Uncompromised, not Uncompromising

The 1978 BMW M1 should have been simply a road-legal version of a racing car, but it was so much more rounded and accomplished than that.

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More than any other mass-market(1) automobile manufacturer, BMW has built its reputation on producing dynamically accomplished cars, designed to appeal to keen drivers above all else. It is a moot point as to whether the vast majority of BMW drivers have the skills and talent to exploit such cars to their maximum potential, but many are surely flattered by the inference that they might be so endowed.

BMW’s performance cars have been, until relatively recently, traditional front-engined and RWD(2) in layout. By separating the steered and driven wheels, such cars offer a pure driving experience, uncorrupted by the torque-steer that affects powerful FWD models. That RWD can be more of a handful in extreme conditions than FWD(3) merely adds to its allure for the driving enthusiast.

One area of the performance car arena that was previously unexploited by BMW was the mid-engined supercar. In 1972, Jochen Neerpasch was appointed head of BMW Motorsport GmbH, the company’s newly formed motor racing subsidiary. Neerpasch wanted to design and build a car to challenge Porsche in what was then known as the Procar Group Four motor racing series. In order to be eligible to compete, the cars had to be homologated. This required that a minimum number of roadgoing versions had to be built and sold to the general public. In this case, that number was 400.

BMW’s expertise was in mass-production, not hand-building small numbers of highly specialised cars, so it commissioned Lamborghini to design, test and build a suitable car, which would carry the name M1(4). Renowned chassis engineer Gianpaolo Dallara was brought into the project as he had the expertise in how to get the best out of the excellent but complex Pirelli P7 tyres that had been specified. The M1 would feature a spaceframe chassis constructed from square-section steel tube. Dallara and Lamborghini test driver Stanislao Sterzel worked together on development and testing of the M1 at the Nardò Ring test track.

The M1’s engine was specially developed by BMW Motorsport using the production unit from the 635CSi coupé as a starting point. It was a 3,453cc chain-driven DOHC in-line six-cylinder unit with a cast-iron block and an alloy 24-valve cylinder head. The engine was fitted with Kugelfischer-Bosch fuel injection and a contactless Magneti-Marelli electronic distributor(5). Transmission was via a five-speed ZF transaxle gearbox driving the rear wheels.

1972 BMW Turbo Concept. Image: autodius.com

Giorgio Giugiaro’s Italdesign was chosen to style the body for the M1. The inspiration for the new design was the BMW Turbo, a concept car styled by Paul Bracq, BMW’s Chief Designer, and unveiled in 1972. The Turbo was a gull-wing door sports car with a heavy emphasis on safety. It featured anti-lock brakes, radar distance control and lateral acceleration sensors, and was powered by a 2-litre turbocharged engine from the BMW 2002.

The M1’s body was constructed from unstressed GRP (Glass Reinforced Plastic) panels with a horizontal join at bumper level, which created an indented feature line around the perimeter of the car. The concept’s gull-wing doors were replaced with conventional items and its louvred panels aft of the doors were replaced with rear side windows featuring BMW’s signature Hofmeister kink in their trailing edges.

One detail from the concept was carried over unaltered. This was the nose treatment, with pop-up headlamps above a slim horizontal slot bisected by a pair of rectangular kidneys, a stylised minimalist version of the traditional BMW grille. Fittings from BMW’s production cars were used where appropriate, such as the exterior door handles, the rather blocky if practical door mirrors, and the tail light units from the E24-generation 6 Series coupé.

Six prototype cars were built and transported to Munich for evaluation, but Lamborghini’s fragile and overstretched finances were to cause a major interruption to the project. When it was revealed that a £1.1m loan to Lamborghini from the Italian Government to provide working capital for the M1 project had been spent elsewhere, BMW cancelled the contract and swooped on Lamborghini’s Sant’ Agata works to seize design drawings and tooling for the car.

1978 BMW M1. Image: topspeed.com

The project was salvaged by an ingenious if highly convoluted build process. Italdesign agreed to take over assembly of the GRP body at its Turin works(6), which was expanded to accommodate the M1, from parts manufactured by a company called Resina, based in Modena. A company called Marchese, based in Bologna, assumed responsibility for fabricating the chassis. Body and chassis would then be shipped to the Baur(7) works in Stuttgart, where the M1 was assembled and trimmed, then shipped to BMW Motorsport in Munich for final tuning and testing.

After the protracted development process, the M1 was finally launched in 1978. Car Magazine’s then reporter, Steve Cropley, had to wait until the summer of 1980 to test drive the car. His findings were reported in the August issue. The M1 confounded Cropley’s expectations. Most road-going cars built for homologation purposes are thinly disguised competition machines, with comfort and refinement very low on the list of priorities. The M1, however, was remarkably free of both mechanical and wind noise at speed, the ride was excellent, and the engine was described as “silken”. The unassisted rack and pinion steering was heavy at parking speeds, with just 2.35 turns from lock to lock, and the turning circle was “decidedly inconvenient” at 13m (42.7ft). However, it had great feedback and was very stable at high speeds.

The normally aspirated engine delivered maximum power of 277bhp (207kW). Its great strength was “its wide band of power delivery, its smoothness and its unobtrusive nature”. That said, the claimed top speed of 160mph(8) (258km/h) seemed optimistic: “You’d need to over-rev the engine and find the right piece of road” to have a chance of achieving this, and 150mph (242km/h) seemed more realistic. The claimed 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time was 5.8 seconds.

Workmanlike: BMW M1 Interior. Image: coys.co.uk

The brakes were highly effective, providing “the progressiveness and bite that racing drivers of a decade ago could only dream about”. The gearchange was good when used with concentration but “could do with more precision and better gate definition”. Handling and grip were both exceptionally good, with “practically no sign of body-roll and tyre distortion”.

The interior was “a dark and claustrophobic place”, however. A flat vertical panel contained two main and four supplementary instruments. Two of the latter, the voltmeter and oil pressure gauge, were completely obscured by the thick wheel rim. Cropley, at 6’2” (188cm) tall, had to adopt a “knees-high” seating position to keep his head free of the roof lining. The car was well equipped with air-conditioning, electric windows and electrically adjustable mirrors. Trim materials were “more durable than sumptuous”.

Overall, the M1’s most impressive feature was its refinement. “No other car of the mid-engined layout, or M1’s performance potential, even goes near it in its ability to suppress noise or deal softly and quietly with the most bone-jarring combinations of bumps”. The car seemed almost too well rounded for its primary purpose as a racer. “The tools are too good for the tradesmen. Pearls before swine, I say”.

In racing guise. Image: thetruthaboutcars.com

This was indeed high praise for the BMW M1. A total of 453 cars were built between 1978 and 1981. The required 400(9) were road-going examples, with 53 built for motorsport. Most of these were raced in a one-make competition established by BMW Motorsport, the Procar BMW M1 Championship. This competition was organised to stimulate sales of the M1 and ran for only two seasons. Austrian Nicki Lauda won the inaugural championship in 1979, while Brazilian Nelson Piquet won the second in 1980.

Today, the M1 is a highly prized classic and asking prices are typically in excess of £500,000(10) which is US$700k or €585k at current exchange rates. That is roughly five times what the M1 cost new in 1979. It was BMW’s first mid-engined car and the company would not make another until it launched the i8 plug-in hybrid in 2014.


(1) By mass-market, I mean a manufacturer that produces a range of different models and does not specialise solely or mainly in sports cars.

(2) BMW launched its first 4WD saloon car in 1985, the 325i Allroad and now offers its X-Drive 4WD system on the majority of its models.

(3) FWD cars, when pushed too hard into a bend, tend to understeer, which is relatively easily controlled by lifting off the accelerator. RWD cars under the same conditions (depending on layout and suspension geometry) can snap into more difficult to control oversteer.

(4) This was a simple contraction of Motorsport One.

(5) An early iteration of electronic ignition.

(6) Unlike other Italian carrozzieri, Italdesign had no manufacturing facilities and the BMW M1 remains the only model it assembled.

(7) Which also built the Opel-based Bitter CD Coupé.

(8) Matching the M1’s most obvious competitor, the Porsche 911 Turbo (930 series).

(9) Or 399, according to some accounts.

(10) Although, at the time of writing, I came across one example in dark blue for the bargain price of £335k.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

39 thoughts on “Uncompromised, not Uncompromising”

  1. In the early Eighties the father of a friend made a living from shipping cars over the pond, mainly 911s he bought in their home country, converted them to US spec and sold them there. For whatever reason once he had two M1s in his workshop – the highest density of M1s I ever met in my life. We could only look at these cars but at least his son had an M635Csi so we could at least enjoy a similar engine…
    The M1 somehow fell between all stools. Due to its protracted development time the race series for which it was designed had died and to put it to some use it ended in those strange fringe event races around the F1 circus.

    By the way, the M1 engine was a direct descendant of the E9 circuit racer’s power unit.

  2. zeperfs.com has 9 values for tested real topspeed which on average is 261 km p/h. Zero to a 100 would take 6 seconds flat. (11 values)

    I always thought that BMW should have made a turbo version of this car to put it on par with the Countach and the 512BB.

    1. A road-going Turbocharged version of the BMW M1 with around say 360-400 hp (or 320-350 hp at minimum) would have been interesting to see.

  3. Good morning Daniel- Impressive car, then and now, the M1. Here is a nice period ad:

    1. I remember that one too. If only it were still true – only the K1600 fits the ‘six cylinders where you’d expect to find four’ claim. You’re far more likely to discover three cylinders where you’d hope to find four, or four cylinders where the model designation would lead you to expect six.

      It has to be said that there has been progress, at least in largely academic numbers. A current 320d automatic almost matches the M1’s performance; 0-62 in 6.8 seconds, 149 mph.

    2. I remember that, add Bruno. I wonder if it has anything to do with my love for straight six engines 🙂

    3. These ads in this format were very persuasive for me. I lapped up the imagery and the austerity. The one which stands out was an ad for the 735i, around 1987. It showed the cabin from overhead (fabulous leather upholstery) and the message that “anyone who wants to spend more than 30,000 on a luxury car and hasn´t considered the 735i doesn´t like driving”. These ones don´t seem especially expensive now either.

    4. Is this the one you recall, Richard?

      Sorry it’s a poor reproduction.

  4. Good morning all and thanks for your comments. Having researched it in some detail for this piece, one minor aspect of the M1 still puzzles me: why did it have two BMW roundels on its tail? I had assumed that the reason for this was simply that there wasn’t enough depth in the centre of the rear hatch for it, but in that case why not just position it horizontally in the centre, as at the front?

    I have a vague recollection of reading that there was another reason for the twin roundels, but cannot for the life of me remember what it is. If so, I would be grateful if someone could enlighten me!

    1. I’ve heard that it was to make sure so people knew it was a BMW instead of something Italian, because the M1 didn’t look like any other Bimmer.

    2. Fascinating to compare that rear three quarter view of the Turbo to the M1 above, despite retaining the drama of the concept’s nose, Italdesign handle the front wheel arch and the rear haunches SO much better.

  5. Great car, lovely article, thanks. It shows that the M1 still looks modern and good to behold even today. It also highlights how the i8 has clear lineage back to this car. If only BMW produced such impressively modern and stunning cars today (and I am referring to both the M1 and i8 when I make that statement).

  6. Great article on an interesting car: I had forgotten the Lamborghini connection and was not aware of the drama surrounding the joint development of the M1.

    The old ad (a very good one) and comments posted above make me realise I have never driven a car with a straight-six. Now I want to…

    1. Hi Chris, I have a straight six and as far as I know we don’t live too far from each other. Maybe we can arrange that.

  7. Hi Daniel, wonderful post, as usual. I stopped posting comments because I’ve returned to the office in September and it wouldn’t look right. I’ve been dying to post comments lately because of so many posts of late hitting close to home (the one on the Fiat 131 for example, as it was a favourite car of mine when I was growing up). Anyways, I’ve managed to find a brief break from work to write a few thoughts about this post:

    1. During my time in Cincinnati, USA, in the late 90s and early 2000s I used to visit a BMW dealer that had a small classic BMW collection on the top floor of the showroom. They didn’t seem to mind me hanging out there every few weeks, so I did. They had a beautiful, red M1 which was open and available to try for size (all cars there were open and totally free to seat in). I now shiver at the thought of having sat inside an almost 1M dollar car, but I seem to remember that back then the M1 was a $40-50k car. Maybe $60k at most. About the experience, I remember feeling a bit of claustrophobia because my head brushed the roof (and I’m not tall) and the interior was black on black, as per period fashion.

    2. It’s incredible how much classic cars have increased in price. Apart from the aforementioned BMW M1, another example is the Lancia Delta Integrale which went from a 30k – 50k car just 15-17 years ago to an over 100k euro investment now. Air-cooled 911s too and even Fiat 500s are pushing 9000€ for fairly good but not perfect examples. Wow!

    Well, my break is over so until next time (I do read DTW every morning on my coffee break)!

    1. Welcome back, Cesar, and thanks for sharing your recollections. We’ve missed you!

  8. Good afternoon Daniel. What an absolute beauty of a car and an excellent article too. BMW have made some very attractive cars over the years and this was certainly one of them!

    1. Hi Mike. I certainly agree, and that makes BMW’s current output all the more depressing. Yesterday I saw a new 4 Series Gran Coupé in a local car park and was shocked by just how frumpy it looked. The previous (F36) version was one of BMW’s better efforts:

      It’s (G26) successor is this tub of lard:


  9. Thank you Daniel for a great article on a beautiful car.
    Fabulous ad, thanks to Bruno, in which BMW makes a bold statement that it is impossible to have a perfectly balanced in-line 4-cylinder engine; a compromise they wouldn’t contemplate.
    Have the laws of physics changed or are engines today more refined so that this doesn’t matter? If not, shouldn’t all 2.0L+ BMW in-line engines be 6-cyl … or has BMW eaten its words? Just curious…

    1. The laws of physics certainly haven’t changed. The emissions laws however have.

    2. Good evening vwmeister. As I recall, 2.0 litres used to be considered the maximum size for acceptably smooth four-cylinder engines. Much above an individual cylinder capacity of 500cc and the engine can get a bit coarse, necessitating the use of balancer shafts to smooth out the ignition ‘bangs’ in each cylinder.

      BMW’s advertisement is actually a bit self-serving as many 2.0 litre straight-fours were perfectly refined, and straight-six engines of this capacity were often lacking in torque, due to greater inertial losses. (I think that’s the reason. Doubtless, someone will correct me if I’m mistaken.)

      BMW later fitted 2.3 and 2.5-litre straight fours to the M3 versions of the following (E30 generation) 3-Series, although the company would probably have justified this by arguing that power and torque were more important than refinement in the M version.

    3. Thank you Daniel for this explanation as I had been wondering about the technical side, and now I know. Much appreciated.

    4. At some point we decided here that 2 two litres was optimum for a 4 and 2.5 the smallest capacity suitable for a 6. This didn´t stop many American firms offering harsh 2.4 litre 4-cylinder engines in the 80s and 90s and Citroen used to push a 2400 version of their ancient 4 in the CX

    5. The small sixes are not necessarily lower on torque figures, but the torque curve is shifted more to higher revs. Something BMW mitigated later on with the introduction of VANOS on the camshaft(s).

      A 2 liter in line 4 will never be perfectly balanced, especially the secondary imbalance will prevent it from being so. Balance shafts can only do so much and there are no overlapping power strokes either.

      Having said that there are a of course plenty of good in line 4 cylinder engines around, with or without balance shafts. Especially the Honda V-TEC engines come to my mind now. Also large displacement in line fours needn’t be completely agricultural in character. The 3.0 engine in the Porsche 968 is quite nice. (I still prefer a BMW S54).

      Back in the days there were of course more large in line fours. Thinking of the 21,5 liter Blitzen Benz from 1909 and the 28,5 liter Fiat S76 in particular.

    6. All four cylinder engines are inherently imbalanced but those imbalances can be equalled out to hundred percent by fitting balancer shafts. Then the engine is smooth from a vibration point of view but still sounds like a four. The best example is the EA888 in my B9 which is perfectly smooth but sounds like an oil drum filled with rusty nails and kicked down a staircase.

      Large volume fours also can be found in relatively younger history. Aurelio Lampredi who was a strong believer in parts count reduction in racing engines to eliminate possible sources of faults created an inline four for Ferrari that started with three litres and was expanded to four.

    7. Regarding the engine balancing : you are correct. I don’t have experience with the EA888, but my mom’s EA211 seems fine. I’m not even sure that it has a balancing shaft.

  10. Superb vehicle and a nicely proportioned story by Daniel. I had no clue to Lamborghini’s involvement nor the roundabout way of making the M1. Glad the rigmarole worked.

    As to the ads mentioned above, GGM 788W appears (according to the government website) still registered but now silver. The last time the cars was taxed and sold was 1993…

    I used to think I could be a racing driver, akin to the Batmobile launching through the Nurburgring air. Nowadays my spine winces at such tomfoolery – but achingly cool adverts for BMW back then, unlike today’s Bavarian outpourings which, like so many others are either bland, over enthusiastic, pointless or forgettable.

  11. In Boring Boring CAR c. March 2021 there was an interview by Big Georg with Andreas Bovensiepen. This paragraph planted itself in my memory.

    “But don’t they also sometimes think the unthinkable and wonder about striking out on their own, I ask. How about venturing into supercar terrain with a 100 per cent pure Alpina? ‘No chance,’ answers Andreas. ‘Way back when [in the early ’90s], we briefly considered building Giugiaro’s BMW Nazca concept [initially intended to replace the M1] in small numbers, but the ends just wouldn’t meet. We’ve also looked at a continuation series of the i8 with a four-cylinder engine, yet again there was no business case.”


    None of this happened, so it amounts to talking a lot of wind. In the case of the ‘continuation’ i8, I feel sincere regret.

  12. Quoting, “FWD cars, when pushed too hard into a bend, tend to understeer, which is relatively easily controlled by lifting off the accelerator.”

    Not necessarily quite so easy as that because lift-off oversteer awaits in the shadows ready for the the right circumstances, the naieve, the unready and the unwary.


    M-1 was originally going to feature a V-12 engine. BMW had already designed and prototyped a two-valve per cylinder, single overhead-cam per cylinder-bank V-12. They bottled out and cancelled. This meant the only engine they had available was the big straight-six. They put it in the M-1 as reported in the article. For the 7-series this engine was eventually turbocharged (the 745i) to partially compensate for the lack of availability of a bigger power plant (Mercedes had various V-8 engines, Jaguar had a V-12, Rolls Royce had a V-8, Maserati had V-8, while everyone in the US had V-8s).

    An interesting racing version of the straight-six was turbocharged. It was formidable, making more than 1,000bhp with the exhaust heat causing the foot-well floor to glow a dull red right behind the pedals. The drivers were awed by the power – the glowing floor not so much. It must have really concentrated the mind witnessing that light show under foot during a night stint at the Ring!

    1. The engine in the M1 (M88) and 745i (M102) are quite different. The M88 has a dry sump, double overhead cams and 24 valves, compared to the wet sump. single overhead cam and 12v turbo-charged M102.

    2. The 745 has an M30 engine with standard features like SOHC head and wet sump lubrication.
      The M1 had an engine called S88 which is an M30 block with a DOHC four valve head developed for the CSL group 4 racers like the one shown in my first posting. The M1’s S88/3 kept the racers’ dry sump system and was fitted upright instead of at a heavy tilt typical for BMW.
      Therefore you could say they put the big six in the M1 – but with a race-developed head.
      BMW developed a V8 (basically to M10 engines at an angle) and a V12 (both iron blocked heavy monsters) for their E23 but cancelled them after the fuel crisis. The E23’s first series still had a floorpan that could accomodate the second exhaust system of a V engine – the necessary structures of the floorpan were abondoned for the facelifted car, the moment the new V12 for the E32 was ready.

    3. It is unsurprising the M88 proved to be a better path compared to the early M10-based V8 and M30/M20-based V12 engines of the late-1960s to mid/late-1970s considering the latter weighed significantly more while not producing anymore power against the M88 or later M5 spec S38 engines.

      There was also the 355 hp Alpine B10 Bi-Turbo that made use of a modified M30 engine with twin-turbochargers.

      Remarkably BMW actually looked at a non-Vee alternative to what became the M60 V8 engine with a 4-litre inline-6 featuring 106mm cylinder spacing and 4-valve-chamber technology before it was discontinued, yet little else is known about that stillborn 4-litre inline-6.

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