Every now and then, carmakers experience a lucid moment and embark on a trip to step out of their comfort zone and create a vehicle stretching the company’s identity. These unique moments in time have a tendency to produce mixed results, but they are also fondly remembered in the hearts of true aficionados. One of those cars is BMW M1, a unique supercar breakthrough by a then-developing Bavarian company.
Built in very limited numbers and with moderate success, this dramatic wedge-shaped automobile hides a perplexing origin story ending in a chapter about one of the most coveted BMW collector automobiles today. This is the saga of the unique and unprecedented mid-engined supercar- the BMW M1.
Although it seems unimaginable today, BMW didn’t have much luck in the years after World War 2. Struggling to survive, the German automaker tried to gain ground by building exclusive V8-powered flagships for the American market, but even though the 503 and the 507 were outstanding vehicles, they put the company in even greater peril.
Faced with potential bankruptcy, BMW first resorted to building small city automobiles licensed by Italian manufacturer Iso. The Isetta and the in-house developed BMW 600 were enough to keep the company afloat, but they were still far from its carefree pre-war days.
The wind of change came in 1962 when they came up with the New Class, a series of boxy, agile, and modern looking vehicles. One of them pushed the German manufacturer into stardom, being the BMW 2002, a compact lightweight two-door limousine revered for fantastic handling and an unparalleled driving sensation in its class.
The 2002 and the big six-cylinder 3.0 CSL coupé dominated the race tracks in the 1960s and the 1970s they continued modernizing and developing, introducing its new nomenclature in 1972 with the first 5 Series. Soon, BMW successfully started experimenting with forced induction, creating the production 2002 Turbo and the wedge-shaped BMW Turbo concept car.
In the late 1970s, the acclaimed E9 3.0 CSL and 3.5 CSL race cars were well beyond their prime and the brilliant 320 Turbo was also ready for a successor, forcing the head of BMW Motorsport division Jochen Neerpasch to consider introducing a purpose-built race car to rival the competition better. At the same time, they wanted to further expand its portfolio and create a memorable vehicle celebrating its triumphant return from the ashes.
Development of the BMW M1
At the time, FIA Group 4 racing regulations stipulated that a race car had to be a production model with at least 400 copies built. Their plan was for the M1 to go through Group 4 homologation requirement, only to enter the FIA Group 5, where it could tackle more formidable competitors.
However, the yet developing Bavarian factory didn’t have necessary capacity to carry on with the development and the design in-house, so they started looking for outside contractors.
The 1970s were a tough period for many independent automakers who struggled to sell their products during the 1973 oil crisis which shook the whole industry, killing off big, powerful engines and taking many small manufacturers down.
Heads at BMW struck deals with numerous Italian companies that had the technology needed to develop the flagship supercar. The design went to the versatile Giorgetto Giugiaro and his Italdesign studio. Having already designed several wedge-shaped mid engined vehicles like the De Tomaso Mangusta, Lotus Esprit S1, Maserati Bora, and Merak, Giugiaro was exactly who they needed for the job. Moreover, Giugiaro already collaborated with them during his tenure at Bertone, where he designed BMW 3200 CS, the first vehicle to feature the C-pillar kink later attributed to Wilhelm Hoffmeister.
When it came to the mechanical part, Dallara was entrusted to engineer the chassis and the suspension, whereas the body manufacturing was to be done by TIR (Trasformazione Italiana Resina). Finally, Lamborghini was commissioned to fine-tune the spaceframe chassis, and more importantly, to assemble the cars and deliver them back to Germany where Baur was supposed to conduct final inspections.
Lamborghini was chosen for being the most experienced in making mid-engined cars, but also for being the manufacturer struggling the most. By entrusting the company to complete the vehicles, BMW wanted to pump in some cash to help them survive the hard times. But, what seemed like an upper hand to them soon became the issue that almost stalled the whole project.
The financial hardships Lamborghini encountered had a big impact on the company, so Lamborghini was forced to pull over from the deal after completing only a handful of pre-production prototypes. With the company unable to continue, BMW switched the manufacturing of the production car to Marchesi, an immensely experienced Modena-based chassis builder which co-developed the Lamborghini Countach among other projects.
After departing from Lamborghini, a group of engineers founded Italengineering, a company that agreed to finish off the development of the unit, while Italdesign took over the final assembly process.
Delays in production and assembly meant that they struggled to qualify for Group 4 racing as quickly as they hoped to, and sales results didn’t help either. The unit was still too far from BMW’s identity and the price of $115,000 was another factor that resulted in low demand.
The planned car production had to stretch between 1978 and 1981 and in the end, BMW built a total of 397 road vehicles and 53 race cars.
Body of the M1
Prior to the M1, they experimented with wedge-shaped concept cars, most notably the BMW Turbo. This dramatic 1972 design study by Paul Bracq featured gullwing doors, an unusual gradient color scheme and two BMW roundels in the back.
A significant departure from cute and boxy New Class cars, the BMW Turbo was the direction they wanted to go when commissioning the unit from Italdesign. Designing the M1, Giugiaro followed the guidelines, yet leaving his mark on the final product.
The end result was a look well worthy of 1970s supercars. Even though the vehicle lost its gullwing doors to conventional ones, the wedge-shaped two-seater didn’t lose any drama.
The clean front end featured a miniature rectangular kidney grille, pop-up headlights were a must for maintaining the low-slung silhouette and the back quarter panels featured prominent cooling vents in matte black.
The dual-logo rear end was carried over from the Turbo concept as if they tried to underline the fact that this vehicle is not any Italian sports car, but a proud Teutonic thoroughbred.
In an effort to keep the weight down, the body of the vehicle was constructed in fiberglass, but in the end, it weighed 2,866 lb. While that’s considered lightweight for today’s standard, the M1 was a heavy car for its day, meaning that BMW Motorsport engineers had their hands full of work to lighten it for racing purposes.
The fiberglass body of the unit was bonded and riveted onto a tubular steel space-frame chassis, and as such, it was a typical supercar of the era.
Gianpaolo Dallara’s construction provided the vehicle with adequate structural rigidity for track racing, yet a civilized driving experience of road-going cars.
Engine and Transmission
BMW might not have the mid-engined know-how, nor the capacities to assemble the M1 at its plant, but what it had was a superb engine. The car was fitted with a M88, an engine closely based on the racing unit found in the 3.5 CSL.
An experienced BMW Motorsport engineer Paul Rosche constructed the M88, the 3.5-liter inline-six with dual overhead camshafts, 24 valves, Magneti Marelli ignition system, Kugelfischer-Bosch mechanical fuel injection, six separate throttle bodies and dry sump lubrication.
Thanks to clever construction, the M88 had impressive performance, pushing 273 horsepower and 243 lb-ft of torque in street trim. This power was enough to propel the M1 to a top speed of 160 MPH with an impressive 0-60 sprint of 5.6 seconds.
Being a race-ready road car, the vehicle was offered with just one transmission choice, the 5-speed manual. It was a ZF transmission with a 40% locking LSD and racy dogleg pattern enabling efficient gear shifting during racing or spirited driving.
Handling and Suspension
The vehicle featured an unassisted rack-and-pinion setup, a modern system providing optimal control and precision.
Lamborghini’s Gianpaolo Dallara designed the M1 with a double-wishbone suspension setup featuring gas filled dampers and adjustable coil springs, with front and rear anti-roll bar further stiffening the spaceframe chassis, minimizing roll.
Wheels and Brakes
The rear wheels of the M1 were wider, meaning that the front 16×7 wheels sported 205/55 VR16 while 16×8 rears had 225/50 VR16 pneumatics. The vehicle used Pirelli P7 tires, a go-to tire set for high-performance cars since their introduction in 1971 as OEM rubber for the Countach.
The M1 utilized several Campagnolo wheel designs, the most iconic being closed aluminum-alloy wheels featuring five clusters of horizontal vents. These iconic wheels not only completed the futuristic design of the unit but also had a functional purpose cooling the 11.8-inch ventilated steel discs in the front and 11.7-inch discs in the back.
Compared to contemporary stablemates, but also the Italian competition, the BMW M1 had an incredibly simplistic interior.
The dashboard consisted of one bulky covered panel taking up the majority of the cockpit, while the Recaro seats were finished in cloth and leather. Moreover, many parts like door handles and buttons were carried over from other production models.
The interior was clearly designed with racing in mind: the pedal box was offset towards the center of the car, the seats couldn’t move and the instruments were large, simple and easy to read. To top it off, there was the steering wheel, a simple leather-wrapped three-spoke with a monochromatic BMW Motorsport roundel gracing the middle.
However, the vehicle did have some creature comforts: the radio and the A/C came as standard and so did electric power windows. Interestingly, they offered a choice between black and tan interior and unsurprisingly, many buyers opted for the darker of the two.
Specifications of the BMW M1
Bore and Stroke
93 x 84mm
Twin overhead camshafts
277bhp @ 6500 rpm
Wishbones and coil spring
Wishbone and coil spring
0-60 mph in 5.6 seconds
BMW M1 Procar Series
Delays in production of the unit meant that the homologation process took way longer than BMW intended to. However, since they built the road cars and the race vehicles simultaneously, Jochen Neerspach found a way to run the completed racing cars in a competition.
Using his influence in the Formula One Constructors Association, Neerspach persuaded enough constructors to run a one-make support racing series. Soon afterwards in spring 1978, the Procar Championship was formed, taking place during the European part of the Formula One regular season.
The Procar Championship brought numerous ex-F1 drivers back on the racetrack, competing against independent teams and affluent BMW clients who wanted a taste of professional racing. At the same time, the series provided BMW with valuable intelligence required to develop the vehicle once it got homologated, but also a push in sales due to increased exposure of the car.
The looks of the Procar Series M1 were revised in order to achieve better aerodynamics, but the vehicle didn’t depart much from its original design. On the front, the M1 Procar got a larger air splitter, and the back end got a huge aerodynamic wing. The wheel arches were widened to accommodate wider single-nut wheels and slick tires.
As for the engine, Paul Rosche thoroughly reworked it to comply with Group 4 rules. The M88/1 got reprofiled camshafts, forged pistons, reworked connecting rods and galleries, larger valves, sliding throttles instead of butterflies and reworked exhaust manifolds, all totaling in a drastic power increase from 277 to 470 horsepower at screaming 9,000 RPM.
The Procar series ran for two years, 1979 and 1980, and saw five vehicles from the BMW factory team built by BS Fabrications and other cars completed by Project Four and Osella. Nineteen teams entered the inaugural 1979 season where iconic driver, Niki Lauda, took the overall victory over Hans-Joachim Stuck. In the second season, seventeen teams competed over the course of nine races and the overall winner was Nelson Piquet.
BMW M1 in other Racing Series
The BMW M1 Procar championship opened the doors to the company as an engine supplier for Brabham and in 1980 they finally homologated the vehicle for Group 4. BMW eventually pulled over from Group 5, still, some cars competed in various championships around the world (including the American IMSA GTO Championship and Germany Automobile Racing Championship).
The partnership between March Engineering gave birth to a re-engineered car which competed in 1979, while the other M1 modified by the same racing team ended up with a 700-horsepower Chevy V8 setup running endurance races in the United States.
Having shifted focus to Formula One, they halted the development of the M88 turbo which could rival the more advanced competition in endurance racing. Still, the vehicle was brought out in various races, and in 1984, a Helmut Gall BMW M1 finished first in B class at the 24 Hours of the Le Mans.
Starting from E9 race cars, BMW established a cooperation with leading artists of the era through French gentleman racer and art auctioneer Herve Poulain, thus creating unique liveries for its track weapons. The project dubbed BMW Art Car saw contemporary art icons Alexander Calder, Frank Stella and Roy Lichtenstein turning 3.0 CSL and E21 3 Series race cars into their canvas, creating unique liveries
For the flagship vehicle, BMW brought the leading figure in the art world, Andy Warhol, to leave his own mark on the M1. He painted the automobile by hand covering it in a thick layer of paint, far from his recognizable style.
“I attempted to show speed as a visual image. When an automobile is really traveling fast, all the lines and colors are transformed into a blur.”
The Warhol-painted M1 raced only once, at the 1979 24 Hours of Le Mans, finishing sixth overall and second in the class. The M1 Art Car resides in the manufacturer’s vaults where it’s carefully stored as a unique art piece and possibly the most valuable BMW of all times.
For long, the M1 was overlooked as a classic, cloaked by the pre-WW2 328 or the sleek 507 roadster. But, as the collector car market progressed towards the 1970s and the 1980s nostalgia, the M1 started gaining ground. Being a low-volume homologation special clearly helped establish the M1’s newfound collector status, as well as the fact that it was the pioneering BMW M car.
Compared to Italian exotics from the same period, the vehicle proved to be more usable as a classic car, thanks to the perks of German engineering and a rather robust six-cylinder engine. The most sought after is the memorable Inka Orange, while the rarest examples are ones finished in Polaris Silver.
For these traits, the vehicle can now rarely be found under the $250,000 mark. Low mileage and superbly restored examples are now valued close to $700,000.
Even though it wasn’t a commercial success and it had an underwhelming racing career, the BMW M1 played an integral part in their evolution towards becoming one of the leading car manufacturers as we know them today.
Being a phenomenal design exercise, the vehicle was recognized by the Bavarian company in 2008 when it received a modern homage. The 21st century BMW M1 celebrated the 30th anniversary of the original car and it was a sleek mid engine design two-seater featuring many styling cues from its forefather.
A year later, the BMW Vision EfficientDynamics debuted as a concept announcing the successor to the M1. To a certain degree, the M1 inspired the creation of i8, a futuristic hybrid sports vehicle from 2014. In reality, the vehicle was and still is a unicorn of a car and as such it holds a special place in BMW’s history.