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50 Years of BMW M: Part 2 – The iconic models

Over the past five decades, BMW M has given us some truly memorable cars.

The BMW M3 E-30

The BMW M3 E-30

As BMW gets closer to celebrating the 50th anniversary of its M division – or BMW Motorsport GmbH to give it its official original moniker – in May this year, we can now build on its initial history, as covered in our first feature. In this article, we focus on some of the iconic cars which have carried the famous ’M’ badge.

And it’s worth highlighting that 50 years after the creation of ‘M’, its ongoing success can be highlighted by the fact that last year 163,542 BMW M models were sold around the world, with 15,000 M division vehicles registered in the UK.

BMW M1 (1979-1981)

After the success of the 3.0 CSL coupé (as detailed in our first feature), the next step for Motorsport GmbH was to create a supercar; a competition car which was not based on a regular production model. While BMW built the technical components for the M1, Lamborghini was supposed to supply the body and the chassis. However, financial problems at Lamborghini resulted in significant delays.

Having been designed by Georgetto Giugiaro and developed by Giampaolo Dallara, BMW acted quickly once it became clear that, having built a number of prototypes, Lamborghini could not then continue with the production car. The build was therefore transferred to Giugiaro ItalDesign.

Since the minimum production requirement for homologation in FIA Group 4 – in which the M1 was going to race (pictured above) – was 400 units, the ultra-low mid-engine M1, measuring a mere 1.14 metres in height, also came as a road-going model (pictured below).

Thus the first car with the famous letter ‘M’ made its debut in the market. The price of the 277hp M1 back in 1978 was exactly DM 100,000, but demand exceeded supply by far. When 130 cars had been completed after one year, there were still more than 300 firm orders waiting to be fulfilled.

Right from the start, the M1 was the fastest road-going sports car built in Germany, as timed by a leading car journal. In a test conducted in 1979, the M1 reached a top speed of 264.7km/h or 164.1mph. The racing version developed 470hp and had a top speed of well over 300km/h or 190mph.

M5 (1984-1988)

In 1984, Motorsport GmbH hit the headlines once again, especially among all aficionados of high-performance sports cars. The fast-revving four-valve straight-six originally featured in the M1 now made its appearance in the M635CSi Coupé and in the M5.

In particular, the E28 M535i (pictured above), hand-built in Preussenstrasse, quickly became a legend in the world of motoring. The first production M-badged BMW built in Germany, the M5 was a genuine ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, with an output of 286hp exceeding the engine power of the 518i by almost three times.

With its manual gearbox, the interior also featured a three-spoke M Sport steering wheel, sports seats, 16-inch BBS wheels with low profile rubber, plus a boot spoiler. The ‘cool guys’ ticked the box for the Shadowline option, which replaced the chrome window surrounds with blackout trim. The result was a meaner-looking stealth machine.

While at first sight the M5 could hardly be distinguished from its regular production counterpart, its top speed of 152mph caught many drivers of big saloons and sports cars thoroughly by surprise when the M5 simply left them standing no matter how hard they tried. The term ‘Executive Express’ was born.

M3 (1986-1991)

For today’s drivers of a certain age, this perhaps is THE M car; the E30 M3. I know I coveted one in the late nineties, but the finances never quite worked out, what with house moves and geographical relocations. Now it’s well out of my grasp, with good, low-mileage ones starting around £75,000!

When it arrived, it was like nothing else in production. It was the height of the eighties, and the E30 was the peak of performance the man-on-the-street could buy. Sure, it wasn’t cheap – when it went on sale in the UK in early ’87, it cost £22,750 … £6,000 more than the 325i Sport, and just £2,400 cheaper than the Porsche 944S – but to many it was affordable.

In 1986, Motorsport GmbH focused all its energy on touring car racing. In 1986, this resulted in the birth of the BMW M3, the compact two-door sports saloon which represented BMW’s first parallel development in series production and motor sport.

The road version required a production run of 5,000 units within one year for recognition as a touring car and to allow it to compete in the German-based DTM series (pictured above). Since the facilities in Preussenstrasse were unable to handle the sheer magnitude of the tasks involved, Motorsport GmbH moved to its second home in the Munich suburb of Garching in 1986.

On the track, the M3 was a huge success, and, in 1987, Roberto Ravaglia won the World Touring Car Championship at the wheel of a BMW M3.

Developing maximum output of 195hp from its four-cylinder 16-valve power unit and featuring a catalytic converter as standard, this high-performance saloon became the benchmark in motor sport.

As a road-going 2.3-litre model – which covered 0-60mph in 6.5 seconds and carried on to a max of 146mph with power delivered to the rear wheels via a five-speed manual gearbox – the E30 M3 achieved a sales volume nobody could have expected. Sales of the first BMW M3 amounted to more than 17,970 units, including 600 2.5-litre M3 Sport Evolution models, as well as 765 M3 convertibles built by hand.

M Roadster and M Coupé (1998-2002)

The M roadster starred as the ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ in every respect; it was much more than ‘just’ a thrilling combination of the Z3 with the 321hp power unit of the second-generation M3.

At the time, this unique muscle machine was also the highlight within the BMW roadster line-up. The M Coupé (pictured above), which followed shortly after the M roadster, was a thoroughbred sports car of the highest standard. Again, it featured the M3 power unit and was based on the M roadster, but with its own very special character.

Powered by the 3246cc 24v straight-six, channelling its 317bhp to the rear-wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox, the M Coupé (pictured above) could hit 62mph from standstill in 5.3 seconds, and carry on to an electronically-limited top speed of 155mph.

But the M Coupé wasn’t just all about supreme agility and dynamic driving performance; it also enjoyed the practical advantages for everyday motoring. Two golf bags, for example, could be fitted easily into the attractively-styled rear compartment.

With fewer than 1,000 right-hand drive M Coupé models built – the post-2000 facelift models benefitted from the more powerful and torquey S54 engine lifted from the E46 M3 – again prices for good low-mileage models are hovering around £75,000.

M3 CSL (2003-2004)

Coming 30 years after the 3.0 CSL that gave birth to BMW Motorsport GmbH, the 2003 E46 M3 CSL is still seen by many as the finest of all M3s. Some would go further and say it remains the best car the M division has ever made.

Powered by its 3246cc 24v straight-six, power is sent to the rear wheels via a six-speed paddle shift. As for performance? The 355bhp catapults the car from standstill to 62mph in 4.9 seconds, and tops out at an electronically-limited 155mph.

This is the finest of the E46 M3s. Roof, centre console and door panels were made of carbon-fibre reinforced plastic. The rear window is lighter, and numerous features providing creature comforts were simply eliminated, for example the air-conditioning was deemed too weighty of an option.

On test runs, the car went round the North Loop of the Nurburgring in 7:50 minutes, which was an outstanding time for a vehicle in this class. No surprise then that when it was launched in 2003, all 1,383 M3 CSL models sold within the space of a few months.

1 Series M Coupé (2011-2012)

It may be just have been happenstance – unlikely, but a rare possibility – but coinciding with the period in which BMW had just fitted turbo engines to the then new, and certainly controversial, SUVs, the 1M Coupé appeared.

And what’s intriguing about the 1M is on paper it appears something of a Dr Frankenstein creation. Yes, it has a manual gearbox. Yes, it has a locking diff. And yes, it’s rear-wheel drive.

But where you would expect its suspension to have come from the 135i, which sat one step below in the model range, it didn’t. Instead it was lifted from the E90-era M3. What that did was make the front track 74mm wider, and the rear 46mm wider, lowering the centre of gravity and making the 1M even more planted. It also resulted in the 19-inch tyres being housed in muscular arches.

Power comes from the 3.0-litre straight-six bi-turbo engine previously fitted to the 135i. But in the 1M, it was boosted to 335bhp. That delivered 0-62mph in 4.9 seconds, and the pushed the 1M to the restricted max of 155mph via a six-speed manual gearbox to the rear wheels.

The future: an electric M car

It’s probably no coincidence that, 50 years after the creation of BMW’s M division, the company will this year launch its first petrol-electric hybrid M car. Billed as the ‘most powerful M car ever built’, the Concept XM (pictured above) is a 740bhp V8 Hybrid. And yes … it’s massive!

The concept car – which is likely showcasing the powerplant which will be slotted into the production model – marries a V8 to a ‘high-performance’ electric motor to develop 740bhp and a staggering 737lb/ft of torque. It’ll also have an all-electric range of up to 50 miles.

After 50 years of BMW’s M division creating motorsport-performance cars for the road, it’s clear this winning philosophy will continue as the world evolves with a new focus on prioritising the environment and developing alternatives fuels, including electricity. It makes you wonder what the next 10 years will bring, let alone the next 50.

About the Author

Jim McGill