in, and you find yourself sitting right on the rear axle with the bonnet stretching away in front and the big steering wheel thrust into your chest, like you would find in an AC Ace, Austin-Healey 100 or MGA. The seats feel like thinly-upholstered concrete, the foot-well is cramped, and the wheel, instruments and pedals are all slightly offset to the right. Again, these are usually Fifties sports-car issues.

The 1.9-litre engine sounds like a massive vaccuum-cleaner under load, but it’s fast enough for fun. As I press on, the car imbues a sense of high quality too. The gearshift action is beautifully machined in its movement, and heftier and more substantial than the Mazda’s or MG’s. Pile hard into a tight bend and it feels impressively neutral, but unlike the remote-feeling MG and deliberately safe Mazda, there’s a hint of drift, an invitation to steer it on the throttle. There’s great feedback from the brakes too.

Crucially, the Z3’s retro demeanour is only skin-deep. There are no specially-tuned exhausts here. It feels serious and focused, more like an E36 318iS Super Touring homologation-special with a Chapmanesque paring-down process applied to it. The result is something that drives not unlike a Porsche 944 with the wick turned down, admittedly made slightly woollier by the addition of some scuttle-shake, although it’s hardly terminal.

Incredibly, the four-cylinder Z3 is one of the most affordable Nineties roadsters nowadays. At £20k new it vied with fully-optioned MGFs, and excellent build quality means the pool of survivors is large. It feels the pressure of its six-cylinder brethren too. It’s not that the 1.9 is slow, especially in 16-valve form (1995-1999), but when faster versions exist, that’s what it got called, especially when the power was dropped to 116bhp in 1999 to move the four-cylinder car well clear of the new 2.0-litre straight-six version.

As a result, you can pick up a high-miler for very little. A dealer in Colchester has one, admittedly with 161k on the clock but in seemingly excellent condition, for just £1895, and there’s a privately-sold example in Gloucestershire with 113k for £2100, again looking presentable. You’ll pay £2.5k-£4.5k for most sub-100k milers, but it’s testament to how reliable and usable they are. Because there isn’t really much to worry about on a Z3. The four-cylinder models didn’t suffer the scary issue of tearing differential mountings that their more powerful cousins did. Your main concern should be service history, bearing in mind that it’s possible for the unscrupulous to reset the on-board service indicator, making the dashboard claim the car’s been serviced when it hasn’t, so insist on a full set of stamps in the book. Hoods can often tear and leak too – a full replacement, including rear window, is £350. Removable aluminium hardtops are a desirable way to broaden the car’s appeal, but you can’t just buy one and bolt it on, so make sure it comes with its fitting kit, and expect to pay £1000 all-in.

Owning a BMW Z3 1.9

‘I used to have an E30 325i cabriolet – that was my introduction to classic BMWs,’ says Z3 owner Kieran Monaghan. ‘Then, ironically when I had children I got an MGF as a second car, and the kids would argue over who got to go to the supermarket! It got too impractical. ‘Once they’d grown up, I realised how cheap BMW Z3s had become. I found this one for £5000 and decided to take the plunge. They’re well-made, reliable, and cheap enough to take a punt on nowadays. It’s proven cheaper to run than my old E30 and feels much more solid. It hasn’t needed anything other than straightforward servicing, although I did treat it to a bespoke cover because it has to live outside.

‘Mine is well-known as ‘Omelette’ within the club – zroadster.org – for obvious reasons! It’s one of the few Z3s to be unmodified nowadays, very rare in Dakar Yellow, and had the whole M Sport interior trim set thrown at it when new.’

Roadster Revivalists The Big Test

2002 BMW Z3 1.9 E36/7

  • Engine 1895cc in-line four-cylinder, sohc, Bosch Motronic 1.7.1 fuel injection
  • Max Power 116bhp @ 5500rpm
  • Max Torque 133lb ft @ 3900rpm
  • Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
  • Steering Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
  • Suspension
  • Front: independent, MacPherson struts, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar.
  • Rear: independent, semi-trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
  • Brakes Servo-assisted discs front and rear
  • Weight 1160kg
  • Performance 0-60mph: 10.4sec;
  • Top speed: 123mph
  • Fuel consumption 35mpg
  • Cost new £21,480
  • Classic Cars Price Guide £1250-£3600
‘The Z3 feels serious and focused, not unlike a Porsche 944 with the wick turned down’


M Sport options make this cabin very difficult to replicate. 1.9 four-pot has punchier cousins, but still delivers a rewarding drive.

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