Pulling up at our rendezvous, I immediately spot the 2022 Smit Vehicle Engineering Oletha. Until now I’d only seen the Oletha in pictures, and they simply don’t do it justice. This car is absolutely beautiful, taking elements of BMW Z8 – and the BMW 507 by extension – and blending them into a more compact, purposeful form. It’s a coupe, though inspired by a roadster, and the result looks every inch like it could have been conceived by BMW itself.
But the Oletha is actually the result of two brothers’ “what if?” musings. It helps that Kaess and Willem Smit, founders of their namesake company, are engineers and BMW fans. Indeed, if you’re looking to build yourself a car, it undoubtedly helps if your previous employment includes stints at Tesla and Singer – as in Willem’s case – with Kaess’ engineering expertise coming from advanced aeronautical composites. Some light damage to Willem’s E86-generation BMW Z4 M coupe after a track day off showed the brothers that it was relatively easy to remove the bodywork from its mounts. Following that, an idea started to gather momentum.
Z8 Hardtop Dreams
“We started with some frame drawings and asked if this was even possible from a dimensions perspective,” Willem explains. The E86 Z4 worked for their purposes because while its overhangs are shorter than a Z8, the wheelbase is almost identical. Designed as a roadster before then being turned into a coupe, the fastback Z4 is also significantly stiffer than a Z8 (around three times as much, if you believe the Smit brothers).
That suited their goals for how the Oletha would drive, because for all the Z8’s presence and performance, it has never been widely regarded as a precise, engaging driver’s car. That Z4 coupes are far more readily available, as well as significantly cheaper, didn’t hurt either.
The design is largely the brothers’ own work, but they do concede that they had a surface design specialist finalise the shape (though they’re not at liberty to say who). The clandestine expert has clearly done a phenomenal job as the Oletha’s proportions are spot on, the shape exuding a classy elegance that mixes retro and contemporary to stunning effect.
Only the donor car’s glass remains, and every body panel is done in carbon fibre. The brothers explored suppliers in the US before jumping on a plane and selecting one from the UK. The finish is incredible, the tightness of the panel gaps exceptional, the glimpses of exposed carbon around areas like the boot lid revealing the exacting finish that Smit has demanded.
Performance To Match
It's not simply a re-bodied BMW Z4 M coupe, because under its bonnet is a naturally aspirated 4.4-litre V8 engine from the E90-generation BMW M3 (which we recently drove in rare Lime Rock Park Edition form). It’s not entirely standard, either. Smit claims more than 450 bhp at 8,200 rpm – 300 revs before redline – and 342 pound-feet at 3,700 rpm. A forged crankshaft, pistons, and connecting rods; uprated valve springs; and a custom carbon fibre intake manifold support that higher-than-stock grunt.
The wider V8 required a significant amount of engineering to allow it to fit into the narrow-bodied Z4, which meant designing and manufacturing bespoke exhaust manifolds, through which the steering column neatly weaves. Smit’s attention to detail is such that it has engineered those manifolds to allow them to build the car for either left- or right-hand drive. The engine mounts, like the 100-plus other custom components required under the bonnet, are 3D printed, though Willem reveals they’ve used BMW bushings to ensure that the noise and vibration are kept at an acceptable level.
Aerodynamic testing revealed that while the Oletha’s shape was pretty, it resulted in around 500 pounds (227 kilograms) of lift at the rear axle at around 200 miles per hour – beyond the top speed but still concerning. A quick solution would have been to add a fixed spoiler, but that wouldn’t do. Smit instead borrowed the pop-up mechanism off a current production car and fitted a bespoke lip. To be completely certain their solution was the right one, a rig was built for the mechanism, and Willem’s girlfriend did 10,000 step-ups to load-cycle the spoiler. It passed.
The end result of all that is a car that’s more stable at high speed, not that we’ll be getting anywhere near that 200 mph today. The canyon roads here meander gloriously around the topography, throwing up everything from occasional switchback bends and long off-camber sweepers to brief straights covered with the sort of undulating tarmac that’ll quickly reveal any shortcomings in a chassis setup. The brothers admit that their dynamic goal was a 996-generation Porsche GT3, a high bar, but the reality is something a bit different. The Oletha offers a broader mix of ability that’s engaging and enjoyable, without any obvious compromises.
The suspension uses fully adjustable KW coilovers, which do a beautiful job of mating road connection with composure. The ride is supple, shrugging off bumps and compressions but retaining fine control when you up the ante and start pressing on. A set of bespoke, forged monoblock aluminium wheels – 18x9 inches in the front and 19x10 in the rear – wear Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres. The brakes use AP Racing hardware, with six-piston front and four-piston rear callipers that bite with repeated force throughout a day of hard driving. The pedal still felt reassuringly firm and provided the perfect platform for gloriously rev-matched downshifts.
The gearbox is the same ZF six-speed manual that featured in the E92 M3, connected to the rear wheels via a mechanical limited-slip differential. You could leave it in third all day long, such is the easy delivery of the V8’s engine, but to do so would be doing yourself – and the Smit brother’s hard work – a real disservice. The gearshift is beautifully weighted through its short throw, and the clutch’s positive action gives the Oletha a physicality about it that’s engaging and involving when you want it to be. Yet it retains an easy nature when the roads are less interesting or you’re not in such a hurry.
There are rich rewards to be had when you get busy with the gearstick, not least the engine’s change in character. The S65 engine is manic, retaining a relatively dignified, Germanic V8 note at lower revs before turning more wicked as it speeds towards its redline. The pace ups with it, from merely quick below around 4,000 rpm to shockingly so above it. This is an engine that never runs out of ideas.
The balance of the chassis helps, as does the accuracy of the front axle. Turn-in is quick and direct, with a communicative and confidence-inspiring feel on the steering wheel. What might disappoint some is the fact the steering wheel (and much of the interior) is stock, a degree of pragmatism here on the brothers’ part. Thing is, even they realise that with a price north of $450,000 (approx. £345,000), depending on your specification, most will want the option to change things, so they’re working to do exactly that with customer cars.
Simply described as “the car we wish BMW would build” by the engineering brothers, it’s very difficult to argue with that characterisation after driving the Oletha. Stunningly constructed and boasting gorgeous, retro-modern BMW 507 lines, the Smit coupe looks primed to take class honours at the 2075 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance What’s more incredible, though, is that the Smit Vehicle Engineering Oletha feels every bit as special to drive as it is to look at. The first time you see one in person, you’ll understand what high praise that is.