Thirty Years of the BMW M1
The star came in pure white: When the 64th Paris Motor Show opened its gates in autumn 1978, sports car fans and lovers had only one destination – the stand of BMW Motorsport GmbH. There they were able to admire a super-low, dynamic new model which made it clear at very first sight that this was Germany’s fastest road-going sports car: the BMW M1, 1,140 millimeters (44.9´´ ) high, 204 kW (277 bhp) strong, and well over 260 km/h (160 mph) fast. “Everybody was crowding around BMW’s new mid-engined sports car”, wrote the press. And: “The list of orders coming in exceeds even the wildest expectations – an American fan of BMW, just to mention one example, has already put in an order for three M1s.”
That was quite something, considering that BMW’s super-sports car had a price-tag back then in 1978 of exactly DM 100,000, enough for four BMW 323is plus a couple of optional extras. It is fair to say that few cars have ever been expected with such excitement and anticipation as the BMW M1 which represented all of BMW’s know-how in motor racing. Project E 26, as the then still nameless M1 was initially called within the Company, had started in 1976. This was to be the first really unique car built by BMW Motorsport GmbH, BMW’s motor racing subsidiary established in 1972. The racing company, having already made a great name for itself in the international racing scene with the fast BMW 2002 and the highly successful BMW 3.0 CSI, now planned to lift this success to an even higher level with a competition car specially built and prepared for the Group four and five racing series.
According to Group four regulations at the time, qualification required a production run of at least 400 units in 24 successive months, it had to have two seats and bear a distinct resemblance from outside with its production counterpart. That made it quite clear that the E26 had to be not only a thoroughbred racing car, but also a street-legal sports car.
A Bavarian with Italian blood.
The problem was that BMW Motorsport GmbH totally lacked the capacity to develop and build such a car all by itself. After all, this team of specialists had concentrated on turning series-production cars into racing cars, making the chassis and suspension tauter and the engine more powerful. In its lines and design, the new coupe was intended to clearly boast that special Italian style. It was modelled around the gull-wing turbo, a turbocharged concept car created in 1972 by BMW designer Paul Bracq. Proceeding from this design study with its rounder lines, Giorgio Giugiaro created the sharp profile of the M1 with its distinct, almost jagged edges and corners. Bracq and Giugiaro had already cooperated in the past in creating the BMW 6 Series coupe.
First choice in the engine department: a inline-six engine.
Choosing the engine, BMW Motorsport GmbH initially focused on two concepts: Advance studies of Formula engines had led to a ten-cylinder code-named the M81, a V-engine with its cylinders at an angle of 144°. Suitably modified, this engine was also examined for its possible use in a sports car. But then the team around BMW’s Motorsport Director Jochen Neerpasch quickly opted in favor of a new inline-six, an engine concept supported by the excellent experience BMW had gained in the CSI races.
After all kinds of rumours with the grapevine running wild, BMW unveiled the secret in spring 1977, officially confirming the development of the new super-sports car. Then, in autumn of the same year, BMW published the first photos of the M1 in production trim. The car then made its first public appearance half a year later: Together with TV presenter Dieter Kürten, Jochen Neerpasch proudly introduced the Group four version in the colors of Motorsport GmbH in a prime-time Saturday evening sports program on Channel Two of German Television. Although this racing machine bearing number eleven was not yet ready to go, the first test drives were scheduled for April 1978.
277 bhp in a purebred sports car.
The big day finally came in autumn of the same year. The public was able to admire the first E26 at the Paris Motor Show. By that time the car bore the model designation M1 standing for the first car developed and built by BMW Motorsport GmbH.
Measuring 4,360 millimeters (171.7´´ ) in length, 1,824 millimeters (71.8´´ ) in width and 1,140 millimeters (44.9´´ ) in “height”, the M1 exuded a genuine flair for power. This mid-engined sports car was driven by a 3.5-liter inline-six fitted lengthwise in front of the rear axle and developing maximum output of 277 bhp. Code-named the M88, this engine was based on the volume-production six-cylinder combined with the four-valve cylinder head carried over from BMW’s CSI racing engines. Within this two-piece cylinder head, the lower section formed the combustion and coolant chamber, the upper half comprised the camshaft bearings and cup tappets. The fuel/air mixture was delivered through three double throttle butterfly manifolds featuring six 46-millimeter individual throttle butterflies to the cylinders through two intake ducts per cylinder measuring 26 millimetres (1.02´´ ) in diameter. The all-electronic digital ignition system also reflected the latest state of the art.
Dry sump lubrication bore clear testimony to the sporting genes of the M1, the car being able to achieve a very high level of lateral acceleration. Fuel was supplied to the engine from two tanks right and left in front of the rear axle, each with a capacity of 58 liters (12.8 Imp gals). From the engine power was transmitted through a ZF five-speed gearbox connected to the engine by a two-plate dry clutch. The final drive differential came as standard with 40 percent locking action.
264.7 km/h (164.1 mph): Germany’s fastest sports car.
The six-cylinder engine was smooth and free of vibrations throughout its entire range of engine speed, even remaining quite docile at lower speeds. This changed instantaneously once the rev counter hit 5,000 rpm. From there the M88 pushed the M1 forwards up to its top engine speed of 7,000 rpm with gusto making even the most jaded car testers wax lyrical: “Once the throttle butterflies are fully open you feel a tremendous kick from behind continuing well beyond the 200 km/h-mark. There is no need to shift to fifth gear, for example, until you reach a speed of 213 km/h (132 mph) and from there you continue to accelerate up and up to the car’s top speed.” Which, as recorded by Germany’s leading car magazine in autumn 1979, was 264.7 km/h (164.1 mph). Acceleration from 0–100 km/h in 5.6 seconds also looked very good, which is not surprising considering the power-to-weight ratio of 4.7 kg/hp, making things relatively easy for the 204 kW (277 bhp) engine.
The M1 was conceived and built for racing right from the start. The elaborate suspension with double wishbones on each wheel, gas-pressure dampers and two anti-roll bars remain in command throughout the car’s entire speed range. With the exception of the more comfort-oriented response of the moving parts and the modified spring/damper setting, the road suspension was identical to the chassis and suspension on the Group four racing version. Four inner-vented brake discs ensured phenomenal stopping power from any speed and the front axle came with 30 percent anti-dive minimising body movement even when applying the brakes all-out. Tires measuring 205/50 VR 16 at the front and 225/50 VR 16 at the rear were certainly very big and muscular in those days.
A low center of gravity of just 460 millimeters (18.5´´ ) above the road, track measuring 1,550 mm (61.02´´ ) at the front and 1,576 mm (62.04´´ ) at the rear, together with the mid-engined concept providing weight distribution of 44.1/55.9, made the M1 a genuine performer in bends, even though the car called for an experienced driver when pushed to the limit. Typical of a mid-engined performance car with a low level of inertia around its vertical axis, the M1 required quick and forceful counter steering as soon as lateral acceleration exceeded a reasonable limit and the rear threatened to break away. But the rack-and-pinion steering without power assistance and with a direct transmission ratio was perfect for this kind of control. Displaced castor and a small steering roll radius served at the same time to combine ease of control with supreme road contact absolutely essential for the active driver. The twin-joint safety steering column, in turn, was adjustable for reach.
A racing car with crash-proven passive safety.
Although the M1 was a sports car par excellence, both the driver and passenger enjoyed a certain standard of comfort. Though the suspension was firm and taut, it nevertheless absorbed bumps on the road without requiring the occupants to take any heavy jolts. Indeed, the driver and passenger were safely cocooned in a rectangular steel-profile space-frame complete with a bonded and riveted plastic skin free of distortion. The luggage compartment beneath the front lid was sufficient for a weekend for two, and even air conditioning was available. And the BMW M1 was safe: Since the new sports car received general homologation for the entire production series (as opposed to individual approval of each single model one-by-one), BMW was required to substantiate the passive safety of the M1 in a series of crash tests – a precaution which later benefitted many a racing driver.
While the public was admiring the new super-sports car from Munich, with orders coming in one after the other, production of the M1 suffered a nasty setback: Lamborghini was unable to assemble the new car as planned and the order instead had to go to Baur, the coach-building specialist in Stuttgart. This made the M1 a genuine challenge in the production process with the space-frame built by Marchesi, the glass-fibre-reinforced plastic body shell by T.I.R., both in the Italian town of Modena, and Giorgio Giugiaro’s company ItalDesign assembling these two basic units and adding the interior trim and equipment. From there the car went to Stuttgart, where Baur fitted all the mechanical systems and components.
A big attraction in Formula 1: the Procar Series.
Facing these delays and re-planning requirements, BMW suddenly became hard pressed for time. After all, 400 units of the new car had to be built within 24 months for homologation as a Group four competition car. And other companies were also pressing forward. So to get the M1 on to the race track faster, Motorsport GmbH Director Jochen Neerpasch, teaming up with Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley, launched the Procar Series with races held just before most of the European Formula 1 Grand Prix events in the 1979/80 season.
The big difference versus the road going car was the engine of the Procar racing version. The first step for motor racing was to tune the M88 six-cylinder the classic, conventional way, with new camshafts, larger valves, forged pistons, optimized flow ducts, slides instead of throttle butterflies and a modified exhaust system boosting output to 470–490 bhp. With this kind of power, the Procar version weighing just 1,020 kilos and fitted with the longest transmission ratio had a top speed of approximately 310 km/h (192 mph). Goodyear racing tyres measuring 10.0/23.5 x 16 at the front and 12.5/25.0 x 16 at the rear, together with a mighty rear wing, served to provide the right kind of grip on the road. Driving one of these Group four BMW M1s, Marc Surer lapped the Northern Circuit of Nurburgring in just 7minutes 55.9 seconds.
Built to Group four regulations, the M1 was not only placed at the disposal of five Formula 1 drivers in each race for the Procar Trophy, but was also sold straight from the factory as BMW Motorsport GmbH’s first ready-to-go racing car at a price of DM 150,000. And indeed, some of the most renowned racing teams quickly took up this offer. Schnitzer and Heidegger raced their own M1s on the track, just like Osella in Italy and Ron Dennis in Great Britain.
Putting up a unique show for the crowd:
Driving skill was the decisive factor.
Benefitting from this combination of BMW M1s prepared for racing by Motorsport GmbH and those entered by private teams, and with the cars driven by the big names in Formula 1 as well as ambitious racing drivers in other categories, the Procar Series gained unique popularity. This is where the world’s best drivers faced the old hands and newcomers in the scene, comparing their skills with cars virtually identical in every respect. The crucial factor, therefore, was driving skill – and this really caught the attention of the crowd. The Procar races proved just as popular as the ensuing races for the Formula 1 World Championship.
The recipe for success was perfectly prepared. The fastest five Formula 1 drivers in the Friday practice sessions were placed against 15 touring car specialists. With the Procar races held on the Saturday, the first five places on the grid went to the stars. The remaining places were shared by the touring car cracks lined up according to their practice times. And they all joined in: Drivers and racing teams were happy to participate in the Procar Series, provided they were not barred from doing so by their contracts.
“Maybe I was so fast because I just wanted to drive a BMW.”
This is why on 12 May 1979, the Saturday before the Belgian Grand Prix in Zolder, the two fastest drivers in practice were unable to take their seats in the M1: Gilles Villeneuve and Jean-Pierre Jabouille had exclusive contracts with other car manufacturers. But Jacques Laffite, the third-fastest driver in the practice sessions, was just as happy to start his engine in BMW’s mid-engined Gran Tourisme as Clay Regazzoni, the reigning World Champion Mario Andretti, as well as Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet.
Nelson, who later became Formula 1 World Champion with Brabham BMW and at the time No. 2 in the Brabham Team after Niki Lauda, was unable to anticipate his great career back then when he said, grinning: “Maybe I was so fast because I just wanted to drive a BMW.”
But Nelson’s competitors also had great names and a great reputation:
Hans-Joachim Stuck, who a day later came eighth in the Grand Prix racing for the German ATS Team, the then reigning Formula 2 European Champion Bruno Giacomelli, BMW Motorsport drivers Toine Hezemans and Dieter Quester, as well as Elio de Angelis, another star in Formula 1. When the lights switched to green in this truly outstanding line-up of Procar drivers, Hans-Joachim Stuck and young Austrian star Markus Höttinger pulled away from the rest of the grid after just a few laps. But in lap twelve the two of them got a little too close for comfort and ended up in the fences. So to quote a report on the race summing up the 20 laps, “Italian driver Elio de Angelis proved to be the superman in the first M1 race, not only winning the event, but also completing the fastest lap. And this was after starting from 15th place and plowing his way through the entire field.” Second place went to Toine Hezemans, Clay Regazzoni finished third.
The Procar Champions: Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet.
Ultimately, however, the initial results started to change in the course of the Procar season, Niki Lauda, already two-time Formula 1 World Champion back then, scored the largest number of points by the end of the season. In eight races in the M1 Procar Series, Niki scored three wins and finished second in one race. So while Hans-Joachim Stuck was able to bring home victory in the last two races, he ended up five points behind Lauda when the season finished. Clay Regazzoni held on to his third place until the end of the season.
Winning the last three races in the 1980 series, Nelson Piquet brought home overall victory in Procar racing a year later, followed by Alan Jones and Hans-Joachim Stuck. Maybe this was no coincidence, since Alan Jones, who later became Formula 1 World Champion, was a dedicated fan of the M1 anyway, as one of the first customers to buy this sports car for private use.
These spectacular events more or less marked the end of the M1 in Group four racing for a simple reason: The M1 was only homologated for racing on April 1st 1981 and the regulations were changed just nine months later, making it virtually impossible for the M1 to compete any more.
Boosted by up to 1,000 horsepower:
Group five M1 with biturbo power.
Even the success of the M1 in Group five was unable to match the overwhelming Procar Series. Group five was for special production cars derived from cars homologated in other racing categories – and that was virtually the only restriction. The first M1s to enter Group five were powered by normal-aspiration engines developing maximum output of almost 500 bhp. To cope with engine torque of up to 800 Newton-meters or not quite 600 lb-ft, these cars featured a Hewland FG 400 five-speed gearbox, with locking action on the final drive ranging from 75–100 percent, depending on the racetrack. Later, the engines of the Group five M1 were boosted up to 1,000 bhp by two turbochargers. And to get as much of this huge power on to the road as possible, the body of the car was modified by all kinds of spoilers turning the M1 into real “wing monsters”. This was also when Team Schnitzer, the leading BMW tuning specialist, turned a Group five M1 into the then most powerful racing car in the German Motor Racing Championship, using a kevlar body on a specially reinforced chassis. With this kind of power, Hans-Joachim Stuck came home first on both Nürburgring and Salzburgring.
The IMSA GTO Champion in the USA: BMW M1.
1981 was a spectacular year of success for the M1 in the USA. Any driver wishing to play an important role at the time in the popular IMSA GTO Championship simply had to drive BMW’s mid-engined coupe. After forming the Red Lobster Team, Dave Cowart and Kenper Miller finished the season first and second, naturally both at the wheel of a BMW M1. The white number 25 M1 won twelve out of 16 races in the Championship. Only one driver among the top ten in the 1981 Championship drove another car. The driver who finished seventh, incidentally, was US racing legend Al Unser Jr., naturally at the wheel of an M1.
Presenting art on fast wheels: M1 Art Car in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The M1 was not only an outstanding racing and sports car, but also an equally unique work of art. In 1979 world-famous pop art idol Andy Warhol tried his hand on a ready-to-race M1 coupe, using his brush and paint to turn the M1 into one of the fastest works of art in the world. This was BMW’s fourth Art Car, a series of artistic achievements based on various BMW models. Warhol was the first artist to paint the body of the car directly with powerful swipes of his brush: “But the car is better than the art”, Warhol said himself afterwards in a rather dry comment. Boasting number 76, the BMW M1 Art Car struggled for the title in Le Mans throughout the whole 24 hours, ultimately finishing the race sixth.
Transplanting the M1 six-cylinder into production cars:
the M5 and M 635 CSi.
Production of the M1 ended in 1981 after a production run of 445 units, 399 for the road and 46 in Procar trim. But the heart of the M1, the M88 six-cylinder 24-valve power unit, was far too good to retire from the scene. It was much too progressive and powerful. So in 1984 Motorsport GmbH once again hit the headlines, making aficionados of high-performance cars wax lyrical once again when the 255 km/h (158 mph) M 635 CSi coupe and the M5 brought back the M1’s fast-revving power machine.
The hand-built M5 quickly became a real legend. This was truly a wolf in sheep’s clothing, with maximum output of 286 bhp almost three times as powerful as the 518i. At first sight it almost looked the same as its large-volume counterpart, top speed of 245 km/h (152 mph) quickly captured the attention and admiration of countless owners of large sedans and sports cars having to give way to the M5 on the Autobahn even with the gas pedal pushed right down to the floor. Not surprisingly, therefore, this marked the birth of the “Businessman’s Express”.