At the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show, BMW surprised and delighted the crowd with the Z07 concept, a sports car prototype that paid homage to the classic BMW 507. Designed by Chris Bangle, with his exterior designer Henrik Fisker and interior designer Scott Lempert, the concept was praised for its classic looks and proportions.
The Z07 previewed the production Z8 roadster of 2000-2003. That car would be a limited-production ‘halo car’ with an advanced aluminium chassis, a 4.9-litre V8 also seen in the E39 M5, bespoke neon lighting front and rear and a retro-styled interior.
As the Z8 program was designed to have a limited lifespan, it began to wind down in 2002. At that time, Bertone approached BMW and asked to develop a concept car from the Z8 chassis. BMW and Bertone had a long association and the request from the Italian design house was granted.
Development started in May 2002 and the concept was introduced at the 2003 Geneva Motor Show.
The Birusa immediately proclaimed its Bertone heritage with its overall wedge shape, reinforced by the oblong/teardrop-shaped side window undercut into the door, reminiscent of such Bertone classics as the Carabo and Boomerang.
An aluminium highlight spear emerged from the front wheel arch and swept along the door, bisecting this side glass. This spear contained the door handle as well as air outlets for the engine compartment.
The wedge shape was exaggerated by the wheelbase – which was lengthened some 350mm over the standard Z8 – and yet the overall length (4400mm) was the same, meaning very short overhangs for the Birusa. The width was increased by100mm, which made for a muscular, assured stance.
At the front, Bertone managed to abstract the BMW face, without blatantly copying it. The grilles were vaguely kidney-shaped but more aggressive, with headlamps above. At the center, a round Bertone symbol was placed where a BMW roundel might be.
At the cockpit the windscreen arched up to meet an unusual sloping roof, that united with a fastback which swept down to the rear fascia. A closer look reveals a moonroof and rear windscreen that could slide downwards into a hatch in the trunk.
This unique glass roof was treated with a specially coated film that reinforced the glass and blocked some 95 per cent of the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
At the rear, the body abruptly dropped to reveal an almost flat fascia with a strong horizontal LED tail light strip, and graphically-integrated exhaust and diffuser. In between these elements was a vertical panel that opened down and outward to create a ramp for a specially designed Segway HT (Human Transporter) scooter.
This bespoke Segway, the first to be paired with an automotive design, was intended to extend the range of the Birusa experience into the pedestrian areas of cities. Equally, the design of the Birusa Segway attempted to bring a sense of the automotive interior atmosphere to scooter travel.
The Segway was padded and covered with Alcantara fabric. It had an onboard Bose sound system, a navigation system with a display, and, of course, headlights to light the way ahead.
Touch the door handle – or if the system recognised you, say the word – to open the dramatic carbonfibre gullwing doors. These were hinged at the roof and the cowl, and rose upwards and forwards to create a generous opening into the cockpit.
Once settled into the fibreglass seats, covered in Alcantara fabric (as was much of the cabin), one could review the instrument panel. The primary instrumentation was above the centre console (like the Z8), with climate control buttons and a Bose sound system control screen below.
The steering wheel was a U-shaped aircraft-style yoke with a small pop-up screen placed directly beyond. This screen displayed the images from the forward-facing night vision camera, allowing the car to be driven with low-beam headlights.
Although all controls were within easy reach of the driver, a Loquendo VoxDrive system allowed the driver to control virtually all systems with voice commands.
The name Birusa was a Torinese adaptation of the Piedmontese adjective ‘Biross’ which translates as ‘a brilliant, resourceful person’. In many ways that describes the design of the Birosa.
Where the Z8 evoked classic BMW styling and engineering, the Birosa looked forwards. The Z8 was a roadster with an accompanying hardtop. The Birosa was a coupé with a high-tech sliding roof. The Z8 placed its instruments in the centre of the IP for excellent views of the road ahead. The Birusa went one step further with a forward-looking night vision camera. The Z8 celebrated the classic analogue dial and the touch of analogue buttons. The Birusa looked to a future of voice commands... and so on.
But the Birusa was destined to remain a concept. The Bertone wedge certainly tied into some classic Italian design themes, but Bangle and his team had other plans. The BMW X-Coupé of 2001 had predicted the future of BMW design, while in 2002 at the Paris Motor Show, the BMW Z4 was introduced.
Instead of dramatic wedges, flame surfacing was the design theme of the moment. Some 15 years later we still find ourselves in that moment, with more baroque surfacing than ever.
But there is some evidence that the tide may be turning. Perhaps we can look forward to a new era of clean, crisp surfacing and the clever design the Birusa exhibited so very well.
The Birusa was a running car. Here is a video of the car in action in the Italian Alps. (Apologies for the poor image quality and soundtrack.)
This article references CDN’s original design review of the Birusa from March 2003, written by our colleague Nick Hull. If you are a subscriber, please click here to read Nick’s first impressions from the Geneva show of that year.
Hat tip to Matteo Licata () for help with the translation of ‘Birusa’ .