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History of the BMW M1

Find out how the BMW M1’s innovative styling and uniqueness was ahead of its time, making it one of the most iconic cars ever.

The iconic BMW M1

The iconic BMW M1

The 1970s was a time of change in the automotive industry.

Taking advantage of the advancements in technology, many manufacturers launched memorable models with bolder designs, including BMW, who captured the public’s imagination with their renowned 3 Series, 5 Series, and 7 Series.

But did you know they also built one of the most unique and memorable sports cars ever?

The BMW M1 is a car so rare that, even to this day, its futuristic design and history leave many wondering what might’ve been. Having been praised as one of the most memorable sports cars ever produced, the highly sought-after M1 was a project that almost didn’t come to fruition. Following their near bankruptcy in the 1950s, the 1970s saw critical acclaim come BMW’s way. With a bolstered line-up, the marque decided to go one step further.

BMW’s recently formed Motorsport division, headed by Jochen Neerpasch, planned a new car programme. Not just a car but a full-on racer that could take on their rival, Porsche. Neerpasch wanted to revive BMW’s mid-engine sports car concept, which dates to the early seventies. The mid-engine layout was chosen to outclass the competition. Their desire to compete in motorsports initiated the project, and by the mid-1970s, the M1 was born. Intended both as a road car and a race car, the ‘M’ denoted the Motorsport division and the ‘1’ signified the car’s importance in engineering history.

The M1 was the first mid-engine BMW to be mass-produced and held that accolade for over three decades until the BMW i8 plug-in hybrid utilised the same powertrain layout.

The car was also created to represent BMW in a new Manufacturers Championship - FIA Group 5 racing series, initially based on cars with production silhouettes. BMW couldn’t build the 400-road-going car models required by regulation, so they partnered with Italian manufacturer Lamborghini. However, despite its initial tubular steel chassis produced by designer Giampaolo Dallara and seven prototypes being built, Lamborghini ran into financial difficulties, resulting in BMW taking complete control of the project in 1978. Due to the delays and financial difficulties, BMW could no longer compete in the Group 5 racing series and had to settle for Group 4 instead.

BMW opted to build the M1 themselves with the help of renowned Italian car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro and a group of former Lamborghini engineers who founded the design firm Ital Engineering. His design was highly innovative. The fibreglass body suited the car's wedge shape perfectly and the retractable headlights were particularly appealing.

Car enthusiasts and critics alike couldn’t get enough of the futuristic design. Its appearance resembled the original Lotus Esprit, a model also designed by Giugiaro. Giugiaro, at the time, said, “The BMW M1 was a very important car for me because it was the first time I had the opportunity to design a mid-engined sports car. I wanted to create a car that was both beautiful and functional, and I think I succeeded with the M1.”

The two-seater sports car was hand-built in Italy and shipped to Stuttgart, where BMW installed the hand-built engines and hardware. Final preparations were carried out in Munich by BMW Motorsport, where each car was given a final tune and road test.

The M1 was only 3.7-feet high and six feet in width. Its aggressive styling was a hit. With its aerodynamic look and low stance, the M1 oozed sports appeal. It was a unique and innovative car ahead of its time – a testament to BMW’s engineering prowess, not to mention performance.

Despite the car's cutting-edge design and numerous accolades, some felt the interior was plain and minimalistic, with some at the time comparing it to the ultimate kit car. The basic dashboard layout was simplistic to operate and provided great functionality. The gear stick and steering wheel were perfectly positioned, as were the half-leather/half-cloth hand-stitched seats. However, those over six feet struggled to get comfortable due to the bulkhead separating the cockpit from the engine bay. As expected, rear visibility wasn’t great, but what did many expect from a road-going race car?

On the road, due to its mid-engine layout and suspension system, the M1 won many over. Its excellent handling and balance, particularly at high speed, made it one of the best sports cars of the era. It gripped the road like glue, helped in part to the brilliant Pirelli P7 tyres, demonstrating excellent downforce and agility. The M1’s aerodynamics came into their own. The response was immediate and direct, with the ZF transaxle producing good acceleration, a comfortable ride, responsive drive, and controlled handling. The M1 was the pinnacle of the hyper fast street cars.

The M1’s M88 powertrain was powered by a 3.5-litre in-line straight six. The road-going model produced a modest 273bhp, while the race model delivered a massive 850bhp. It was the first BMW road car to feature a four-valve-per-cylinder layout, double-overhead cams, and timed mechanical fuel injection. The engine powered two generations of the M5 and the M635CSi coupé. 0 – 60mph was 5.8 seconds, with a top speed of over 160mph, making it the fastest-ever BMW road car at the time.

Only 456 units were ever produced of the M1, making it one of the rarest and most exclusive BMWs ever. 400 were road-legal cars, with 56 being used as race cars. Although BMW eyed Porsche as its main competitor, the De Tomaso Pantera, Maserati Merak, and Lotus Esprit were also popular. However, the Porsche 911 was their most direct competitor due to comparable price and performance.

Production of the M1 ran from 1978 to 1981. The M1 was a critical and commercial success and, to this day, is still considered to be one of the most iconic BMWs ever built. In late 1980, BMW took the decision to stop production of the M1, citing a decline in the exotic sports car market.

To try and salvage its reputation on the racetrack, BMW’s racing pedigree was called into action for the Procar Championship – a series the Formula One Constructors Association ran from 1979 to 1980. The top five qualifiers in each Formula One race would compete against fifteen privateers, all driving M1s. The car finally took to the racetrack in 1979, though it was dogged with failures from the outset. Niki Lauda won the inaugural 1979 season, with the 1980 season by Nelson Piquet.

One of the positives from the disastrous production was that by the time the car got into its stride, requirements for Group 5 racing had changed, which left the M1 all dressed up with nowhere to go. The car did compete in various guises, such as the Le Mans 24-hour race from 1980 to 1986. Despite being fitted with a turbocharger, it gradually became outdated and uncompetitive.

When the road-going M1 went on sale in the UK, it cost an eye-watering £37,500, more than a Ferrari BB512. Its competitors – the De Tomaso Pantera GTS, Porsche 911, and Aston Martin V8 Vantage – were considerably cheaper. Despite not being established, the M1 was more expensive and less reliable than its competitors from the outset.

Buying a used M1 today will set you back more than £500,000.

The BMW M1’s history might be brief, but it lives on in people’s hearts and minds. From critics to enthusiasts, the iconic car was not only ahead of its time, but its innovative styling and uniqueness inspired a generation. BMW’s famous ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ tagline never felt so apt.

About the Author

Colin Cumming