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50 years of BMW M: the early days

Jim McGill takes a look back at the origins of BMW’s M division.

The BMW M series celebrates its 50-year anniversary.

The BMW M series celebrates its 50-year anniversary.

May 1972 contained a number of significant diary events. The first US patent was issued for a fibre optic cable; Dwayne Johnson, former US professional wrestler The Rock, and now Hollywood actor, was born; the Vietnam War raged; Richard Nixon became the first US President to visit Moscow; Spurs won the first-ever UEFA Cup Final, beating Wolves 3-2 over two legs; Glasgow Rangers won the Cup Winners’ Cup, beating Dynamo Moscow 3-2 in the final in Barcelona; and BMW founded Motorsport GmbH. Its significance? You’ll instantly recognise it better as, the BMW M division.

On 24th May this year, BMW M celebrates its 50th anniversary. The motorsport division, which has created a clutch of iconic BMWs – including the all-conquering 3.0 CSL coupé, the BMW M1, the M5 and M635CSi, and of course the M3 – also created the legendary four-cylinder 1.5-litre engine which powered Brabham and Nelson Piquet to the 1983 Formula 1 World Championship (pictured above).

The early days

So what exactly is the M division, and how and why was it created? The early seventies was the dawn of a new age for BMW. A new, young board of management, under Eberhard von Kuenheim, had set out to strategically power and pursue the ongoing success of the company.

One of the core decisions was the construction of a new global head office – the legendary BMW Four-Cylinder building (pictured above) in Munich – as well as the establishment of BMW’s own in-house Sports division.

What was soon identified was the fact the former Sports department was focused on the BMW 1800 TI and 2000 TI (the latter pictured above at the Nürburgring in 1966) – as well as the entire 02 Series – which were the most popular competition cars, winning one race after the other. However, due to the volume of competition cars, BMW itself was only able to service a fragment of the overall demand. The vast majority of cars were prepared, run and sold by tuning companies.

Creation of BMW Motorsport GmbH

In May ’72, under the guidance of managing director Jochen Neerpasch (pictured above in June 2020) – an ex-Porsche works driver and Ford’s Racing Manager in Cologne before moving to Munich – BMW Motorsport GmbH, the M division, was created.

Initially comprising a team of specialists originally made up of just 35 employees, Neerpasch immediately attracted a whole group of racing drivers, destined to leave their stamp on BMW Motorsport for decades to come, including Chris Amon, Toine Hezemans, Hans-Joachim Stuck and Dieter Quester. Björn Waldegaard and Achim Warmbold were hired by the company as rally drivers.

Within a few months, the new company was able to move into its own buildings (pictured above), with the racing workshop and racing engine production shop, toolmaking and the engine dynamometer all being installed in the immediate vicinity of BMW’s Munich Plant on a site measuring more than 8,000 square metres in Preussenstrasse.

Birth of the iconic 3.0 CSL coupé

While the company created a 950kg 2002 powered by a two-litre four-valve four-cylinder engine, with maximum output of 240hp for rallying, Neerpasch and his team were also targeting the European Touring Car Championship. ‘Since we saw 1973 as our kick-off year, we didn’t expect to win this European Championship right away,’ he admitted.

What the team created for the ’73 European Championship was a brand-new car; the 3.0 CSL coupé (pictured above). The doors, bonnet and bootlid were made of aluminium, and the five-speed gearbox featured a magnesium housing. Overall weight was 1,092kg or 2,408lbs. But the real highlight was hidden beneath the bonnet, a 3340cc straight-six with 12 valves, fuel injection and a compression ratio of 11:1. Maximum output: 360hp.

Birth of the iconic colours

BMW Motorsport GmbH not only made a statement with its race cars for the 1973 season, but it further rocked the establishment in terms of corporate marketing.

For the first time, a complete racing team – from the car transport vehicle to the keyring – came in the same design. These were the three blue, violet and red colour stripes on a brilliant white background which still characterise the look of BMW Motorsport to this very day, as seen on the new BMW M4 GT3 (pictured above).

Immediate success

The CSL coupés in these colours soon proved to everybody in the world of motor racing that they were unbeatable. Hans-Joachim Stuck and Chris Amon brought home the Touring Car Grand Prix at the Nürburgring in their very first attempt. BMW was also the overall winner of the Touring Car Category in the 24-hour race at Le Mans.

The 3.0 CSL dream coupé (pictured above with the 2015 3.0 CSL Hommage) in its spectacular racing livery subsequently became the most successful touring car of its time, winning the European Championship six times between 1973 and 1979 and dominating the international touring car scene for almost a decade.

But the BMW 3.0 CSL was a pioneer, not only in its colour design, but also through a whole range of significant technical innovations. First, it was powered from 1973 by BMW’s first-ever four-valve six-cylinder. Second, it featured a prototype anti-lock braking system from 1974, long before this innovation became standard technology in the BMW 7 Series.

And at the end of its career, in the guise of the turbo coupé, the 3.0 CSL developed maximum output of up to 800hp. In 1976, BMW Motorsport GmbH sent BMW’s most powerful touring car out on to the track with Ronnie Peterson at the wheel, this supreme version of the CSL featuring a 3.2-litre biturbo engine with output intentionally reduced to 750hp.

The future

It became clear to BMW that there was commercial potential to develop the M badge in terms of road-going production cars. What followed was the evolution of a badge which created a cult following around the world, and delivered a number of iconic models along the way.

In the second part of our celebration of all things M, we’ll highlight some of the most important cars to bear the famous blue, violet and red striped badge.

Read part 2 – the iconic models

About the Author

Jim McGill