Back Page: Leading By Getting Out of the Way

  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

The accomplishments of Bavar­ian Motor Works–known better as BMW–become that much more impressive when you consider that some car companies struggle to produce a merely competent version of just one type of car. BMW excels at making sedans, but every now and again, it releases a truly magnificent sports car such as the 507 or the Z8.

Robb Report has recognized BMW’s laudable, if somewhat schizophrenic, efforts in our annual Car of the Year feature, granting top honors to the 740i sedan in February 1995 and awarding the title to the convertible, two-seat Z8 six years later. In the current issue, editor at large Paul Dean discusses the merits of the 2007 BMW Z4 M (“Z Is for Zest”), and automotive editor Gregory Anderson admires and drives vintage machines in BMW’s corporate collection of roadsters (“Bavarian Birds of Passage,” page 144), including the 319/1, the 328, and the 507, the late-1950s car that gave rise to the Z8 four decades later.

The Z8 and its near predecessor, the Z3, proved spectacular enough to pass muster with James Bond: The Z3 appeared in the 1995 film Goldeneye, and the Z8 was featured in 1999’s The World Is Not Enough. “When BMW comes around [and builds a sporty car], it’s kind of out of the blue. No one expects them to come out with a roadster, and then they do,” Anderson says. “The Z8 is gone. [Production ceased in 2003.] When will we see the next BMW superroadster? Thirty years? I hope not. BMW does a good job of putting their minds to it.”

Albrecht Goertz, a German-born and -reared student of American industrial designer Raymond Loewy, shaped the 507, and Henrik Fisker created the car that became the Z8. Now the CEO of Fisker Coachbuild, an automotive design company in Irvine, Calif., Fisker considers his years of working on the Z8, a project that lasted from 1993 until about 1999, to be the best corporate experience of his career, surpassed only by the satisfaction of running his own firm. “When I was there, there was a general design philosophy for sedans, and there was always room for a few niche vehicles,” Fisker says. “There was more freedom with niche vehicles, because they didn’t have to fit in a certain box or meet certain goals.”

In addition to allowing Fisker the freedom to pursue his Z8 concept, BMW supplied him with a skilled team that could help him realize it. “A good designer needs a really good engineer to carry out his vision,” he says. “BMW engineers are the best in the world at carrying out the vision of the designer. A lot of other car companies would not be able to engineer a car like the Z8. [BMW was] able to do anything, almost what you would consider impossible.”

Fisker then launches into a recitation of the Z8’s merits, including its small cabin, which resembles those of older sports cars despite the fact that modern regulations governing car construction make it difficult to create such interior spaces. He also remains pleased with the taillights, a seemingly minor detail. “They were extremely thin. No technology [at that time] could produce them, but BMW’s engineers came up with a neon lamp,” he says. “It’s extremely difficult to make. No one has done [a neon lamp] since, because it’s so difficult and expensive.”

Car company executives can be prone to overthinking, micromanaging, and otherwise meddling with a superior automotive design until all the fun and originality have been removed from it. However, this was never the case when he worked for BMW, says Fisker. “BMW is run by car enthusiasts,” he says. “They understand cars and they love cars, so they are easier to convince.”

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