Story and Photos by Zach Mayne
The BMW Z3’s classic roadster packaging and obvious design parallels to classic sports cars of years past were the elements that drew Bruno Lucidarme to the model. “It is one of the few cars that reminds me of the classic British roadsters,” he says of his black 1999 Z3 2.8. “Beautiful lines, a long hood and the feeling of sitting on the axle.” Lucidarme’s love of two-seat convertibles goes way back to his childhood in Belgium, when he had spent a lot of time in his father’s Spitfire as a passenger. “My dad loved it to pieces and kept it for 16 years, even though it broke down countless times,” he recalls. “I would sit behind the seats. If you are familiar with a Spitfire, you know that’s really not a location for a person, just enough storage for a bag of orzo. You probably would go to jail if you did that now but no one cared at the time. I enjoyed my rides in the Spitfire, whether it was in the back or the passenger's seat.”
Later, when Lucidarme was in high school, his dad acquired a BMW Z3 convertible after he sold the Spitfire to a Belgian auto museum. The Z3 was eventually replaced by a Z4. In 2004 Lucidarme decided to follow in his father’s footsteps by buying a convertible of his own. “I had just moved here from Europe and was toying with the idea of buying a Mustang GT convertible,” he says. “I didn't know much about American cars but it was quick and sounded great.” His wife suggested he get a Z3 like the one his father had. “I actually never entertained that idea since I figured it would be expensive, but to my surprise it wasn't bad at all.”
It didn’t take long for his wife to find a Z3 for sale in Oceanside, CA by a British gentleman who bought and sold specialist cars. Only instead of selling leaky, drafty British sportscars, he sold Audis and BMWs. The Z3 in question was Jet Black with a Beige Oregon leather interior. “It looked and drove great, so I bought it and drove it home with the top down on Christmas day,” says Lucidarme, who immediately started using it as his daily driver. “When I initially bought the car, I had no plans to modify it,” he admits. “I just wanted to enjoy it and keep it in great condition. So, the initial goal was reliability.”
Before long though, it became apparent to Lucidarme the Z3’s competent chassis could use more performance than what was provided by the existing 2.8-liter engine. In the search for power adding options, he came across VF Engineering in Anaheim, CA. The heart of the conversion is a Vortech supercharger that delivers 6-psi worth of forced induction to the 2.8-liter M52 TU engine under the Z3’s hood. In stock form, the M52 produces 193-hp- a few more than the previous two model years with the same size motor- and 203 lb-ft of torque. VF rates its supercharger conversion at 307 crank horsepower and 265 lb-ft of torque. Further changes include larger fuel injectors, a remapped computer and new intake that utilizes a K&N filter.
When Lucidarme picked up his Z3 from VF’s headquarters, he was very happy with its transformed acceleration. “The car pulls strong all the way to redline and has a nice flat torque curve across the entire rpm range,” he notes. “It puts out about 250hp to the wheels, which is not bad for a car this size.” The conversion has also proven to be reliable over the long term, and has held up well to years of weekend drives and Los Angeles commuting. A Magnaflow stainless steel muffler has also been installed, giving the Z3 a sharper bark and a few additional horsepower.
“The stock water pump in many of the six cylinder Z3's are prone to premature failure,” says Lucidarme. “I upgraded to a higher quality aftermarket Stewart water pump.” Likewise, the radiators can become brittle and crack, leading to a potentially catastrophic loss of coolant. An aluminum Ireland Engineering radiator eliminates that issue. The BMW currently rides on H&R coilovers, allowing the suspension to be dialed in to his preference. “I also have a DINAN strut brace linking the front shock towers together,” he says. “Even though the roadster has little cowl shake, it still makes a dramatic difference on rough roads.”
Wheels on the Z3 are Work VS-XX alloys that measure 18x8.5-inches up from and 18x9.5-inches at the back wrapped in sticky Hancook Ventus V12 Evo K110 tires that measure 225/40-18 at the front and 255/35-18 at the rear. “The wheels are mounted on ARD wheels studs with special tuner nuts for theft protection,” adds Lucidarme. When combined with the Z3’s black paint, the gold-colored wheels look great. With the exception of replacing the original shift knob with a wooden one and fixing the saggy glovebox, a common Z3 gremlin, Lucidarme hasn’t found a lot to complain about in the Z3’s interior. Despite E36 generation BMWs having a reputation for interiors that fall apart if you look at them the wrong way, this Z3 proves that they hold up well when taken care of properly. The Z3 still has a few years to go before it reaches the status of a true classic, but its already starting to look and feel like one- in a good way. The interior is downright minimalist in contrast to the latest crop of Z4s and the driving position is perfect, the shift knob falls right to hand and the gauges look crisp and modern.
With around 250-horsepower from its supercharged motor, the BMW feels extremely healthy from the mid-range all the way to redline. The supercharger announces its presence with a slight whine at lower RPMs, though this is disguised by the growl of the exhaust as RPM’s rise. The Magnaflow muffler sounds great, producing a deep but mellow sound with no annoying resonance. With the healthy amount of power on tap, the acceleration of the Z3 feels far closer that of an S52-powered M Roadster, with a more powerful mid-range thanks to the torque of the supercharger. But the engine also revs quickly and willingly right up to redline as it launches the BMW down the road. The easily accessible power is mated to near perfect gearing from the 5-speed.
Around corners, handling is nimble and responsive. You feel like you’re sitting right on top of the rear axle, which makes it that much easier to zing the Z3 into and out of the corners through the direct, responsive steering. Steering feel is so good in fact that it makes you wonder how BMW got the steering in the earlier Z4s so wrong. Get on the gas out of the corners and you can steer with the gas pedal as well, making the Z3 easy to slide around a little… or a lot. The combination of the added power and lower, stiffer suspension unlock another dimension to this old 2.8, making it a far more raw and engaging driving experience. There is something incredibly engaging about the Z3’s driving experience, from the smooth delivery of the power, to the simple, rear wheel-drive feel of the chassis. When new, the Z3 2.8 sold for just under $40,000. Now they can be had in excellent shape for well under $10,000. Throw in a few well-chosen upgrades like this one and the Z3 shapes up to be one of the best sports car bargains around.