Origins of greatness: A BMW Motorsport Division Retrospective BMW M1

BMW makes such desirable cars, especially their M-variants that one forgets, or worse doesn’t appreciate the origin of such mechanical greatness. Hence, we felt it was time for a jolly retrospective on the BMW division responsible for our many sleepless nights dreaming: the BMW Motorsport Division in general, and in particular the legendary M1, the car that jumpstarted the group in the first place.

The M-division was formed in 1976 and tasked to develop a GT race car for homologation in Group 4 and Group 5 racing to qualify for these motorsport events, BMW had to build at least 400 identical cars in 24 months. That car became known as the ‘Mid-Engined BMW M1 Project’ (E26) with the first fully-functioning car completed on July 10, 1978. Our orange local test car is actually a 1979 model with just 2,664 kilometers driven on the odometer in 26 years. Moreover, our test was actually the first time the car had been driven over a year of isolation!
The Giorgio Giugiaro (for Ital Design) – designed M1 was planned to be assembled amazingly by Lamborghini, but Lamborghini’s poor financial situation and assembly delays caused BMW to move assembly to Baur, the German convertible coachbuilders in Stuttgart. The multi-tube spaceframe chassis was built by Marchesi while the full fiberglass bodywork was done by Transformazione Italiana Resina. In Group 4 specification, the M1 was tuned for 477 bhp, while in Group 5 spec the M1 had a slightly smaller 3.2 engine but was turbocharged to produce and earth-shattering 850 bhp!
By the time production resumed, the homologation rules for international Group 5 racing had been changed. Since BMW had not met the required sales figures, the car in 1978 went at a staggering US$ 53,000, the M1 went to the new Procar racing series instead. By the time BMW had sold enough cars, the m1 was no longer competitive for Group 5 racing. In 1981, David Cowart and Kenper Miller won the MSA GTO category. The M1 Procars became largely featured as a support series for most Formula 1 races throughout Europe until the car was sadly eventually discontinued in 1981 with a total production of 457 (399 were road versions & 58 were race cars). The last car was completed on Feb. 13, 1981, ending the production of BMW’s first and so far last production supercar.
With the exact weight of a Porsche 996 GT3 RS, the 277 bhp M1 was no sloth, keep in mind that Jimmy Carter was still the US president at the time this car was tearing European roads with impunity! Try to imagine that this advanced at the time supercar was hitting top speeds in excess of 260 km/h during the last throws of the Oil Crisis (OPEC) when the Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran. The US offered sanctuary to the ailing Shah, angering the new Iranian government, which then encouraged student militants to storm the American embassy and took over 50 American hostages! For a bit more history to understand the significance of the M1 in relation to the time it was made, President’s Carter’s ineffectual handling of the much-televised hostage crisis, and the disastrous failed attempt to rescue them in 1980, doomed his presidency inevitably losing to Ronald Reagan, even though he negotiated their release shortly before leaving office. President Carter is positively remembered, however, for the historic 1978 Camp David Accords, where he mediated a historic peace agreement between Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat. This vital summit revived a long-dormant practice of presidential peacemaking, something every succeeding chief executive has emulated to varying degrees.
Looking back at the range of true ‘supercars’ offered during the 1970s, none originated from German manufacturers, although the fleeting BMW M1 more than made-up for this lapse. Launched in 1978 at the Paris Auto Show, the M1 was unlike anything that BMW had built before or since and was developed from an original race-car design. The M1 had a very Italian feel to it with obvious design cues that emulated Lamborghini and Ferrari with its mid-engined layout, traditional supercar low-slung appearance, and pop-up headlights. What may shock you though is that the wedge supercar appearance was not as aerodynamically efficient as one may think. The typical modern automobile achieves a drag coefficient of between 0.30 and 0.35. SUVs, with their larger, flatter shapes, typically achieve a Cd of 0.35 to 0.45. Certain cars, notably can achieve figures of 0.25 to 0.30 like a Lexus LS340 with 0.25, although sometimes designers deliberately increase drag in favor of reducing lift which I reckon is the case here as the BMW M1 has the drag coefficient of 0.40 which is just marginally better than the 0.42 of a Lamborghini Countach and worse than a Dodge Durango which has a Cd of 0.39.
As for values, the last BMW M1 was privately sold at US$ 330,000, not bad for a German exotic car built 26 years ago! The external shape is still eye catching even to the untrained eye especially in orange. From the rear, the twin BMW badge trunk is uniquely distinctive, while the trunk itself was surprisingly commodious having housed a full spare tire and tool kit with enough extra room for a couple of weekend bags. There is also more room in the front trunk for a couple more duffle bags. The sight of the old DOHC 24-valve 3.5-liter inline-6 sitting before the rear axles was both inspiring and melancholy/ This engine is so good that the basic design lasted well from the 1979 218 bhp SOHC 12V (E12) M535i, to the 1985 DOHC 24V 286 bhp (E28) M5, to the very last 6-cylinder DOHC 24-valve (E34) M5 with 3.8 liters producing 340 bhp in 1995! The engine was also used in the (E24) M6. Melancholy because this particular engine has aged considerably even with the low mileage, there is visible corrosion in the engine bay if you look beyond the brilliant individually exhaust headers. Idle is understandably rough. The M1 would best function using leaded premium high octane fuel and definitely driven more often, I gladly volunteer to do this task. I’ve always dreamed of owning a BMW M1 but I see now that that dream will remain as it stands.
When we opened up the car for the first blast of heavy rain, a tremendous cloud of carbon and debris enveloped me, for a moment there I was horrified with the prospect that this car may not last through the test. With the mighty blessings from above, the BMW M1 simply needed to clear its throat after more than a year sitting idly in a garage. After a couple of high speed rips through the first three forward gears, the M1 settled into a willing participant. The aircon worked too which was very astounding. The biggest let down is the interior which shows all of the car’s age in one full swoop. The cockpit is still comfortable and accommodating, more than any supercar up until the late 80s, however the materials, switchgear, and instruments hark back to even more archaic times practically at the time of my birth. Still, mechanically and aesthetically (exterior), the M1 is still awesome and surreal, you almost have to actually pinch yourself to believe it’s real.
The non-power assisted rack and pinion steering is precise but naturally heavy, that combined with the slight gear change guess work are both tail tells of yesteryear, but I must say though the functionality of both is no more difficult than an old Volkswagen Beetle, it’s just that for a BMW with such fabulous pedigree and looks, it’s difficult to reconcile the stark contrasts. The brakes, too, are wooden and may benefit from a total overhaul especially if it’s going to be driven more often. In the end, the M1 is not a handful at all, it’s a comfortable car that was designed and engineered by geniuses well ahead of their time, and you feel that the magic is still intoxicating even with the natural compromises of age. I only wish the car experiences more road time. I somehow feel its pain or is it mine that I finally get to experience the legendary M1, the car that is responsible and is the father to all the M-cars, and that the day had to end.